New campus directions

19th September 1997 at 01:00
There has to be a rethink on university careersservices post-Dearing, argues Tony Watts

The public debates on the Dearing Report have focused almost exclusively on student funding. This is only part of a broader vision. Dearing views higher education as a vital part of a flexible and student-driven system of lifelong learning, appropriate for a learning society in which people will need to control and manage their own working lives. Within higher education, courses should increasingly include experience of work and opportunities to develop key skills and record achievement in broader ways than at present.

All this presents considerable challenges to higher education careers services. Dearing says that these services should be integrated more fully into academic affairs. It also suggests that they should be part of a lifelong guidance service, based on a partnership between the services inside higher education and those outside it.

As part of the build-up to Dearing, I was invited by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) to write a report on Strategic Directions for Careers Services in Higher Education. The idea was to review existing practice and future options from a strategic viewpoint. This would position careers services to contribute to, and be attended to, in the debates that would follow Dearing.

Higher-education careers services have changed massively since their metamorphosis from university appointments boards. Long guidance interviews are now increasingly complemented by short "duty-adviser" interviews. Group guidance programmes have been growing. Technology has transformed the transmission of information. Employer liaison and placement activities are being reshaped by the decline of the "milk-round" and the growth of recruitment into small and medium-sized enterprises.

At the same time, careers services have become involved in a range of wider guidance activities. It may be difficult to continue to scale these up within an integrated organisational structure; some institutions have already developed alternative ways of carrying out these functions. This suggests seven strategic directions for careers services. Four are based on stronger embedding within the institution. The careers service could become part of: * A continuous guidance process available to students pre-entry, on entry, and throughout the student's course, as well as on exit from it -the model favoured in furthereducation.

* An integrated placement operation covering not only placements on graduation, but also course-related placements, and placements into part-time and vacation jobs.

* A delivery vehicle for, or service to support academic departments in, incorporating key skills and career management skills into course provision.

* A service to foster the career development of all members of the institution - not only students but also contract researchers and other staff.

The other three strategic directions are based on delivering career services post-graduation: * In the initial period of career development post-graduation -recognising that many students now take longer to stabilise in an initial career direction.

* As part of a longer-term support and networking service for the institute's own alumni.

* As part of a lifelong guidanceservice.

Strongly resourced services may retain a significant involvement in most or all of these activities without changing their current shape. In others, however, a distributed structure may emerge, with a variety of units and networks attending to different functions. Here the careers service might significantly change in shape, or become the co-ordinating focus for a range of services. Dearing implicitly provides support for most of these models. It also adds weight to the work which AGCAS and its members have already been carrying out on improving structures of cross-institutional collaboration, of professional accreditation, of quality assurance, and for exploiting the potential of information technology. Much remains to be done in all these areas.

In more general terms, Dearing opens up - but fails to follow through - wider policy issues. It notes that careers education is mandatory in schools and FE, by legislation (in the former) and through audit and inspection (in the latter). Schools and FE colleges also have access to the statutory careers service. They, therefore, in effect have a dual entitlement.

Higher education, by contrast, has neither. It is excluded from the statutory careers service. It is left for institutions to decide what form their careers guidance should take and what level of resource it should have. Provision varies greatly: the number of full-time students per careers adviser ranges from 1,000 to more than 7,000.

Dearing suggests that there should be a partnership between guidance services inside higher education and outside it. This suggests moving in line with the schoolFE model. If so, stronger levers are needed within higher education to ensure that institutions make adequate provision. And a new national lifelong guidance strategy is needed, for higher education to be part of.

* Tony Watts is director of the NationalInstitute for Careers Education and Counselling (NICEC), a network organisation sponsored by the Careers Research andAdvisory Centre (CRAC) in Cambridge.

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