The challenge

Evidence suggests that students from certain backgrounds are disadvantaged when it comes to entering professional graduate-level careers.  Statistically, black and minority ethnic (BAME), low socio-economic (SES) and disabled students are 10 per cent less likely to be in employment or graduate level jobs six months after graduation.  Work experience has a direct, positive impact on getting a first job. With this in mind our Catalyst Project, Levelling the Playing Field, brings together four institutions determined to increase participation of students from these widening-participation (WP) backgrounds through placements and work-based learning (WBL).

The goal

We want to help tackle the gap for graduate employment, as measured by the Graduate Outcomes survey, for the target groups and support 1,800 students through our interventions. The aim is to increase placement and WBL take-up, ultimately supporting positive graduate employment outcomes for and closing the gap in for these groups of students.

Although our project aims to develop student confidence and resilience, there are a number of other ways to address differential employment outcomes. We hope our holistic and nuanced project will raise awareness around the benefits of placements and WBL.  Each university is using a different technique to motivate students who are more likely to disengage with traditional pathways.

The players

Aston University is scaling up two existing initiatives, their Professional Mentoring Programme and Talent Bank, to facilitate a joined-up offer to new groups of students. Professional Mentoring pairs business professionals with penultimate year students to work one-to-one and gain an insight into professional life. Talent Bank is a placement matching service which targets students who have disengaged from the ‘standard’ placement process and offers tailored recruitment support.

These have been refocused with a personalised approach to encourage placement uptake where it is not a compulsory part of a degree in engineering and social science subjects. So far, it has proved successful with over 350 students actively engaging and 87 per cent of students undertaking mentoring coming from WP background. This personalised approach is a hit with students.

“Thank you for taking time… to give me a call. That was very reassuring and has helped give me some confidence with regards to finding a placement.” – Second-year engineering student on the Talent Bank Programme

Birmingham City University (BCU) is focusing on speed recruitment as an additional tool to motivate students who may be more likely to disengage with traditional forms of placement recruitment.  Speed recruitment events are being used as part of a wider process to engage students to enhance both their employability and transferable skills in a more dynamic way. The first speed recruitment event involved 15 employers and 22 students who had never taken part in such an event before. Feedback has been very positive, for example,

‘Being able to get instant feedback from the employers was good…’


‘…it really helped me out to get out of my comfort zone and it contributed to build my confidence.’

Of those students who provided feedback, all said that they would like to attend a further event.

City, University of London, has expanded its flagship Micro-Placements Programme (MPP), a career exploration scheme open to first and penultimate year students, offering work experiences between two and five weeks focused on a specific project. It received 865 student expressions of interest, conducted two preparatory workshops attended by 691 students and processed 552 applications.  Out of the 133 students selected so far, 52 per cent are from disadvantaged backgrounds and the project has received positive feedback from students:  

‘The MPP helped me to understand the key stages of a recruitment process… to tailor my… CV and covering letter to best suit certain applications. Now, I know how to show that I can apply theoretical knowledge to real-life situations and solve practical problems.’ – A student on the Micro-Placements Programme.

Finally, Ulster University is scaling up two five credit ‘Accredited Employability Modules’ and delivering these to 750 first and penultimate year students, across three programmes. Approximately 300 students have progressed through the module titled ‘Advanced Skills for Work’ which places particular emphasis on the importance of students securing placements and aims to equip students with the skills, qualities and attributes necessary to secure placement job opportunities. During semester two, it is expected that over 400 new students will engage with the employability modules.  A key enabler of the project to date has been the support received from academic course teams.

Final score

Highly skilled graduates benefit from the skills they learn both in and out of the classroom and in this current economic climate, there is pressure on universities to ensure a ready supply of such graduates. Some students can be under the misconception that securing their dream role is solely about academic achievement.  We know, however, that it isn’t just about academic performance, and employers often advise universities on competencies they desire from graduates. A university education should also provide students with the skills they need to enter and thrive in the workplace. By scaling up existing interventions and targeting hard-to-reach students, we are determined to help moderate differential employment outcomes.

This term Aston is planning group appointments focused on assessment centres and interview techniques.  BCU will be developing its next event. City will be holding a business breakfast to encourage employers to engage with the MPP and provide projects and Ulster will launch a module on developing an online professional identity.

We are already seeing the impact these projects are having and by measuring student participation in the interventions and comparing cases to those who haven’t taken part, we believe we can demonstrate how our interventions help to level the playing field when it comes to graduate entry into the professional workplace.