In Challenging Times, We Need A Job Market That Works For Young People

08/08/2017 11:53 BST | Updated 08/08/2017 11:53 BST
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July saw the welcome announcement that the UK unemployment rate has fallen to 4.5%, the lowest level since 1975. Youth employment remains low, down some 377,000 since 2010.

This was encouraging news, but there is no case for complacency. Fears remain about the future job market, as short-term threats such as Brexit, and long-term shifts, such as increasing automation, create uncertainty and anxiety.

These are issues that keep many a Vice Chancellor like myself awake at night. At London Metropolitan University - a teaching focused institution with a strong commitment to social mobility, and where many of our students are from disadvantaged backgrounds - we feel a particular responsibility to ensure our graduates go on to succeed.

This means we need to ensure our curriculum is relevant and our graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills to meet the needs of our time.

The problem, however, goes beyond the actions of individual institutions like London Met. It is a question for those in education, in business, and in government to answer together.

The solution lies, I believe, in a further integrated Industrial Strategy. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has already stated they would like to see business and government working side by side, and this approach is to be applauded.

However, I believe it should go further. Yes, business and government have a huge part to play, but as the employment landscape expands and alters, a wider net must be cast. These are undoubtedly challenging times, but within those challenges lies opportunity.

We need as much input as possible to face those challenges head on. Over five million people in the UK are employed in the public sector and their voices should be heard along with - and this should not be contentious - those of young people themselves.

With new opinions come new approaches and I believe these often-ignored voices can offer substantial support moving forward. Many of our young people will go on to work in the NHS, the Police, our local authorities and the wider public sector, and all will have strong views on how they hope their futures will unfold. Don't these voices deserve to be heard?

There are fewer places with wider access to those voices than our country's higher education institutions. Universities are uniquely placed to make a difference in their local communities, being invested with bright people with a civic outlook and facilities to inspire. I believe they make a huge contribution to society at a global, national but also local level. But they can do more.

Universities themselves are doing much to contribute to economic success.

At London Met, many of our students come from non-traditional, or lower socio-economic backgrounds. Many do not have the contacts, networks and social capital that other students enjoy to help find career opportunities upon graduating. It is for this reason that we now focus strongly on helping our students, as well as students at local schools and colleges, to develop that social capital and make transformational changes to their lives.

We have launched an innovative Work Related Learning (WRL) module - a guaranteed opportunity for all undergraduate students on all courses to undertake work-based learning as part of their studies. Students take up work placements and internships in businesses and organisations, volunteer, or work on a 'live project', where an organisation provides a brief to the student to deliver on. They can also take a bespoke enterprise module in London Met's business incubator, Accelerator, which focuses on setting up a winning business.

Since we launched the module, our graduate employment score has risen dramatically, and now stands at 95%.

This success could only happen because we have, over recent years, invested considerable time and resource in developing meaningful links with industry. More than 190 organisations work with us on the work-related learning module. We hope to grow that number.

There are other ways to work with business, too. This year, London Met extended our Big Idea Challenge - the UK's fastest growing young enterprise competition - to 18 colleges and sixth-forms across the capital. The hundreds of young people involved, most of whom are from backgrounds underrepresented in the start-up community, are assigned mentors from organisations such as NatWest, Microsoft, Unilever and The Prince's Trust.

If just one of these pupils is inspired to start their own business, creating jobs and new opportunities for others, then we have succeeded. Making sure that there is a place in the job market for all our young people, no matter their beginnings, is at the heart of what universities should do.

There are, I'm sure, similar stories from every university in the land. Surely it makes sense to listen to them?