5th Newsletter.
    Enhancing the Employability of
    Non-Traditional Students in Higher Education

  • EDI

  • Social capital and the benefits of higher education
    John Field

    In most countries, those with the highest levels of education tend to thrive. They are more likely to find a job, their job is more likely to lead to a career with decent future prospects, their earnings will be higher, and their risk of precariety or unemployment lower. But the benefits of high education are not distributed equally: some groups benefit far more than others, not just after leaving education but throughout their adult lives.
    The reasons for these unequal patterns are multiple. They include material disadvantages, family caring commitments, language familiarity and even outright prejudice and discrimination. But they also include the networks and contacts that people can access and mobilise – in short, their social capital. And social capital plays a part in the way that students achieve while at university, as well as in their strategies for job-finding after they graduate.
    Social capital has become one of the most commonly used concepts among social scientists studying inequalities. Two writers in particular have helped develop the concept. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote in the 1970s and 1980s about the ways in which privileged groups use their connections to advance their interests and to ensure that their advantages are passed on to their children. More recently, the American political scientist Robert Putnam looked at the ways in which people’s voluntary activities and public participation helped to promote a culture of trust and reciprocity, which in turn fostered cooperation across society.
    These ideas can also be applied to education, including higher education. Social connections certainly shape decisions about university entry: parents are famously influential over their children’s educational trajectory, but so are peers and teachers; and young people’s involvement in extra-curricular activities such as sports and youth associations can help shape their awareness of the higher education system, and make them more attractive to university recruiters. Students’ ability to hold on to existing social support systems, while building new networks of belonging within the university, can shape retention and success; and again participating in extra-curricular activities can help widen connections and build transversal competences. And, for many students, networks will play a vital role after graduating, particularly in helping to steer you towards a desirable career.
    Social capital matters, and often it is a question not simply of having networks and ties, but of having the ‘right’ networks and ties for a particular context, whether it be university or career. Given that people’s networks are shaped by their circumstances, then, there is a risk that those who are already disadvantaged by their socio-economic background or gender or other factors may have social ties that have helped them thrive up to this point, but which then become the ‘wrong’ social capital for their new context as a university student or graduate.
    It should be said that this is not a one-way process. As well as shaping experiences of higher education, social capital is produced within higher education. It is well established that university graduates tend to be more actively involved in voluntary associations and are more likely to participate in public affairs. And this in turn helps us understand why advantage and disadvantage are passed on, and existing social inequalities are reproduced.

  • 1
    Social capital and non-traditional graduates’ employability
  • The importance of social capital in graduate employability has emerged in the research of the various partners of this project in a variety of forms. This is not solely linked to non-traditional graduates’ ability to find a job. The influence of social capital appears to also influence non-traditional students’ decision to enter college, their choice of university and course and their experience at university as well as their transitions into, and in, the labour market. In Ireland, for example, many mature students who come to Maynooth University do so based on the advice and support of people in their immediate social networks. In this case these social networks are working quite well as a resource that non-traditional students can draw on in higher education.
    Nevertheless, the research suggests middle-class students possess better resources to access and navigate their way through the academy. A Portuguese mature student told us how low social capital has influenced her academic life, claiming that a different understanding of the world (and thus a different support) from their parents would probably make a difference. In an elite university like Warwick, the working class students were fully aware that middle class students are at an advantage compared to them in the graduate labour market in terms of social capital, but also cultural and economic capitals.
    A number of choices and events that take place in the students’ academic trajectories appear to depend on the amount of social capital at their disposal. At the same time, it seems to be building social capital is crucial for enhancing employability or, in other words, to build experience that might be used as a resource later on. Access to good quality internships or placements; extracurricular activities which build networks; programmes where students can know more about their potential employers; volunteering; attending seminars, conferences and other events organized by practitioners are all important resources for acquiring social capital. However, non-traditional students are often constrained by their academic, family and work responsibilities. They focus mainly on their classes and have no time to spare for the sort of social activities that are fundamental for building social capital. This is the case, for example, with Swedish students, younger non-traditional students have more opportunities, e.g. to be involved in activities and students’ associations, than mature students who have family responsibilities.
    The case of Spanish students and graduates illustrates this point further. Gaining the skills and competences that help graduates to stand out to potential employers- speaking English, having a master degree or accredited international mobility and experience - come at an economic cost that not all families can afford in a situation of high national unemployment. Hence, graduates from low-income backgrounds, or migrant backgrounds, for example, cannot compete fairly with their peers.
    Transitions to employment are therefore, complex and social capital is helpful in understanding how this links to social inequalities. As John Field as pointed-out in the editorial, “it is a question not simply of having networks and ties, but of having the ‘right’ networks and ties for a particular context, whether it be university or career”. For example, some students from Warwick University discussed the fact that the middle class students were able to obtain internships or work placements because their parents, relations or family friends either own, or occupy key positions. in companies or organisations. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that many working class students, even if they are able to establish social relationships often are not able to afford to an unpaid internship. In addition, our Polish colleagues showed that requirements set by employers are often linked to the increasingly social nature of work processes. A good job seeker is not, anymore, someone who simply has a tertiary degree or possesses a set of technical competences. Graduates should highlight the importance of social contacts as a specific resource, which brings benefits to be used in professional life.
    “Having connections” seems therefore crucial to employability. Most partners in this project reported non-traditional students and graduates are well aware of this. Spanish working class graduates are cognisant of their lack of personal networks and consider this is often a barrier to getting a job. Swedish students often lack social networks and contacts for getting employment. Irish students, particularly those from a working-class background, are also very conscious of the importance of networks not just as a resource in developing career paths but also as a resource to complete the academic requirements of a university degree. Portuguese students and graduates think that connections and networks are so important, that can determine who is accepted, or not, for a job interview – a fact which is confirmed by some employers, particularly those from the private sector. Some of the Warwick students did attempt to foster social relations and networks. However, some felt that they would not be accepted into those social networks because of the way they talk, dress and perspectives. In short, it seems safe to state that many groups of non-traditional students and graduates are in a disadvantaged position in their initial transition to higher education, while participating in higher education, and in their transitions to employment afterwards.
    Nevertheless, as John Field stated in this editorial, “that this is not a one-way process. As well as shaping experiences of higher education, social capital is produced within higher education”. This is a perspective we also discovered in our research. Polish graduates, for example, build this by maintaining contact with employers after completing internships or follow-up their internship by attending seminars, conferences and other events organized by practitioners. These activities expand their circle of contacts and are viewed by employers as valuable, as well as increasing possibilities of using these contacts in the future. More examples come from Sweden, where non-traditional students participate in a mentorship programme. This is a shared initiative between trade unions and student unions. In Portugal, there is a very recent mentorship programme. In Ireland work experience programmes, both within specific departments, and through the innovative work of the university Placement Coordinator, is allowing students, and non-traditional students in particular, to start to develop connections and networks in career areas that they would like to work in. These and other initiatives show that social capital can be produced in higher education. Yet, we recognise there is a lot we still can do to help non-traditional students. The EMPLOY project represents a modest contribution to this aim.

  • 2
    Student’s Voices

  • You do [as a non-traditional student] have to work a lot harder than other people, because you can’t afford to get the help that they can … And you know … she’s trying to find people, her parents have contacts because, say, she’s doing something on health, and her mother’s a nurse. Well, her mother, obviously, has a lot of contacts that work … on health policy or specialise in it and her aunt’s a lecturer in social policy - so she has so much extra help. Whereas I’m sitting going – mum’s doing a course in IT and my dad’s getting sheep clipped. I ask him what education policy is in Ireland, and he’s going to go - what?
    (Social Science student, Ireland)

    I have recently talked to a colleague of mine who is looking for a job. While studying she had this casual job in “play areas” for kids, which you can find in supermarkets. So I asked her how many places she had had internship in and how many parents she had met there … She replied that she had been in a few places and met lots of parents. So I asked her whether she was in touch with those places and people and how many parents she had given her contact details to … She blinked at me surprised. The truth is that you need to make people remember you and keep reminding them about yourself, even if there are no jobs for us at the very moment in a given place. Myself, I stayed in the kindergarten after my apprenticeship as a volunteer. I helped there, organized different events. I didn’t get a job there, but I got information about which kindergarten did have a vacancy.
    (Graduate in Pedagogy, Poland)

    I was a trainer for many years. Those who know my work offer me more work and disseminate my details to other people. It's a little network because there are enterprises that don’t know me, but they contact me because someone else referred me. Also among colleagues, when we have no availability to work we refer each other. And a lot goes through my network of contacts. For example, the enterprise for which I do consulting also came through a friend. This is logical because I deal with sensitive and confidential information. So the main factor that allowed me to get a job was my friends’ confidence, claiming I was the right person to develop this work
    (Graduate in Clinic Psychology, Portugal).

    I do not have many contacts so… (...) Going abroad, yes, I would like that (...) but you must know languages and of course, I do not have the money to pay for an English school or a tutor. I just do what I can.
    (Philosophy student, Spain).

    Last year I went to a Law Society dinner. It wasn’t part of the application process – it was kind of discovering more about us. but then from that they did invite me to apply to them. I think because it’s informal but formal but there are employees who have been with the company quite a while or sometimes graduates so you can talk to them. And because its dinner, it’s not an interview setting you can ask them any questions you want to, you can get tips. It does actually help.
    Some of the students I’ve spoken to, their parents are partners in solicitors so obviously they’re going to walk into a job. Definitely down the barrister’s route it’s about what private school you’ve been to. I think money definitely because if you haven’t got the money you’re just not going to the bar. It costs too much money - £18, 000 and £12, 000 for solicitors and then books. I think it’s more who you know as well as what university you’re from.

    (Law Student, United Kingdom).

    The best support I already got at my second semester with the mentorship. I had luck again as I could meet my Mentor once a month and eat lunch. It is been like that for the past two years. She already sought to organise a job for me … she is good to get insights into reality and chat…
    (Graduate in Human Resource Management, Sweden).

    Connections… that makes it difficult for me to get a job. What I do not understand is that if there are five candidates and one of them is the niece of such and such, they finally choose her even though the other candidates have twenty times more skills for the job than she does.
    (Engineering Student, Spain).

    I think they [traditional students] have an easier life [in Higher Education]. Why? Because, when parents have more qualifications than mine, they know the importance of getting a tertiary course. They [traditional students] don’t need to struggle like I did… I still have to justify to my parents why I’m at the computer instead of doing others things. They can’t understand it. Parents with higher education are more sensitive and open-minded regarding challenges such as Erasmus. My parents aren’t open-minded about these things. They don’t understand why I'm going to do a semester abroad if I can do it here. (...) I believe that if my parents were more open about these matters, I would not have the difficulties I have had to pay the tuition fees or to do training outside of Portugal ... I don’t know!
    (Graduate in Social Work, Portugal).

    This is a good programme, but I still think maybe, more contact with companies would be better, to be able to create a large or wider network and ... because it's so important just in this degree to get a foot in just a place somewhere to show that you are interested and what you can…
    (Human Resources Management Student, Sweden).

    What counts in Sweden are very much professional experiences and connections, I have neither of them … non-traditional students do not have connections, so it is interesting to think about networks, But how to find them?
    (Human Resources Management Student, Sweden).

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