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Investigation: Towards a Transparently Funded Careers Service

Nestled in a tranquil lot on Banbury Road, the Careers Service is the University’s main provider of careers and graduate advice to members. In the last five years, 26,194 appointments were made at the Careers Service for individual counselling, in addition to programmes which regularly attract hundreds of participators. Over 1000 internships were arranged in the last academic year, with the Micro-Internship Programme being its most popular.

The Careers Service highlights ‘best-informed career decisions’ as its main aim in its Mission Statement, and all its services are marketed as impartial. Its financial backgrounds and funding sources, however, put this overall principle into question. Over the last 5 years, the Careers Service received close to £11m in funding, 46% of which from the University. Excluding revenue gained directly from the central University itself, Cherwell Freedom of Information request reveals that its second most significant source of revenue comes from stall fees at careers fairs throughout the year; the annual Michaelmas Term Careers Fair in October, for example, goes for £1134 plus VAT per 3.35m stall in the Examination Schools. The steep cost of attending these has a clear impact on less financially secure sectors: separate fairs for Teaching & Education and Arts, Advertising & Media have now been merged with the flagship Careers Fair in October, while Management Consultancy, Law, Finance, and Computing all have individual fairs. Attendance at these fairs also reveal a severe imbalance: while only 76 organizations were on the list of attendees for the most recent non-sector-specific Careers Fair, 94 firms and organizations were present at the 2018 Law Fair and 98 companies attended the 2018 Science, Engineering & Technologies Fair.

There seems to be a significant correlation between this disparity is due to polarized economic growth across different sectors in recent years: for example, jobs for IT Engineers in the UK increased by 33.7% last year alone, while growth in the service sector has been slowing dangerously. However, in rewarding financially lucrative firms with greater prominence, the Careers Service walks a fine ethical line between securing the long-term viability of its programmes and providing truly impartial, student-centred service. Its funding model further tips the balance towards larger, established firms in a few specific sectors through running a VIP scheme for its core sponsors. Organizations can elect to join The Oxford Recruiters’ Group as either an Associate or a Partner, and over the last 5 financial years the Careers Service gained £559,208 in revenue from Recruiters’ Group membership fees.

In return, these organizations are charged significantly less for attending fairs and directly promoted on the Careers Service website, receive discounted advertising in guides and pamphlets, and are given complimentary spaces in newsletters to students. Those who elect to join the scheme as a Partner, additionally, are given a 50% discount on advertising, room rentals, and stall fees, and are featured in weekly student newsletters for free. Nowhere in the Careers Service’s weekly student newsletters is it noted that the organizations being promoted are paying for advertising: the Week 1 Trinity 2020 newsletter, for example, links to software firm TPP’s website as an ‘Oxford Employer Profile’ without specifying that this placement is due to their fee-paying membership of the Recruiters’ Group.

A quick glance at the membership of the Recruiters’ Group demonstrates some obvious issues within this funding model. The 7 current members of the Partner tier are overwhelming software, technology, or finance firms such as Citadel, Barclays, and TPP, and almost half of its Associate-tier members are law firms. On its website the Careers Service states that Recruiters’ Group members ‘work closely’ with them to advise on recruitment; if so, the objectivity of said collaboration puts the Careers Service’s impartiality into question. Is it possible for the Careers Service to serve students with complete transparency and individualization when a significant portion of its funding is tied to VIP memberships that exclusively benefit global firms and stall fees which distinctly penalize smaller organizations and less profitable institutions? Furthermore, there is no qualification or third-party observer overseeing careers advising. 

When contacted for comment, the University defended the Careers Service’s transparency. A spokesperson for the University said, “The University of Oxford Careers Service prides itself in providing impartial careers advice and guidance to students –  enabling them to make informed decisions about their next steps after University.” 

“In line with careers services across the sector, we work with recruitment partners spanning a wide range of industries – including many that promote positive social change. All roles are promoted equally so that students can make fully informed decisions about their futures, with many Oxford graduates going on to work in the education, health & social care, and charity & development sectors.” 

“As well as recruitment activities focused on commercial sectors, we are also proud to host the annual OX-post code, Spin-out and Start-up careers fair. Any organisation can post vacancies on CareerConnent (sic) for free and charities and NGOS pay low or no fees to attend careers fairs. Members of the Recruiter’s Group receive a range of services – which are listed in full on the Careers Service website.”

The University adds that public-sector employers are given a 50% discount on stall fees at Careers Fairs, and that state schools are charged a flat fee of £175 plus VAT. This, however, was not made clear on the Careers Service’s website.

But beyond ethical uncertainties and issues with practice, the image of the labour market painted by the Careers Service’s offerings is simply inaccurate. The Law Society forecasts that Brexit will negatively impact the legal job market: by 2038 employment in the sector ‘could be 20% less than it could otherwise have been’, as thousands of legal positions disappear due to Britain leaving the European Union and progressive automation. The Health & Social Care sector, for example, faces the largest vacancy crisis in the UK with more than 120,000 unfilled positions, the NHS in particular so understaffed that health leaders cite it as a safety risk to patients. However, only 6 out of over 100 recruiters at the most recently Science, Engineering & Technologies Fair were from healthcare-related organizations or companies.

Of course, it would be unfair to lay the blame entirely upon the Careers Service: negative media coverage, unenticing pay, and low satisfaction rates all contribute significantly to the lack of young health workers in the UK. Nevertheless, it is the Careers Service’s responsibility to inform prospective graduates of significant needs and recruitment gaps in the market. For example, one recent piece of research has shown that 67% of small- and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) across the UK are facing significant challenges with recruiting and retaining talent, especially ones situated outside London.

If university careers advisors and programmes continue to prioritize its largest donors and maintain steep fees for attending fairs, it implicitly puts start-ups and smaller businesses most in need of new talent at a significant disadvantage and gives graduates a misguided view of the labour market. The presence of various teacher-training programmes at the Careers Fair last year promises improvement: in 2019 the National Foundation for Educational Research found that the next decade will bring a ‘substantial teacher supply challenge’. Recruitment for physics teaching training, for example, is 50% below the number necessary for maintaining supply. If the Careers Service can continue to secure places for sectors with strong personnel needs, it will be on the right track.

What next for 56 Banbury Road? In exploring its role as a guidance service for a multifaceted, ambitious, and highly sought-after student body, Oxford University’s Careers Service must prioritize social responsibility and true transparency. Cambridge’s Careers Service, for example, runs an annual ‘Work to Change the World’ Careers Fair for non-profit and socially responsible recruiters, with free stalls for charities and social enterprises; with 488 students meeting 66 organizations this year, this approach is clearly popular among its student body. Rather than organizing non-sector-specific Careers Fairs that group all ‘Other’ career pathways together and indirectly punish less obviously lucrative sectors, Cambridge’s Careers Service maintains separate fairs for Comms & Creative careers and Start-Up, and at £100 (plus VAT) per stall these attract significantly more organizations than Oxford’s tenfold charge. The Careers Service must also directly reach out to underrepresented industries and sectors, and consider strategies such as reserving spaces for charities and public sector employers such as the NHS, lowering attendance fees, highlighting sectors facing recruitment shortages, etc. In addition, informing students of the advertising behind weekly newsletters and targeted mail will be crucial for transparency: in intentionally blurring the boundaries between paid promotional material and genuine advice, the Careers Service risks undermining its neutral authority and encountering ethical issues.

Hilary Term 2020 saw Oxford’s first Creative Careers Night, and the rapid filling of RSVP spaces communicates a powerful message. Oxford’s student body is looking outside traditional careers for their next steps outside of college walls, and the organization that claims to help them develop individually must respond to this need. To truly reflect its Mission Statement, the Careers Service must reflect on the impact of its advertising-based financial model, rethink its reliance on fair fees that reward oversaturated industries and undervalue smaller organizations, clearly inform students of their programmes’ funding sources, and base its work on socially responsible principles and accurate data reflecting real needs in the labour market. Its existing commitment to the Martin Principles for Climate-Conscious Investment and policy to not advertise unpaid internships already place it at a progressive position relative to other university Careers Services, and through transparent information, rethinking funding, and prioritizing social responsibility, Oxford can continue to lead change in the careers advising world. The process will obviously be uncomfortable and unsettling, but by putting students and ethical priorities first, transitioning into a model that accurately guides students is the only sustainable way.

Correction (21 May 2020): the previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Summer Internship Programme was the most popular offering at the Careers Service; in fact, it was the Micro-Internship Programme. Additionally, the University has clarified on fees for public-sector and state-school stalls at Careers Fairs. The Careers Service provided updated figures about its funding, adding data about revenue supplied from the University itself.

Image credit to: Free-Photos/Pixabay

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