Why we should bring widening participation and university outreach into the big careers work tent

I’ve been doing quite a lot of work on widening participation and university outreach recently. One of the things that I have noticed is the fact that WP professionals share a lot of values, skills and attitudes with careers workers. I have also noticed that there are not very strong links between the two groups despite the fact that a fair few people who work in WP and outreach roles have some kind of background in careers.

Of course there are important differences between the two groups as well. Most notably since the end of Aimhigher pretty much everyone who works in WP works for a university. The idea of impartiality is central to the careers profession and the careful line that WP people have to walk between promoting, recruiting and advising is one that careerinistas would struggle with. However, it is also worth noting that the era of unproblematic impartiality is probably long gone and careers professionals have also had to juggle their own impartiality with various targets around graduate employability, NEETs, STEM and so on.

If you boil both roles down it seems pretty clear that they are very similar. Both groups are about supporting individuals to think about their futures, to make purposeful choices and to develop the skills to move towards your desired future. Widening participation necessarily has a strong focus on higher education, but unless it sets the higher education route into a broader context it is miss-serving the individuals that it works with. The goal of raising aspirations is one that is frequently cited by WP practitioners but raising people’s aspirations shouldn’t mean shaping the nature of those aspirations and especially should not mean squeezing them into a higher education framework.

In practice higher education does provide a powerful route for a very wide range of individuals to pursue their aspirations. As the nature of higher education programmes expands it broadens the potential audience but also requires WP practitioners to broaden their knowledge base to keep track of the myriad of progression routes that lead through vocational options into higher education. Meanwhile the conventional careers worker is frequently crying out for more specialised knowledge about the complexity of the HE learning market.

Looking at these two occupations a dispassionate Martian labour market analyst might struggle to see the distinction. The employers are different but the differences between the values and knowledge bases far more subtle. In terms of the array of practice that exists there are clearly further differences but also substantial overlaps and areas where the two groups might learn from each other.

If you are not fiercely aligned to one or other group you might think that this post is just stating the obvious. However, I haven’t heard anyone mention WP practitioners and NEON in the recent discussions about the formation of the Career Development Institute. Similarly I haven’t heard anyone involved in NEON express the idea that their professionalism might be better served as part of a wider grouping. I don’t have an axe to grind on this and I certainly don’t want to get involved in brokering some kind of institutional summit, but I think that my role as an interested observer does at least give me the space to say these things and be told why I’ve got it wrong.

So my position is essentially this. There are a set of activities that are about facilitating individuals to think about and move into their futures. If they are done well they need to focus on the specificity of the individual and to help them to think through how they are going to combine life, learning and work across their lifecourse. I see these activities as a specialised type of education that draws on other disciplines such as counselling, economics, social work and marketing. I call this stuff careers work. It seems to me that careers workers are divided up into lots of little cells and that opportunities for collaboration as well as individual progression and collective representation are lost as a result. Is there not a case to put up a big careers work tent and to see who we can get inside it?

So is this blasphemy? Idiocy? Naïve beyond belief? Or is there a little bit of sense in it?

Over to you?


Help us to evaluate Unistats

We are currently evaluating the Unistats website.

We have just launched a survey which we would appreciate your help with.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Unistats website to complete the survey. The survey will also ask you some general questions about how you use online information to make educational and career decisions.

We are looking for students and potential students, parents, employers, HE staff, careers professionals and teachers to fill in the survey. It shouldn’t take more than about 15 minutes to complete and depending on your answers may take much less.

Complete the survey

Education committee to quiz the Minister on career guidance today

Today sees the third and final session of the Education Committee inquiry into  career guidance. Today will feature an appearance by Matthew Hancock MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Skills). This should be pretty interesting as it will be the first time he has put on record his thoughts about career guidance.

You will be able to watch the whole thing live from 9.30 on http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=11951



More on the House of Commons Education Committee Inquiry into Career Guidance with Young People

The Inquiry continues to progress. The Committee have now taken written evidence, undertaken a field visit, heard from young people and taken one session of oral evidence. In the oral evidence they heard from employers, colleges and local authorities. The transcript of this session is available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmeduc/uc632-i/uc63201.htm.

The second session is today starting from 9.30 and you can watch it online at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=11849

You will never be all that you can be

We are under-resourced. You are under-resourced. What is wanted or even expected from all of us outstrips our capability to deliver it. Life and work are simply not possible. You can blame yourself for poor time-management, you can blame your management for their unrealistic expectations or you can blame the government or the geo-political economy. Hell, you can even blame the aliens who are beaming their procrastination ray down at your brain. It won’t matter, you still won’t achieve everything that you want or are supposed to.


Is this not just defeatism? Am I not just letting the government or poor performing managers and workers off of the hook? Shouldn’t we be arguing that we need the resources to do the important job of work that we do? Of course we should, but if we succeed and our resources are doubled, it is only then that we will really understand how under-resourced we are.


Human beings are creative. Give them a problem and they will probably solve it. The only problem is that in solving it they will probably be creative enough to identify another problem.


  • I can’t push that block of granite around quickly enough.
  • No problem, put it on wheels and Bob’s your uncle.
  • But sometimes the wheels go too quick
  • No problem we can push a block against them to “break” them.
  • But, sometimes the wheels don’t go quick enough.
  • Hmmmnnn, let’s attach a motor to them.
  • But the motor is belching out fumes and poisoning the air.
  • OK…. let me have a thnk about that.


And so it goes on. What is more when the problems that you are dealing with are essentially concerned with other human beings (e.g. in education or careers work) the creativity has the potential to fire in all sorts of different directions. So we end up with…


  • Students find it hard to get a job.
  • Let’s set up a careers fair so that they can meet employers.


  • I don’t like going to careers fairs, they are boring.
  • Let’s go to the pub instead.


  • How can we get students to come to the careers fair.
  • Let’s hold it in the pub.


Again the permutations are endless. We can always do more, develop our provision further, go deeper with our clients, spend more time on evaluation and so on.


This is problem with ideas about time management. We can never actually “manage” time. What we can do is spend our time doing things that are worthwhile at the same time as recognising that while we are doing these things we are not doing an infinite array of other things.


So what does this mean for any hope of feeling personally fulfilled? Firstly, it means that the key ability that we need is the ability to prioritise. Prioritising is all about having a strong sense of your values and an ability to weigh up the returns that might result from various actions. It is about seeing what you want and what is possible and about handling the tension between the two. Secondly we need to be able to handle the fact that we are constantly shutting off possibilities and ignoring opportunities. Handling this constant sense of loss without allowing it to become crippling requires a willingness to live in the moment and to positively move forward from here. We can learn from the past, but there is no purpose in regretting the past.


You can never achieve everything that you are capable of. You can never finish your work or get enough resources. All you can do is drive a line through the valley of infinite possibility. You are making choices about where that line goes in every minute and second of your life. You can’t know where these choices will take you but you can be sure that it will be forward and not backwards.


You’ve just chosen to read this blog post. What are you going to choose next?