When Alice Lang started at the University of Bristol two years ago, she was excited to get experience beyond her degree. Then the UK entered lockdown and the 21-year-old’s plan for a life beyond lectures was put on hold.
Of the many internships she applied for in the summer of 2020, she says: “Nine times out of 10 they said they were postponed — to maybe come back next year.”
Meanwhile, events and sports were cancelled and opportunities that could continue, such as reporting for the student paper, moved with the rest of student life online. “All you’re doing is going to one Zoom meeting or whatever — you don’t really have anything to show for it,” Lang says.
The fear of entering the world of work with inadequate preparation is very real for the class of 2021. Denied the usual chances to try out new interests, develop talents and build up a CV, many undergraduates, universities and employers have been forced to innovate as students prepare to move on from their studies.
According to Prospects, a specialist graduate careers organisation, just 17 per cent of undergraduate students in the UK have had work experience in the past 12 months. At the same time, formative extracurricular activities — organising events or political campaigns, playing music or sport, volunteering with local charities — have been suspended, all or in part.
“It pretty much went on ice,” professor Thom Brooks, dean of the Durham University Law School, says of the employer dinners, debates, networking events and work placements that in normal times are central to a law degree. Also lost were everyday interactions crucial for developing student networks and ideas.
“What’s really missing is the socialisation, that interaction with staff,” Brooks says. “One thing that was important to me as a student was walking down the corridor, seeing people in office hours, dropping in for a quick conversation.”
Among the alternatives at Durham University this year is a “virtual internship experience” by Bright Network, a careers platform. Students take part in a series of three-day virtual placements in fields including finance, law, policy and engineering.
Brooks says the programme could be a blueprint for future online placements because it allows students to sample career possibilities without the commitment of a full internship.
At Manchester Metropolitan University, careers staff also believe virtual experiences will continue beyond this year. During lockdown they expanded Rise, a programme of online short courses. Students can learn introductory French, create virtual reality programmes, train in critical approaches to race research or get guidance on searching for internships.
Stephen Boyd, the university’s director of careers and employability, says, “It encourages you to step out of your own discipline . . . boost your degree and get the type of experiences that can contribute to your CV.”
The university has allowed the courses to be traded for degree credits and has packaged them in accessible chunks. The scheme has attracted students from diverse backgrounds, who are often less likely to participate in extracurricular activities. “That was a particular objective,” Boyd says.
Inequalities in access to opportunities mean these schemes are badly needed. According to Bright Network, more than a third of privately educated graduates have participated in internships compared with 23 per cent of those from state schools. Prospects found those who worked were more likely to do it for free — 62 per cent worked unpaid for more than four weeks in 2021 compared with 41 per cent in 2018.
Many university careers offices have partnered with local businesses or offered placements in their own departments to offer paid internships. In Bristol, Lang is now doing a virtual marketing internship at a local investment firm, which has been “amazingly helpful”.
At Student Hubs, a charity facilitating volunteering opportunities with universities including Bristol and Cambridge, there has been a spike in demand. Sim Dhanjal, chief executive, said students signing up this year “were specifically citing getting that experience as a reason [for volunteering], because they couldn’t get it anywhere else”.
“Lots of workplaces didn’t know what they were doing and opportunities gradually disappeared. Add to that the lack of face-to-face activities and challenges faced by student societies: they’re also looking to us for social opportunities and the opportunity to connect with their peers.”
Philosophy student Paige Colton, who is in her final year at Manchester Met, has been active in boosting her skills despite the pandemic. She says she “hasn’t been that bothered” by everything moving online, because it means she is better able to juggle her final year with a part-time job — working for a Danish meal delivery start-up — and now designing an intensive module in applying philosophy skills to careers, as part of Manchester Met’s short course programme.
“Third year is hard enough as it is, but in a pandemic trying to graduate in a really difficult graduate economy, it’s kind of terrifying,” Colton says. “I’ve been just picking up everything the university has been offering.”
At Nottingham Trent University, final year student Harriet Lockey believes lockdown has forced students to take the initiative. After participating in a Bright Network internship in finance, she has been networking online, eventually landing a job in financial services.
“In order to create the same experience I need to work 10 times harder,” she says. “You need to be proactive in terms of seeking a role.”
Andrew Ireland, pro-vice chancellor for students and teaching at the University of Central Lancashire, believes the things employers will value most may come from simply having lived through a pandemic.
“They have developed lots of useful skills through being in lockdown, working remotely, resilience, communication skills, being more flexible,” he says. “All these attributes that’ll put them in good stead for employment.”
Jayne Rowley, head of Prospects, believes graduate employers need to “give a grad a break” and align their expectations to the reality. They can do this by digging a little deeper and asking questions, she says. “It’s about giving them the vocabulary to articulate the things they’ve built over the last few months,” Rowley says. “What’s their banana bread moment? A lot of them aren’t confident, but as soon as you talk to them they’ve made some extraordinary contributions.”