A Tale of Two C’s

Copyright Will Quinn

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

The opening lines to a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, published in 1858 and set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. Move forward to 2020-2022 these words still resonate.

This is my “Tale of Two C’s.” My first “C” is COVID-19 which has permeated all levels of society and touched most people in the UK. Twenty million infections, 177,000 lives lost, families and communities separated for extended periods, education disrupted, careers stopped before they started, careers paused, working life has changed and the economy has shrunk with a recession looming. The emotional, physical, and economic scars visible.

My second “C,” is evident in our interactions with students, recent graduates and with employers. It is the elephant in the room that we cannot ignore. It is confidence. Or lack thereof. Lack of confidence is not new, but these crises of confidence amongst our students and recent graduates are on a whole new scale.

Let me explain, a new member of staff to the team, a recent creative graduate with a first-class honour’s degree was sourcing graduate-level job opportunities for an activity we are planning in Semester 2. The job of “Art Assistant” in an industry-leading company; Position summary: “provides administrative and production assistance to the Art department” started a discussion and led to a debate. Was this a graduate role, or not?

In the classic TV jury, when unable to decide, we asked our audience

  • Careers staff view, “the job description was challenging, the expectations of the employer were high, but the role is of “graduate level
  • Student and recent graduate view, “This is too high level for us…it’s an industry-leading company…it is not graduate entry, they want experienced applicants*and would not recruit us.”
  • Academic teaching staff view, “this is standard (If a bit intense) graduate position. This is a graduate entry role, and our students have the skills and knowledge to do this.”

*In the interest of full disclosure, the company did not anywhere in the advert ask for “experience.”

Would pre-COVID-19 Leeds Arts University students and graduates have applied for this role? Absolutely “yes.” COVID-19 has denied most current students and recent graduates the validation and self-validation that comes from working face-to-face alongside and collaboratively with other creatives. COVID-19 has reduced opportunities for students to work on live briefs and projects. COVID-19 has limited the opportunity for frequent impromptu feedback from tutors and/or critiques from externals practitioners. All of which builds up a level of resilience, self-belief, and confidence in one’s abilities.

“What Do Graduates Want? Data Insights from the Future Workforce” (April 2020), revealed the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted graduate confidence and prospects for the immediate future. The 2022 report shows little has changed.  In fact, the gap between privately educated and non-selective state school students has widened when it comes to confidence and feeling prepared for the working world and expectations about their future careers.

When employers’ expectations of graduates remain high and student and graduate confidence and expectations are low, we simply cannot afford to ignore this “elephant in the room.” Not because this is a stick used by Government and regulators to measure student outcomes using student progression, retention, and graduate outcomes as measures of good degrees and value for money. Its far more straightforward than that, it is because it is the right thing to do.

We believe in our students and recent graduates; Leeds Arts University graduates are talented individuals who have long successful careers ahead of them. Yes, we must reconnect with graduate recruiters, especially SMEs in the creative sector, and we have difficult challenges and conversations ahead. Our students and recent graduates need our support more than ever to start believing in themselves again.

To paraphrase Dickens, 2023 could truly be the best of times or the worst of times. We are at crossroad, but it remains in our gift to decide which route we choose to take.

Andrew Jones, Head of Careers, Employability and Enterprise at Leeds Arts University