How do universities support graduate employability and career development?

NAXN — nic newman
Emerge Edtech Insights
23 min readJun 25, 2024
Career development and graduate employability market map, by Emerge Education.

We’re building our annual list of the top emerging edtech companies in higher education for 2024, in collaboration with our Higher Education Edtech advisory board which is convened in partnership with Jisc and chaired by Mary Curnock Cook, CBE. As we do this, we’re diving into the trends and opportunities for tech-powered innovation along each step of the learner journey → from student recruitment to staff and student experience, teaching and learning, assessment and graduate employability.

In this final article, we’re focusing on how universities can use technology to better support and prepare students for post-graduate outcomes. As the sector is beset by paeans to ‘value for money’ and hand-wringing over ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’, it must also grapple with unprecedented change in emerging and future skills for graduating students.

The student journey in higher education.

Read on for:

  • Challenges, trends and opportunities, including our predictions for the transformative impact of genAI
  • Views from sector experts, plus tips for founders
  • A mini-market map of key players and top emerging startups in this space

Keywords: employability, career development, graduate outcomes, transferable skills, internships, work experience, future of work

💡 Why it matters

In just a few short years, the current cohort of students will be taking on jobs that do not currently exist. The World Economics Forum estimates that 97 million new jobs will have emerged between 2020 and 2025, and that the demand for different skills delivered through higher education, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, is only increasing during this period. But in a cautious graduate labour market that is seeing increasing automation, casualisation and globalisation, as well as huge forecast growth in graduate numbers in the next ten years, employability outcomes are a tough metric.

Ironically, thanks to the cost of living crisis, university students are working more than ever. However, this is characterised by jobs in low-paid sectors unrelated to their course, leading to fears of a ‘two-tier higher education system’ with a widening divide between students who need to work long hours to survive while their better-off peers are free to concentrate on their studies and unpaid work experience that creates future opportunities.

Despite their additional workload, in a survey of 10,000 full-time UK undergraduates 39% of students said their course was good value for money, as satisfaction levels rebounded from the lows seen during the Covid pandemic. Only 26% of students said their course was poor value for money, the lowest proportion for a decade. Employment outcomes are important to students: getting on the career ladder is the top reason students cite for going to university.

🏈 State of play

  • Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: the returns on going to university are consistently positive, if uneven, for all demographic groups. There is a lot of evidence for the many personal, societal, economic and non-economic benefits of higher education. These benefits persist over time, where the evidence is mixed that subject choice actually makes any difference long term.
  • Still, Bachelor’s degree completions after 4 years average a shocking 39% globally, which means ‘value for money’ has come to dominate the debate about higher education. In the US, loan debt has become a big political issue influencing decisions about whether to enter higher education. It’s perhaps no surprise that most Americans believe university degrees are no longer worth paying for. In 1980, the annual cost of tuition, fees, room and board to attend a four-year university was around $10,000. Now it’s roughly tripled to around $30,000 per year, after adjusting for inflation. In 1980, average student debt was roughly $13,000 at graduation. Now it is more than $30,000, more than doubling after adjusting for inflation.
  • In the UK, a student survey from 2023 suggests that if they had their time again, 7% would have chosen an apprenticeship and 5% would have chosen to get a job or do something else outside higher education. But on the balance between outputs and outcomes, quality of teaching was deemed the most crucial factor, followed by access to resources and fair assessment. Outcomes like employment prospects and earnings potential, while on the list, were much less critical than the quality of the experience itself.
  • Students are split on whether or not they regard it as the responsibility of their higher education institution to find them a job, with one-third (34%) believing it is and only a slightly lower proportion (30%) saying it isn’t. A majority of students (53%) think ‘all university courses should be designed mainly with future employment in mind’, and a further 37% say ‘some university courses should be’; a large majority of students want to see more courses co-designed with employers. Most students oppose the proposal in England to provide reduced access to student finance to those opting for courses with poor employment prospects.
  • What does the data say on graduate outcomes? In the UK, 82% of graduates from the 2020/21 academic year were in employment, unpaid work or a mixture of work and study 15 months after graduation — and 84% agreed that their activity at the time of the survey was meaningful, 75% agreed that it fit with their future plans and 66% agreed that they were using what they had learned during their studies.
  • Underemployment is a concern. Graduates who enter jobs that are typically held by those with lower-level qualifications suffer from low job satisfaction and high indicators of poor mental health, even when compared to their colleagues with lower qualifications. Around half of students expect to get ‘graduate-level employment’. The median salary of UK domicile graduates from full-time first degree courses in full-time paid employment is £26,000.
  • There are more students from underrepresented backgrounds in higher education than ever before but their job outcomes often lag behind more privileged peers. Pay gaps and pay penalties persist and the rise of the gig economy has further exacerbated these inequalities. 57% of UK domicile Black and Asian graduates were in full-time employment compared to 63% of white graduates. If we look at first year earnings above £30,000, this is achieved by 35% of women compared to 41% of men; only 21% of those with a disability reach this threshold.
  • There is the gap between what is taught and what is needed in the workplace, and between the experience of education and the experience of the workplace. According to one survey, 96% of chief academic officers at universities think they are doing a good job preparing young people for the workforce, but less than half (41%) of college students and only 11% of business leaders share that view.
  • All of these factors have meant that the employability of graduates has become a focal point for whole universities — not the sole, siloed responsibility of the careers service. In a survey of 48 heads and directors of university careers services, three-quarters (73%) reported that employability was either included within or linked to the broader institutional strategy. Yet despite this increased focus on employability, fewer than half (45%) had received an increase in resource. Those that did often saw funding associated with particular projects, rather than an increased overall budget. Careers services have turned to digital delivery and innovative approaches to try to bridge this gap, but this can be difficult as demand continues to increase for one-to-one interactions among students.

🚨 Challenges

  • Measuring the benefits of higher education is complex and challenging. In the past, this has led to a focus on graduate earnings, as something that can be easily measured. There is now a danger there will be too big a focus on another single measure: ‘highly skilled employment’. Highly skilled employment measures are only based only on historical data — current measures of highly skilled employment can’t tell us how well graduates fill emerging and future skills gaps.
  • Adapting the traditional university model to employer-designed courses. Universities, as we know them, were not, in the main, set up to adapt their course offerings at the same pace as employer needs are changing today. One example of this is the rigid structure of the academic year, which can be out of sync with employer needs. Similarly, the validation of new courses or changes to existing ones can be a slow process that fails to keep up with employer practice; it often takes more than 18 months to develop a new undergraduate course, and the typical refresh cycle for courses is close to five years. This is compounded by regulatory challenges and by the speed of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies (PSRBs), whose accreditation is needed for many courses.
  • Alternative credentialing options are increasing in number and attractiveness. Universities have responded to a demand for certificates for certain skills with alacrity, which has for the most part been a good thing, but it does risk cannibalising the value of a full degree. More importantly, other players have entered the credentialing game, such as Google, with its portfolio of certificate offerings. These alternatives offer potential students options other than full-time college.
  • Completing an internship can give graduates a leg up when searching for employment. A study in Spain found that former interns were 6.5% more likely to find a job after graduation than classmates who hadn’t had an internship. For employers, internships are one of the most important factors to evaluate a candidate; one survey found that two-thirds of employers prefer to hire a candidate with relevant work experience, and there are reasons for this, as students who have completed an internship report gains in key transferable skills. Other studies have documented that students taking an internship are three times more likely than non-interns to enrol in graduate school. Research even shows that ‘high-impact practices’ such as study abroad or an internship significantly increase a student’s likelihood of obtaining a degree in the first place. The challenge is that these experiences are not equally distributed or available to all students. A study by the European Youth Forum reveals that an unpaid internship costs the average young person in Europe more than €1,000 a month. (Some students even pay for the privilege.) There are gender disparities: 76% of men are paid, compared to just 52% of women. The inequity repeats among first-generation interns, with 54% reporting paid internships compared to 60% of continuing generation interns. This is one reason why educators and researchers are increasingly focusing on work-integrated learning, where real-world and hands-on activities are embedded in course design.
  • Fragmented ownership of initiatives. There is a need for a ‘common front door’ with clear signposting of opportunities for collaboration with employers. We consistently hear that the need to align agendas and expectations for multiple partners was a major source of delay and uncertainty in establishing effective partnerships. University stakeholders pointed to the need to create a dedicated central function to manage these relationships, whereas employers struggled to identify who to approach. For example, the management and delivery of micro-internships for 100+ students at a time is extremely difficult in the current paradigm where there is a lack of clear guidelines and streamlined processes. Third-party partners can introduce greater consistency to the process of establishing the relationship and serve as a clear channel for entry.

🔥 Trends

  • According to NACE, the share of institutions that have appointed a vice president of workforce development to lead their career centres has doubled to 2.4% since the organisation began including the category in 2019–20.
  • Almost half (49%) of careers services are already using AI with students, with many more planning to use the tools in the near future.
  • Students who undertake early career planning are more likely to be employed after graduation, and significantly more likely to be in a graduate-level role. Students want careers to be threaded throughout their course, so universities need to encourage early engagement with careers education and sustain this throughout the student lifecycle. Fostering careers and employability engagement in this way is not just the remit of careers teams. A whole university approach should also be supported by academic departments through embedding employability in the curriculum.
  • Teaching students how to use AI can equip future workers with the skills to supercharge their capabilities. In March 2023, OpenAI released a working paper predicting the top industries that are most likely to be exposed to ChatGPT (‘exposure’ classed as human access to LLM technology that would reduce time spent on a task by at least 50%). According to Open AI, the top three exposed job industries are: a) securities, commodity contracts and other financial investments and related activities (55% exposure); b) insurance carriers and related activities (52% exposure); and c) computing infrastructure providers, data processing, web hosting and related services (52% exposure). BCG analysis compared OpenAI’s report to US Bureau of Labor Statistics and university completions data to estimate GenAI’s potential impact on the future job landscape. It was found that in the 2020–21 academic year, 22% of completions at US degree-granting institutions belonged to individuals on track to enter high-exposure industries and occupations. Of the 5 million degree and certificate-level completions from 4,077 degree-granting institutions, more than 1 million are associated with a highly exposed job industry based on OpenAI’s research. There is strong potential for cross-subject integration of AI in student learning to provide them with the tools to remain competitive in changing industries. Developing strategies to master AI while still in an educational context can mitigate potential negative impacts in the labour market, while simultaneously opening up new opportunities for students who become workers.

We have divided this market up into four segments.

  • Course co-creation and co-delivery: Courses can be designed and delivered in partnership by universities and employers (or professional bodies representing employers). In the current model, we could point to medical and health science degrees as well as a whole range of courses validated by PSRBs. Outside this category, collaboration with employers on course content has often been piecemeal, with individual faculties or lecturers engaging employers directly. The benefits of course co-creation and co-delivery are thus limited to a small number of disciplines. Direction of travel → startups such as FourthRev are building courses with industry, particularly in high-growth industries such as IT, then partnering with universities to validate and deliver these courses. Marketplaces such as FutureLearn are increasingly helping universities to market such courses. These courses often carry both an industry and a university credential and are thus doubly attractive to students.
  • Experiential learning: This involves students going into the workplace as part of their studies or using highly realistic simulated experiences to learn key professional skills. For some degrees, such as teacher training, this is a professional requirement. In other cases, most — perhaps all — universities in the UK offer placements or internships, with varying degrees of support for students in connecting with the employers. The placements may or may not be compulsory and may or may not count towards their degree. As a result, the benefits of experiential learning are not distributed evenly. Direction of travel → employers and universities are working together to provide universal access to experiential learning for students through projects and internships that are clearly linked to course work and are, in many cases, credit-bearing. One example of this is the apprenticeship model, with a growing number of these degrees delivered by universities. This approach has significant political support, and a strong incentive for employers to fund places, but faces scalability challenges. Another example is emerging tech companies such as Riipen, which aggregate microinternships at scale and enable university instructors to integrate these into existing courses as credit-bearing activities.

“An ongoing challenge for higher education (all education and training, really) is the lack of practical understanding of the evidence we are growing (“learning engineering”) about how human learning and motivation actually work. Imagine if our healthcare providers were still trained on the four humours, even as research on underlying biology kept accumulating — people in the field would not be taking advantage of what we now know about what works (and doesn’t)!

Technology may be able to help on multiple sides of this: better (simulation-based?) training of teachers/professors on learning principles (including how to problem-solve when students/classes seem to be going sideways), potentially new tools to help teachers generate materials/syllabi/lesson plans consistent with learning engineering principles (including training production AI tools on those principles, not merely the domains, and personalizing learning to different student contexts), and new tools to interact with students in ways that match student contexts and give evidence back to teachers about “how it’s going” that are grounded on these principles — among other things.

Bror Saxberg, founder, LearningForge and Emerge VP

  • Career navigation and application support: University career centres face a challenge around the number of employers the university is able to engage with, which is limited by the resources available to the careers centre. Employers’ recruitment teams are also resource-constrained so many end up engaging with a relatively small number of HEIs (23 on average according to an ISE survey), which tend to cluster around the top of university rankings. The other challenge is the ability to engage students at the right time. When employability activities are not embedded in the curriculum, this type of support is ‘opt-in’, requiring the student to take active steps to benefit from the service. This can be particularly difficult for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Direction of travel → third-party companies such as Handshake and targetconnect (GTI) allow individual universities to connect simultaneously with thousands of employers and vice versa. This enables university students and recent graduates to benefit from personalised job recommendations and clear signposting to relevant career opportunities, while freeing up the time of career services staff to focus on identifying students most likely to benefit from personalised, hands-on support.

🌍 Key players

Career development and graduate employability market map, by Emerge Education.

🔭 Who is getting ahead?

Universities continue to focus on teaching specific skills involving the latest technologies, even though these skills and the technologies that support them are bound to become obsolete. As a result, universities are forever playing catch up with the skills needed in the future workplace. What we need to teach are skills that remain relevant in new, changing, and unknown contexts. San Francisco-based Minerva University, which shares a founder with the Minerva Project, has broken down competencies such as critical thinking or creative thinking into foundational concepts and habits of mind. It teaches these over the four undergraduate years and across disciplines, regardless of the major a student chooses to pursue.

The University of Southampton Business School is the first UK university to sign up with Riipen’s experiential learning platform, which offers online and flexible project-based work experience opportunities to post-secondary students. Southampton moved quickly to rapidly scale delivery. Instead of designing new courses, lecturers adapt existing modules where the learning outcomes and module content have already been validated, as have student expectations on assessment.

Partnering with Riipen enables Southampton to embed real-world projects within these modules, offer students virtual work experience placements as part of their degree, and connect students directly with employers from Riipen’s international network. Southampton is also using Riipen’s platform to engage with international offer holders, setting ‘challenges’ before their arrival on campus. This helps the students to start building their social networks and also cultivates an affinity with Southampton Business School; students can start building up their portfolios and receive meaningful feedback, with the intention that they arrive with validated skills in advance of beginning their formal degrees.

Another partnership is investigating the potential of microcredentials to solve this problem, using technology-enabled course co-creation with industry. Courses in digital skills, equivalent to postgraduate level, that have been co-created with industry can be taken online at FutureLearn, validated by Coventry University. Edtech startup FourthRev assists by enabling collaborations with technology leaders, including AWS, Salesforce, and Tableau, enabling learners to develop in-demand digital capabilities.

For Coventry University, microcredentials in digital skills are part of a wider accreditation framework. For learners, it’s a straightforward careers-focused proposition: the ability to learn new skills in a targeted, time-bound way that will provide an immediate impact either in their existing profession or for their ambition to move into a new role.

“A lot of our value is our ability to act as translators between universities and industry, to speak so both sides understand each other’s strategic goals, the sensitivities, and to do a lot of the heavy lifting so that we can facilitate employer-university collaboration at scale much more efficiently and effectively. It removes a lot of the blockers and time constraints of everyone starting from scratch every time. We can come with the core of a ready-made portfolio that brings up-to-date, high quality content, aligned to industry certifications and qualification frameworks, and a curriculum that speaks to specific skills gaps in the market, which can be switched on in as little as 12 weeks. “It isn’t going completely to one end of the pendulum and just being a pure industry-focused product training. It’s about developing those broader capabilities, which people trust universities to help them with. Universities will be central to solving the big capabilities gap that exists, but if they are going to play that core role and deliver on their mission in a world characterised by lifelong learning, then they need to increasingly have offers which are alongside their traditional undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and those offerings need to be focused on career outcomes.”

Jack Hylands, cofounder, FourthRev

🔮 Predictions

Across the three subcategories we outlined above, we see three overarching qualities coming to the fore:

  1. Networked → A more connected employability journey will use technology to scale up access to opportunities, so that those opportunities are no longer restricted by university size, location or a student’s existing social capital. Greater analytical insight into every step of the journey will make the transition from university to the workplace seamless not just for students, but for career advisers, recruiters and managers too. What does this look like?
  • Built on network effects: Maximising the opportunities available to students, regardless of the university they attend, by aggregating networks of large graduate recruiters, local SMEs, global remote employers and more, and making all of them available to any university. Technology platforms will drastically reduce the resources required to engage with these global networks, freeing up career services and graduate recruiters to support those students who need it most.
  • Boosting graduates’ personal networks: Mentoring opportunities will be made available and engaging to all, at university and in the workplace, so that every student has someone who can guide them and understands their lived experience.
  • Connected employability journey: The support received by students and graduates at each step of their journey towards meaningful careers will build on their earlier experiences. Information about their participation in employability-boosting activities will be available to employers in a common format, and data from the recruitment process will feed into the support that early career talent receives from managers and HR in the workplace.

2. Tailored → Job discovery, application, feedback and development will become more meaningful and less biased. Across the employability journey, technology will change education and recruitment practices to more closely fit individual employer needs and student aspirations.

  • Supporting meaningful careers Instead of a handful of graduate routes, the new employability journey will be built around facilitating graduates’ discovery of opportunities, careers, employers and job roles. Students’ understanding of their career choices will depend less on their existing social capital and instead will be shaped by their competences, experiences, interests and passions, with technology helping them to discover how they could pursue these. Technology will also help employers cope with large volumes of applicants by providing higher-quality feedback to thousands of applicants and sharing strong candidates with other employers, reducing the rate of ‘silent rejection’ and its adverse psychological effects while helping students discover new opportunities that are a better fit for them.
  • Future looking: University curricula will be based on a better understanding of future needs, not past performance, and government metrics will eventually follow suit. Universities and employers will work together more effectively to help students understand what the world of work is like, and support them to reflect on and articulate how their experience has helped them develop the necessary skills.
  • Meeting employer needs: Across the employability journey, technology will change education and recruitment practices to more closely fit individual employer needs. Assessment centres based on competencies specific to the company will be common to all organisations regardless of size, not just the large graduate recruiters who can afford the expense. There will be a ‘skills API’ — a common way of sharing information about skills and competencies that closes the gap between the languages of academia and the workplace.
  • Mitigating bias: Technology will make bias awareness training widespread and affordable. Where automation is used in the recruitment process, ethical use of algorithms will mean that they mitigate, rather than propagate, existing biases, ensuring fair assessment of performance on common tasks, not of ‘future potential’. Digital solutions will help remove common stumbling blocks — for example, making true anonymity of background possible.

3. Accessible → The employability ecosystem will meet students where they are, rather than depending on on-campus participation, and career support and progression will be embedded in the student experience.

  • Meeting students where they are: Employability support will not be dependent on physical presence. This shift will suit on-campus, fully online and blended learning students equally well. It will improve student buy-in and remove the unfairness inherent in the old model of on-campus participation, which many students (such as those with disabilities, caring responsibilities and so on) cannot or do not wish to join. On the employer side, virtual assessment centres will reduce recruitment process costs and open up wider pools of candidates. The experience will be cross-platform, adapted to the technology students use in their day-to-day life and not forcing them to jump through unnecessary and time-consuming hoops.
  • Embedded in the student experience: Career centres will no longer be a separate silo and technology providers will help universities and employers collaborate across the curriculum and every other part of the student experience, maximising the value each brings to the table. This will help demystify the world of work for students and set their expectations around the skills and attitudes required to succeed in it, improving engagement and student buy-in. The use of intermediary platforms (such as coding competitions) as an ‘anonymising’ layer between employer and student will help improve diversity in the workplace, with fewer students deterred from applying for positions that feel out of reach for them.
  • Providing targeted, informed support: Career services will be able to focus on high-value, high-touch activities to support the students who need it most. Data on participation in employability activities, improved training and greater personalisation of support will have a positive effect on underrepresented students’ employability prospects, as will opportunities to connect with mentors and peers who better understand their life experiences.

“Recent developments for medical universities open up the opportunity to have students learn by themselves at the pace, style and depth they require (as opposed to what the lecturers like). At the same time, this allows for universities to reflect on their role in the education of students — what their strengths are and what they should build upon — and could ultimately focus more on the innate but often neglected human abilities (such as empathy & communication for physicians).

From a general perspective, I also strongly see the case that if the knowledge transfer/retrieval part moves to digital, then universities would not have to be limited to a certain capacity or to a certain geography; the patient interaction could be accomplished with partner hospitals throughout the world, while the education happens online.”

Sievert Weiss, cofounder, AMBOSS and Emerge VP

🎯 Opportunities for startups

GenAI engines of opportunity for universities.

In this category, we see particular opportunities for AI-driven solutions that offer:

  • Employer-university collaboration → Problem: The problem with the bootcamp market is that it is tiny — perhaps $3B globally. It will never solve the skills gap because the mainstream consumer doesn’t want to spend $10k on a no-name bootcamp; they want a degree. However, universities will never solve the skills gap either, because they are too slow to innovate and create employer-aligned programmes. Solution: Work with employers and universities to build accredited programmes that are employer-aligned and provide the best of both worlds: the skills AND the university credential.
  • Real world job simulations to generate candidate pipeline → Solution: 1) Employer-tech-stack-linked lite bootcamps. 2) Scalable online mini-internships as a way of building talent pipeline. 3) OPM but with the employer as the brand rather than the university.
  • Job simulation assessment → Problem: Interviews are bad at predicting performance in role. Solution: A world where hiring is based on someone’s true skills and potential, not their CV and experience.
  • Career navigation tools → Problem: When it comes to career choices, we are still in the dark ages. Solution: Use AI to create better predictions of good fit career paths.

💎Tips for founders

“Higher education’s future will increasingly involve data analysis of usage and interactions. We can use student and faculty data to better support the learning process; this will be true overall, but particularly in online and digital environments which will keep growing. This will lead to a greater need for data privacy and questions about who owns the data.”

Sergio Abramovich, CEO Scala Learning and Emerge VP

There are a number of key areas where we see a role for technology in improving the career prospects of graduates, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds:

  1. Connecting students to volunteering, work placement, or micro-internship opportunities, locally or remotely
  2. Helping students discover and fully engage with experiences that have a proven impact on employability, such as extra-curricular activities or external mentoring
  3. Removing barriers to project-based learning
  4. Enabling delivery of curriculum components co-designed with employers
  5. Allowing employers to recruit, at scale, from wider networks of universities or to access candidates with particular characteristics
  6. Reducing individual bias at different stages of the recruitment process
  7. Testing candidates on current skills and future potential in areas most important to the particular employer
  8. Supporting the onboarding of early-career graduates and their development, particularly around leadership and soft skills

🔗 Read on

📣 Call to action

We are now building our list of the top emerging edtech companies in HE in 2024.

👇 If you have seen an exciting company in this space, please tell us in the comments 👇

Our list analyses 100s of companies operating worldwide, using public and private data — it is crowdsourced, and voted on by our Higher Education edtech advisory board, led by Mary Curnock Cook.

Please share companies you think we should consider in comments 👇and join us on 27 June to discover who has made the final list!

🙏 Thanks

At Emerge, we are on the look-out for companies (existing and new) that will shape the future of learning in higher education over the coming decade.

If you are a founder building a business addressing any of these challenges in HE, we want to hear from you. Our mission is to invest in and support these entrepreneurs right from the early stage.

If you are looking for your first cheque funding do apply to us here: . We look at everything as we believe in democratising access to funding (just as much as we believe in democratising access to education and skills).

Emerge is a community-powered seed fund home to practical guidance for founders building the future of learning and work. Since 2014, we have invested in more than 80 companies in the space, including Unibuddy, Cadmus, Engageli and Mentor Collective.

Emerge Education welcomes inquiries from new investors and founders. For more information, visit or email, and sign up for our newsletter here.

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NAXN — nic newman
Emerge Edtech Insights

I write about growth. From personal learning to the startups we invest in at Emerge, to where I am a NED, it all comes back to one central idea — how to GROW