Friday, 17 February 2012

The career advice scandal

How Imperial's Careers Advisory Service has been effectively privatised.

In my inbox last week, I received 12 emails from banks. “Come to our networking event!”, “Join our Graduate Recruitment scheme!”, “Apply for an internship!” For many students this would not be a problem, but for me it is. You see, I never wanted to be a banker, a consultant or a financier; I didn't seek the bland, high-earning, suit-wearing, BMW-driving life of the City worker. But with its daily banking emails, its entirely corporate careers fairs and its finance-focussed careers “guides”, life at Imperial started to alter my perceptions from my very first day.

For several months I completely forgot that jobs like teaching, journalism or charity work existed at all. Whenever I thought a non-corporate thought, another banking email or careers fair would come to the rescue to cleanse the dirty thought from my brain. I'm not sure when it occurred to me that I had been a victim of corporate marketing bollocks, but when I realised what had happened I was furious, and I decided to do some research. Here is the result: the story of how Imperial's Careers Advisory Service (CAS) has become susceptible to the influence of wealthy corporations.

The barrage of banking emails I receive, it turns out, are one of the services the College offers to businesses. Through a scheme called “targeted emailing”, the college charges money to companies, and in exchange they can send me an email. “Decide on the students you wish to target,” instructs a college webpage, followed by a price list: £100 will buy you one email to 300 students.

But there is more. A £1,000 donation will buy your company a dinner with Imperial's careers advisors, membership to a club, and as a bonus, a 20% discount on 3 “targeted emails”. The club in question allows companies to "to invest in the future development of the Careers Advisory Service." An undisclosed sum of money will enable your company to position its stall at the entrance to a careers fair, so you can attract (or distract) more students than your competitors.

There are just four sector-specific careers fairs from which we can choose: Engineering, Technology, Science, and Banking. Sure, Imperial's students are scientists, but is there any reason that we shouldn't work for charities, as teachers or as journalists? We are thousands of students with a huge variety of aspirations, and yet a solitary TeachFirst stall is our only non-corporate option. At each fair a flat fee (£300 at the Science fair, for instance) is charged to all stallholders, whether wealthy oil company or struggling voluntary organisation. Hence why not one charity is to be seen amongst the hoards of finance and consultancy firms: they just can't afford to come to these fairs.

Naturally, it would be useful to know how much money the CAS receives from the College, but such information is not publicly available (we are currently awaiting the results of a Freedom of Information request). Regardless, it appears that Careers Advisory Service, which claims to provide “varied and comprehensive careers guidance,” receives little funding and must make up the rest with advertising. But this has an obvious negative effect. When asked, a second year chemist said “I don't want to go into finance, but there doesn't seem to be much else,” a sentiment I know to be shared by a great many students.

What we have here is a careers service which, because of its apparent corporate bias, changes students' perceptions of the jobs market and seems to force them towards lives they don't want to lead. In other words, it creates a sense of inevitability about working in the financial sector. Compare our CAS with that of Cambridge University. There are no donations and dinners; charities and journalism each have separate careers fairs; charities get free stalls, less wealthy companies get cheaper stalls and only rich companies pay the full price. Comprehensive, varied and unbiased: that is how to run a careers advisory service. (It is not perfect though, Cambridge also uses a form of targeted emailing).

Meanwhile the situation at Imperial is going to get worse. The Government's Higher Education White Paper insists that Universities must do more to promote “employer sponsorship” in order to “make the UK the best place in the world for university-industry collaboration.” I struggle to see how Imperial could do more to promote sponsorship, though maybe it will start awarding corporate-sponsored degrees, as the same piece of legislation recommends. University, it seems, will soon be not about education but rather producing a steady stream of workers for large companies. With our CAS behaving as it does, I fear that this process is already beginning at Imperial.

But the current situation is more than enough to get angry about: our Careers Advisory Service has been effectively privatised. Universities should react and respond to the demands of students, not those of big business. It is time for the College to ask itself what career advice is actually for. It ought to direct students into happy and fulfilling lives but it seems to merely act as advertising for the richest corporations. The College must provide the CAS with enough funding to perform its job in an impartial way, otherwise it will fall far short of its aims: career advice should open students' eyes to the endless options they have in front of them, but at Imperial it has precisely the opposite effect.

UPDATE (2/3/12): Since this article was published some important changes have been made to the CAS. An “unsubscribe” option is now included at the bottom of careers emails, something that was absent beforehand. Moreover, a new “Internships” fair has been introduced which will provide all stalls free of charge, though any company can attend this fair, not just charities and small businesses. These recent changes go some way to addressing the concerns of myself and a large number of similarly minded students, though there is much to be done to fix the problems. 

UPDATE (2/3/12): I have been informed that Cambridge University does in fact have a system very similar to Imperial's "targeted emailing". Information about it is here. Interestingly, they charge a lot more than Imperial does.


  1. I would be interested to know the legality of our details being sold in this way. Is this a legitimate practice? Have we opted-in? If we did opt-in, was anyone actually aware of it? It's an interesting thought that just by attending university somewhere you become a commodity they can sell without your consent.

  2. Some good points, there is definitely not enough variety in the career options presented to us by the careers service.

    "the college [are] effectively selling my contact information to any company who can afford it"
    They are actually just forwarding emails on behalf of companies, not selling your details (thankfully). These companies cannot contact you directly in the future.

    You repeatedly use the word 'profit' to refer to the revenues the careers service collects, but you don't seem to have any evidence that their costs are (significantly) lower than these revenues. It seems the careers service receives little money from the College, which means that what you call profit is actually what funds the whole existence of the service.

    Of course it would be great if College entirely funded the service, but let's be realistic. Even you admit that Cambridge also charges companies for careers fair stands, yet somehow this isn't referred to as 'profit'. What I do agree with you on is that the fees the careers service charge should be progressive: you're right that banks should not be asked to pay the same amount as charities, or small businesses.

    @Peter, as you're using the College's email service, I'm pretty sure they don't have to seek your permission to email you!

    1. "They are actually just forwarding emails on behalf of companies". Yes, true, that's why I said "effectively". From my perspective there is no difference between them actually selling my contact information and them charging money to forward emails to me. Legally they are different things but they have exactly the same effect. Either way, there should really be an opt-in system for these emails, or no emails at all.

      "It seems the careers service receives little money from the College". Not sure how true this is, I have requested to see some documents which might reveal the answer. If they receive very little money then either (a) the College should give them more or (b) they should charge more from banks, oil companies etc so they can subsidise charities, and other less wealthy industries. Otherwise "Careers Advisory Service" is a complete misnomer because it's not a service at all.

  3. Surely you can just set up some rules in Exchange to block all that crap though?

  4. Before seeing this (but after you posted it), I submitted a freedom of information request to college to find out the revenue of the CAS, which will hopefully be itemised. Those figures legally have to be returned to me before 13th March. I am sure that, once I have received them, they will somehow appear in Felix.

    With regards to the legality of it (and opt-in/opt-out) - emails sent as an advertising mailing list are legally required to have an "unsubscribe" link. However, since Imperial is only sending these emails to your college account (rather than other addresses they hold on file) I imagine that it would count as internal mail. As such, it probably doesn't come under the same rules. After all, college "own" your Imperial inbox so they can, in effect, do anything they want with it (including close it down when you leave college). It would be more transparent if the CAS identified which bits of the emails were "sponsored".

    I understand the point about funding - a self-funding careers service does make a lot of sense - but this shouldn't be at the expense of "genuine" advice for students. That includes providing details of jobs with businesses who can't afford to pay Imperial hundreds or thousands of pounds on the off-chance they might find someone to work for them. As such, I have also requested details of how much exposure a firm can get at Imperial before they have to start paying money to the CAS.

    Watch this space...

  5. CAS are the least of my worries, sponsored emails from societies (looking at the Mountaineering club and Dept. Computing socs here...) are also pretty annoying!
    The situation has become ridiculous this year - I can't remember it being so bad in the past.

  6. I emailed the CAS a while ago about this as I wanted to go into an arts or NGO job. This was their response:

    Many thanks for your email. At this time of year all the major companies are taking applications for graduate training schemes with closing dates usually between the end of October and the end of November so inevitably our activities and information at this time of year is skewed toward this type of company. However you will find, particularly in relation to the Lunchtime Careers Talk programme that we do cover a very wide range of career options. Recruitment into smaller companies, public sector or the not for profit sector is often done on much more ad hoc basis and on a much lower budget so these organisations do not tend to have on-campus events in the same way as the large corporates. That is not to say that we do not have links with these smaller companies, we have a very extensive database of over 4500 employers who place vacancies with us many of whom are SMEs. In addition we have an extensive careers library covering all occupational areas which students use to as reference material and signposting on to other sources of information. Having said that this is a science and engineering intuition where the vast majority of students wish to pursue careers within the sector or within finance or management and so that is where the bulk of our resourcing is aimed.
    Good luck with your application.