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The rise of portfolio careers, and what that means for higher education

by Emily Owen | Nov 6, 2023 | Strategy & Transformation

Change is a concept not unfamiliar to many colleagues working in the higher education sector. Whether it concerns regulation, rankings, or the financial landscape, change is perhaps one of the few constants we are likely to see. And for all the frustrations it causes, change can be a good thing – it can help us innovate, find creative solutions, and refresh our services like never before. The rise in popularity of the portfolio career is a good example of changing trends in higher education.

Consumer needs are evolving within higher education. The traditional journey undertaken by the typical undergraduate – who may study a three-year course and perhaps pursue a postgraduate qualification straight afterwards – just doesn’t fit the bill for everybody. Universities advocating for equal opportunities and diverse student recruitment may need to think about the type of opportunities they offer their potential students.

A closer look at portfolio careers

In the UK, the idea of the graduate embarking on a career path in their early twenties and climbing up one neatly linear ladder of promotions no longer feels relevant. We may keep our feet firmly rooted in one sector, one industry, or one specialism, but the likelihood of doing this in the same company with the same colleagues or in the same type of role is not the reality for most people.

For many, this is intentional – as humans we change, evolve, and grow, even if our surroundings do not. For those who commit to one job role and imagine a linear path of progression, the reality of a transitioning economy and a changing skills landscape means standing still is not always an option.

To meet these demands, students, graduates, and early or mid-career employees are embracing “The rise of the portfolio career”. It is a phrase dominating much of the discourse around future skills and the advent of new technologies in the workplace, such as those relating to artificial intelligence. Loosely put, it refers to a career made up of multiple roles taken on for shorter periods of time – the opposite of a career spanning graduate entry through to retirement in the same company.

With this sociological trend, shaped by technological advances, transitions in the UK economy, and empowerment in skill transferability, comes a new demand from students. A range of courses is needed that can be picked up later in life, provide micro-credentials to help an experienced professional hop across industries, and can be sympathetic to the demands of full-time employment.

They may come in all shapes and sizes, from MOOC-style (Massive Open Online Course) programmes offering introductions to a new sector, to part-time postgraduate programmes that can be studied wholly online.

Getting ahead of the curve

It isn’t just the human desire for growth and flexibility that has made the portfolio career so popular. At times, it has also been borne of economic necessity or responses to a changing labour market. The recently published NHS Long Term Workforce Plan, for example, shows how flexibilities in a university education can contribute to a more talented, higher quality, and sustainable national healthcare system. The areas it explores include the recognition of experiential learning to contribute to a degree, the introduction of medical degree apprenticeships, and the growth of a digital workforce.

It is important that universities consider their own position in relation to flexible, non-traditional, or fully online methods of acquiring a university education. Whilst UCAS projects that application numbers could reach a million in a single year by 2030, suggesting that the post-18 undergraduate market will continue to dominate HE, there may be an additional demographic to capture.

Continuous and flexible education is recognised by the UK Government’s Lifelong Learning Bill consultations, which seek to provide people with financial means to learn, retrain, and upskill during the course of their lives.

Short-term and later-in-life courses are being offered by universities including Glasgow, Kent (in partnership with Future Learn), and Birmingham. Providers highlight the benefits of self-defined schedules, networking, and access to academic support.

The equality argument for non-traditional HE pathways

Regardless of the wider economic situation or the characteristics of a modern labour market, there are also many compelling personal arguments for non-traditional HE routes.

For those with caring responsibilities, for example, a self-directed online course with no schedule commitments may be ideal. For a neurodiverse student, learning in bite-sized modular increments may be more manageable. And for those from socioeconomic backgrounds where higher education opportunities are not abundant, a degree may be pursued later in life – perhaps via a remote learning environment which feels more comfortable than an on-campus experience.

There may also be significant opportunities for universities in the global space; offering international students a high-quality and globally recognised qualification without the need for relocation where other responsibilities or immigration policies, for example, may restrict them.

Universities must adapt and innovate to maintain a compelling offer to prospective students – but the characteristics of the “student” may also expand and evolve over the coming years. The power of higher education is significant, and its consequences can be transformative for many. When people are offered flexibility in how they are consuming education, they may feel most empowered.

Halpin is the home of experts in Higher Education and works across Strategy, Fundraising, Governance, and People and Culture. If you would like to learn more about how we can support you, get in touch.