by Andrew Hamilton

As higher education is squeezed year on year, how can students give themselves the extra edge they need?

University can be a rough ride. In just four years students often determine their next four decades. If they fail, an unfulfilling career and debts now in excess of £50,000 may await.

The numbers make for grim reading. In the last academic year male graduates of 23 universities earned less than those who had not gone on to pursue any higher education.

Universities handed control of 50% of student halls of residence to external contractors. Those outside of halls didn’t fare much better – students in London paid a whopping £226 in rent every week. So how can students turn the tables? In tough times, how can prospective graduates ensure that they are giving themselves the best possible chance at employment?

Co-curricular schemes such as work placements or gap years are the answer. They can offer prospective graduates a sneak-peek into the field they are hoping to enter, and also help to develop both practical and interpersonal skills.

Internships are particularly handy. Many of these programmes can be found in Scotland’s fastest growing practical industries, such as technology, engineering and mathematics. Scotland’s IT sector is increasing at a rate of 11,000 jobs a year, according to Pete Swift, Head of Research for the tech-media company Digit.

“There are skills shortages across a number of disciplines, including web developers, data analysts and cyber security personnel.”

These shortages mean that many positions require an extra edge. This is something a practical internship can help with.

Pete also notes that the networking opportunities provided by some work experiences can often help students, “get their foot in the door” of an organisation or industry: a sort of employment queue-jump.

The nub is that every advantage is needed. A graduate with nothing else to offer is a concern for employers, claims Jamie Fraser, Managing Director of Wild Packs Summer Camps. He believes that a student’s best bet lies in developing their interpersonal skills.

Every year, Wild Packs offers around  2,000 students the unique opportunity to work in a multitude of roles in a Stateside summer children’s camp.

“Say for example 20,000 students graduate in marketing this year, there might only be 10,000 jobs available. You simply need to be different because 90% of students have nothing more to offer.”

Jamie believes that pushing his candidates beyond their comfort zones is of a greater benefit than a standard careers interview.

“If I’m a prospective employer, I need you to show me something personal, something genuine. Show me where you’ve left your comfort zone. Where you’ve failed and what lessons you’ve learned.”

A varied skillset distinguishes driven candidates. With university and the economy in such a state of flux, these opportunities can give students those precious ever-elusive guarantees.