Human capital: let’s talk about graduate outcomes

The ongoing review of graduate outcomes data being conducted by HESA will shortly be going out to consultation – and there’s certainly a lot to discuss. It’s particularly timely given the recent release of the long-anticipated IFS report on graduate earnings from the team headed by Professor Anna Vignoles.

The paper itself is highly significant for establishing the feasibility of using linked datasets to examine graduate earnings over a longer term than had been previously possible, and it is clear that in the current policy climate this will be welcomed. Some of the findings are unexceptional. The fact that male arts graduates do not always enjoy the best job prospects is a topic that has been under discussion for decades. In Leonard Schwartz’ 2004 paper for The Historical Journal, Professions, Elites and Universities in England 1870-1970, he notes in his examination of the outcomes of graduates from Midlands universities that in 1922, “Only one Arts graduate went near industry, and then only as a rail clerk” . Certainly, the popular public perception of the artist does not have them in garrets surrounded by piles of cash. This finding is unlikely to deter would-be artists already aware that the profession is often not well paid.

Some findings, however, are important when we look at them in context of what we need to know about graduates. The section on individual institutions comes with the warning that the differences between local labour markets are crucial influences on graduate earnings by institution and dilute the impact of salary metrics on institutions comparison. Understanding local graduate labour markets will be a crucial part of future regional and national economic policy, especially with a devolutionary agenda now embedded in discourse.

And even more importantly, the paper’s findings on the effects of background on future salaries are a stark reminder that the university system cannot overturn centuries of national class politics and give us complete social mobility in a handful of years. There is still a very great deal to do.

Although the IFS paper has received much attention, it was not the only recent report of significance in this area. The UK Commission for Employment and Skills new ‘Working Futures’ report delivered UK labour market projections to 2024. The report projects that between 2014 and 2024, the economy will need over 5 million more university graduates and postgraduates.

Working Futures bookends another piece of research from the UKCES, that came out earlier in the year. The Employer Skills Survey (ESS) is an in-depth survey of the labour force of 95,000 UK businesses. The ESS provides detailed insight into the areas of significant recruitment and retention difficulty experienced by employers as the labour market recovers from recession. ESS data shows how many graduate vacancies, from surveying, through software development, to business sales and marketing are becoming increasingly hard to fill and how that affects business.

With this backdrop of significant and increasing economic demand for graduates, another important lesson from the IFS report is about the limitations of salary as a metric. The findings are of tremendous value in helping to fill the yawning information gap about the kind of career trajectories graduates follow in the years after university, and the report will be a vital foundation to much important future work.

But the research team caution that labour market and social background are amongst the factors that have a strong effect on salary data. And labour projections show that the economy will need graduates in all kinds of roles in all parts of the country, not just the best-paid in London. The use of salary as an overriding metric runs the risk of it becoming merely a proxy measure of the affluence of the student intake and local labour market. A system that rewards institutions that take the children of management consultants and turns them, in turn, into management consultants is probably not working as effectively as it should.

That’s why HESA’s forthcoming consultation on graduate outcomes is timely and important. It will our opportunity to have a wide, loud, vigorous public debate about what successful outcomes ought to look like, what they can tell us, and how we might measure them – or even if we should. How useful is the idea of a graduate job? Does it vary by industry, or location? Should we consider local social and economic contexts? When should graduates be surveyed (many will be delighted to hear that we’re probably moving away from six months as the main survey point). What do students want and expect from their university and do they get it?

These are some of the questions that will be raised in the consultation and they’ll help us get closer to a more effective examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the sector, and to give a clearer view to prospective students of what they might expect from their choice of university. Students, institutions and policy alike will always be interested in salary information, but we have the chance to plan a richer diet of data, and that can and should improve the eternal debate about what makes a good university. There is a prize to be won.

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