A beginner’s guide to… Graduate Outcomes

HESPA's Sally Turnbull introduces a guide to interpreting and using Graduate Outcomes data.

The state of the graduate labour market has long piqued the nation’s interest. And never more so than now, in the midst of such unpredictable economic conditions.

The Graduate Outcomes survey is an important new source of information and the first set of results are released this week and next – the first experimental statistics from the new survey will be published on Thursday 18 June, followed by more detailed open data on 23 June.

To support good understanding and use of the data, the Higher Education Strategic Planners Association (HESPA) with support from HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency), has produced a handy guide. The guide offers a comprehensive summary of the Graduate Outcomes survey, the background to its inception, how its findings will be used and by whom.

What is Graduate Outcomes?

Graduate Outcomes is the latest iteration of surveys tracking the various interpretations of success of those leaving UK higher education and replaces the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. It was designed to address criticisms of the DLHE, such as the timing of the main survey – only six months after course completion – and the potential for inconsistency in data collection and coding that was possible in the methodology.

The new survey model has a number of fundamental differences in approach. Graduates are surveyed 15 months after course completion, allowing longer to secure meaningful employment. It is centrally delivered, quality checked and coded. The survey now includes questions focusing on graduates’ views on their activity, progress towards future goals and personal wellbeing, adding important context to the statistical information. It also gathers deeper insights into graduates’ pursuit of a range of career paths, such as developing creative portfolios.

Key differences

The richness of the data cannot easily be captured in headline statistics, but will serve a broad range of users including current and future students; staff and governors at universities and colleges; funding and regulatory bodies; and government departments. In all these contexts the following need to be considered:

  • This is new information: Graduate Outcomes is different from the DLHE, so results cannot be compared to see whether graduates from a particular institution or subject area are achieving better outcomes than previously.
  • Qualifications are important enabling factors, but not guarantees of success in the job market. Outcomes for individuals are shaped by multiple complex factors and the job they have at any point in time is the product of interactions between these.
  • Some courses have clear professional employment pathways. Some providers run a large number of such courses, others do not. Using headline percentages to compare success rates between HE providers needs to account for such effects.
  • Small numbers can have a big impact, particularly when turned into percentages. Where rates look particularly good (or bad) compared to other similar courses, it will be important to look at the actual numbers involved.
  • Two years have passed since those who took part in the first Graduate Outcomes survey completed their courses. The employment market varies significantly over time – the impact of Covid-19 on the number and range of job vacancies available to those graduating in the summer of 2020 is a stark illustration of this.

Who is it for?

For students, applicants and their parents, teachers and advisers, the most useful elements of these results are the information on the kinds of jobs that previous students have gone on to, and how well these match with their aspirations.

Higher Education providers will make extensive use of these results. Viewed alongside other evidence, these findings provide insights that can be applied beyond the obvious uses. They can inform work with local and national employers, shape initiatives with Local Enterprise Partnerships and inform lobbying of elected representatives and government. It is therefore important that Graduate Outcomes findings are understood widely across each provider, including by governors, senior leaders and managers.

Policymakers, funders, and regulators will use these results to inform strategic and policy decisions. Metrics are increasingly used in these contexts to identify areas of high and low performance and Graduate Outcomes data will be seen as an important indicator of the impact of higher education. Those seeking to use such metrics to drive rapid improvements need to remember the time-lags involved. If the results lead to the identification of new actions, it will take around three years before these start to show in survey results.

Researchers and journalists, particularly those who compile higher education league tables, will also have an interest in these results. Care should be taken to ensure that audiences are not misled, for example by emphasis placed on apparently large differences in percentage rates that are rooted in small numbers of respondents.

Graduate Outcomes provides the UK with a new and rich source of data on the graduate labour market that will grow and develop over time as further cohorts are surveyed and their experiences are added. Those wishing to make good use of the survey findings are urged to look beyond the headlines and engage with the data in an informed and considered way.

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