Do employment metrics measure up?

Employment metrics are of massive importance to universities. Students are entrusting a huge investment to the institution they choose and they rightly expect certain things in return: one of those things is good and long-term employment prospects.

However, the DLHE, and now Graduate Outcomes, only measure employment as a snapshot, and neither gives an indication of anything beyond the census point (previously six months under DLHE and now 15 months under Graduate Outcomes).

Seen from this angle, the much criticised LEO metrics make more sense; they seek to measure whether graduates are in sustained employment (in paid employment for at least five months in a defined six month period) and the proportion of graduates earning above the median salary threshold (compared to 25-29 year olds). There has been plenty of criticism of LEO on these pages, and more recently by the Universities and Science Minister, and understandably so, but the genesis of it at least makes some sense.

The dangers of over-focusing on the metrics

No one who heads up careers/employability in any UK university can afford to take their eye off the Graduate Outcomes ball. But the responsible and shrewd thing to do is to keep a firm eye on the relevant metrics, while at the same time trying to do the right thing for our students, regardless of the metrics. That’s because over-focus on the employment metrics comes with significant risks.

It breeds short-termism

The first reason is that it breeds short-termism. DLHE, and even more so since Graduate Outcomes, are lagging measures, which take a long time to feed into the league tables and the TEF. For instance, the most recent round of TEF (TEF4, the results of which were published in June) used the 2014/15, 2015/16 and 2016/17 DLHE measures for the highly skilled employment or higher study metric. We don’t know for sure yet what data TEF5 will use for this metric, but presumably it will be the 2017/18 Graduate Outcomes cohort. With cohort D still to go (by far the largest of the four courts for most universities), the quickest way to influence the employment metrics for TEF5, providing the previous assumption is correct, is to focus support on those who graduated in July 2018.

Focusing on the most recent graduating cohort will inevitably divert resources away from existing students. That’s not to say resources shouldn’t be provided to support graduates. Those who still need support to find appropriate work after they have graduated are probably much more receptive to such help than they were when they were students and it’s important that this new found receptiveness is capitalised on. Having said that, such an approach should be considered very much a safety net (there for emergencies if required) rather than routine. The danger is that over-resourcing of the safety net leads to under-resourcing of early engagement, which leads to more finalists and graduates needing the safety net. And it’s easy to see how such a cycle of activity is a bad long-term strategy.

It reduces satisfaction

Secondly, it looks like encouraging short-termism reduces satisfaction (admittedly I’ve only looked at the University of Bristol data in relation to this but there’s an interesting piece of potential research here). This conclusion is drawn from tracking the same cohort across two different datasets: the career planning question that we ask as part of the registration process each year, and part of the national Careers Registration project, and the DLHE’s “why did you take the job?” question (something that I’ve written about previously on Wonkhe: ‘What about graduate satisfaction?’). The career planning question asks “What stage are you up to in your career planning?” The answers are multi-choice and range from “I’m not ready to start thinking about my career yet” to “I have already secured the opportunity I want when I graduate”. We then group the 10 possible responses into three broad categories or stages:

  • Explore – those who haven’t yet decided what they want to do;
  • Develop – those who are developing the skills and experience to get to what they want to do;
  • Compete – those who are actively applying for roles.

An initial look at the data (n=1,372) indicates a pattern:

  • Of those choosing the most positive response, “it fitted into my career plan/it was exactly the type of work I wanted” as their main reason for taking the job, a larger proportion (44%) were in the “compete” stage at the beginning of their final year, whereas a smaller proportion (35%) were still in the “explore” stage;
  • Of those choosing the most negative response, “in order to earn a living/pay off debts” as the main reason for taking the job, a smaller proportion (19%) were in the “compete” stage at the beginning of their final year, whereas a larger proportion (51%) were still in the “explore” stage.

So students who are further along with their career planning at the beginning of their final year are more likely to give a positive response to the “why did you take the job?” question, and those who are less far along with their career planning at the beginning of their final year are more likely to give a negative response.

It can negatively impact wellbeing

Finally, an over-focus on employment metrics can negatively impact student wellbeing. Encouraging students to think about what they want to do when they graduate only in the latter stages of their degrees overloads their final year and discourages them from taking advantage of the support and opportunities available to them. It also makes it more difficult for them to have a clearer sense of direction and purpose in relation to future career at an earlier stage. Trying to juggle a final year project and final exams and job applications and interviews, all in the space of a few overcrowded months invariably leads to a huge amount of stress. It’s much better to spread the load over a longer period by encouraging early engagement. Not only that, as Pete Robinson from Edinburgh Napier University pointed out in this insightful article on the role career guidance can play in supporting mental health:

“Like any kind of one-to-one help, career guidance provides a safe space to share worries and concerns. It helps people to review and recognise their strengths, injects hope by giving them a sense of their possible study and work options, and motivates and equips them to take action. Career guidance can help you figure out who you are, what your goals are, and how to get there – and this kind of clarity can act as a buffer against stress and uncertainty.”

All of which is difficult to cram into a last-minute dash at the end of your degree.

A purpose-driven approach

Clearly, graduates who still need help to find appropriate employment should be supported by their university (and many if not most university careers services provide such support for graduates), but the above points highlight some of the risks of shifting focus too much to the graduate end of the journey. Chasing employment metrics for their own sake risks doing our students a significant disservice. Instead we need to be purpose-driven in our approach whilst at the same time being metric-informed, and that means not letting the understandable focus on the metrics undermine the early engagement required to ensure that our students and graduates flourish over the long-term.

One response to “Do employment metrics measure up?

  1. Interesting article as usual, Stuart. Speaking as the leader of the national Careers Registration project to which you refer, I can say that the relationship between advanced career thinking as measured by Careers Registration and graduate success as measured by “Graduate Prospects” (graduate level outcomes at six months) has been seen in several institutions, but your use of the DLHE “why did you take the job” question is a really interesting addition. Those of us who lead on these matters in HE should seek to ensure that our institutional communities never lose sight of the Career part of “Careers and Employability.” Career is personal to the individual and translates all the knowledge and skills acquisition into meaningful outcomes. As you point out, we know that Careers Registration gives us leading indicators that we can use to support early and appropriate engagement. Let’s hope that the Graduate Outcomes Survey produces a useful lagging indicator through the “graduate voice” questions.

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