John Sawkins, Deputy Principal at Heriot-Watt University, used a phrase at this weeks QAA’s 25th anniversary debate that has been bouncing around my brain ever since:
Higher education is a process masquerading as an outcome
It resonated with me because an outcomes-based approach to regulation elides the two without acknowledging the tension. To borrow an idea from the freedom of speech debate (surely another example of a process, not an outcome!) the process of higher education is often as complex and knotty as a personal experience – beyond even the “student experience” as popularly ventriloquised in policy debates – and the idea that these contradictions are magically resolved on graduation day is not one that convinces me.
I’ve been thinking about this while pulling together analyses and visualisations of the 2019-20 Graduate Outcomes data released by HESA. Graduate Outcomes is the “gold standard” output measure – surveying graduates around 15 months after they complete their courses, and capturing information on activity, employment skill level, salary, and wellbeing.
Graduating into a new world
On a process level these are graduates who completed their course in the summer of 2020 – the brief gap (remember “super saturday”?) between the first two lockdowns. These aren’t the people who suffered through the hall isolations, but they would have been the first to take assessments entirely online and see the widespread mitigations applied to marks for final modules.
They emerged into a world of graduate employment unlike any that had been experienced in living memory. Just 48 per cent completed the survey in full – the with partial completions at around 52 per cent. But in her briefing note, HESA’s reliably superb Lucy Van Essen-Fishman notes that this slice of graduates (emerging into a pandemic) has very slightly better outcomes 15 months on than those surveyed after 15 months during the pandemic, last year. As she puts it:
We expected to see more noticeable effects of the pandemic in the 2019/20 data than we saw in the previous year, now that we were looking at a full year of graduates surveyed during the pandemic, some of whom graduated into the first national lockdown. On the whole, however, that was not the case.
An abnormal normal?
“Normal” isn’t a word that is easy to use when it comes to Graduate Outcomes. The first collection of any data is problematic, and we followed them with two “asterisk years” involving graduates responding during or working throughout a global pandemic. But when we plot results over this short time series, “normal” is – unexpectedly – the word that springs to mind. And yet.
This plot shows “full time employment” as a default – you can look at any outcome using the filter at the top, and select graduate background characteristics of interest using the filter next to it. At the bottom you can filter further by interim study, domicile, provider type, and type of study.
Though graduates from state schools are slightly more likely to be in full time employment this year (after two years of the two groups moving in lockstep), the difference between state school and private school backgrounds in further study has risen to five percentage points – something that we very much need to keep an eye on. That same further study gap is visibly growing if you look at POLAR4 or socio-economic groups as well.
Grade inflation moral panic corner
The 2019-20 graduating year saw a huge increase in the number of first class degrees awarded, from 28 per cent the previous year up to 35 per cent. This brought forth the usual torrent of concern that the very idea of a “first” has been devalued and employers would be reluctant to appoint graduates with these “unmerited” qualifications.
Today’s data shows that this didn’t actually happen. Fifty-six per cent of first class honours graduates found full time employment in 2018-19 – in 2019-20 the figure was… fifty-six per cent. Maybe it was the process all along.
Subject of inquiry
In 2019-20 as a graduate you were more likely to be employed if you studied medical or healthcare related subjects as an undergraduate. Not unreasonable during a pandemic, you may be thinking – though it was pretty much the same last year.
But what I am struggling to explain is that you are almost certainly most likely to be unemployed if you studied computing.
“Learn to code” is the common response from ministers, regulators, and the techbro-industrial complex to graduate unemployment – but it feels like all those scholarships, conversion courses, and bootcamps may be bumping up against the ceiling of employer and sector demand.
What about “skilled work” where graduates are working? Using the very basic top level SOC groups (where anything in the top three groups is skilled and anything outside is non-graduate drudgery) studying psychology – which avid wonkhe readers may recall is a key means of fulfilling future skills demands – is more likely than the consistently disparaged creative arts to lead to unskilled work for undergraduates. Biological sciences isn’t far off either.
Wellbeing and purpose
Already, we’ve largely stopped talking about what a disquieting time the heat of the pandemic was. Couple this with the stresses of making your way in the world as a young graduate and many people have rightly begun to worry about the mental health of young people.
Generally we are not seeing huge differences among graduates in full time employment or further study – similar proportions are enthused by the meaning of their activity, are using their new knowledge and skills, and feeling a fit with future skills. For unemployed graduates we see a gradual improvement in happiness over last year – a sample that may well have included many who suddenly lost what was feeling like a promising job.
However in the ONS general wellbeing questions self-reported anxiety has risen among those employed full time, and feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, and low worth are becoming more prevalent. Anxiety is rising even more sharply among the unemployed – with 45 per cent in this group reporting high anxiety compared to 38 per cent of those in further study and 30 per cent among the full-time employed.
A process story
If you were going to pick an aspect of these figures to shape regulatory interventions it would need to be the high and growing reported rates of anxiety, though we should note that at the height of the pandemic (late March 2020) 50 per cent of young adults and 40 per cent of all adults reported high anxiety, this fell to 41 per cent of young adults and 34 per cent of all adults by late march 2021.
Why are graduates more anxious than their peers? It feels to me that this, too, is a process issue – and needs a more thoughtful approach that thinks about the student experience and the experiences faced by those entering the graduate job market rather than seeing being a graduate itself as a key factor.
Being a graduate is not a binary state – arguably the certificate and the silly hat is a single visible point in a personal journey that, at points, makes a person anxious as previously unavailable possibilities and potential becomes tantalisingly visible. That whole journey – rather than just where you end up 15 months after you leave – needs more analysis, and the sector needs to rid itself of this unhelpful obsession with arbitrary early gains and the narrative of failure that appears when ministers appear in your media claiming your degree is pointless and your success is unmerited.