At the Student Mental Health Summit in June Sam Gyimah announced the development of a new charter as part of the emerging and very welcome focus on students and their wellbeing.
Earlier that month, the minister also furthered the narrative on graduate earnings – arguing that those courses with graduates entering low paid jobs were a “problem for the taxpayer”. Given these two themes, is now the time to give much greater consideration to graduate wellbeing and happiness alongside earnings?
Future earnings are undoubtedly an important consideration for many students and their families. Students at university in receipt of excellent teaching (as well as access to additional support) continue to enter well-paid jobs – with career earnings remaining ahead of the national mean. Gyimah explained: “Courses where students tend not to earn graduate salaries after graduation account for a disproportionate share of the costs to the public purse of the student loans system”. However, we must not forget there are many jobs in public services requiring degree-level qualifications that have state regulated salaries that fall below those the minister might consider to be at a graduate level.
Universities should challenge the simplistic notion that a graduate in a high-paid job a small number of years after graduation is the mark of success. If graduates feel pressured to follow a path that does not make them happy and which might increase their anxiety, shouldn’t we ask about our measures of success?
Life satisfaction and wellbeing
Policymakers are already comfortable linking graduate earnings to where they studied. Perhaps the same should be done with their more general life satisfaction. The upcoming Graduate Outcomes Survey will ask the four classic wellbeing questions designed by the ONS. But it is doubtful how meaningful the data will be given graduates will be asked these questions only just over a year after completing university. Those months are a period of great change when graduates might be expected to feel uncertain or anxious about their future.
Universities and employers should, of course, work with students to ease this transition, but asking these questions three or five years after graduation may attract very different responses.
Current assumptions are that graduates with high-life satisfaction are less likely to put pressure on public services and more likely to remain in work and contribute positively to society. Indeed, analysis of ONS data conducted by HEFCE last year found that graduates tend to be more satisfied with their lives than non-graduates.
There are many different factors which affect life satisfaction. Such wellbeing data would provide an additional element to the focus on earnings and help to challenge some of the assumptions which are becoming embedded into the way universities are measured.
Interpreting earnings and wellbeing
However, we should be cautious – a richer data picture is useful only if it is interpreted properly. Incorrect conclusions can be drawn and perverse incentives produced if data is be used for the purposes of accountability rather than insight. At a time of considerable concern about the rise in mental ill health, this is surely an opportunity for a considered and thoughtful response.
The wellbeing data of graduates many years after they have completed their studies will also tell us as much about the sectors they have entered as the performance of their universities. The same could also be said about the earnings data. Yet universities could (and should) analyse of the data to consider their own approaches, including working with students to develop resilience and confidence to help them approach workplace challenges while taking the narrow focus off just earnings.
Of course, no indicator or metric should be looked at in isolation.
Graduates and universities are increasingly measured by narrow definitions of worth. Like the students we shape, universities endeavour to demonstrate a contribution to society – it is our purpose, our history and our present.