Graduate outcomes aren’t only about earnings

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?

Graduate 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.

3 responses to “Graduate outcomes aren’t only about earnings

  1. A timely and important contribution!

    A particular issue for me is how graduates in creative disciplines such as art & design, music and performance fare. They score very poorly in terms of graduate salaries from the LEO data, although this is partly methodological because of the current exclusion of self-employed from LEO and due to the nature of a portfolio career being harder to track rather than ‘single-job’ through ‘point in time’ survey methods rather than wider measures.

    However such graduates may be more likely to score highly on satisfaction, mindfulness and wellbeing (though the struggle to pay the rent is another factor for wide numbers of young graduates), and the benefits of this need to be balanced against the dominant narrative from UK government that emphasises a business-related ‘return on investment’ of loans, rather than a balanced contribution to societal development overall.

  2. You’re absolutely right that graduate outcomes aren’t only about earnings. In fact, a close reading of the Success as a Knowledge Economy 2016 White Paper indicates that the full roll call of referents discursively linked to outcomes is: degree classification, course completion, value for money, graduate employment, graduate earnings, amount of teaching, quality of teaching, academic challenge, student satisfaction, retention rates and finally, contact hours. And who knows – one day they may even feel able to add in the Holy Grail of learning gain as well. Always good to create confusion, so the goal posts can always be kept moving. Just in case one of those less-favoured universities should ever attain ‘excellence’ in graduate outcomes.

  3. There are limitations to the inferences that can be drawn from the Subjective Wellbeing Questions, as the article rightly says. This was something raised regularly in the original consultation responses.

    It is worth looking at the Graduate Voice questions (section G: “Reflection on activity to date” at https://www.hesa.ac.uk/files/Graduate_Outcomes_survey_questions.pdf) which have been the subject of extensive development and testing, and have received strong support from a range of stakeholders in the data – including students themselves.

    For the first time we will hear an alternative perspective on the experiences of graduates – whether they consider the work (or study or other activity) they are doing is meaningful or important; whether they are using the skills they developed in HE, and whether they are on track for their future plans.

    The Graduate Voice question set will likely lead to a better understanding of how graduates themselves perceive their outcomes to date, and the judgements they make about them. Correlating this new information with factors like salary, industry, occupation and location will improve debate and public information tremendously (as well as being fascinating in its own right).

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