Graduate Outcomes: necessity is the mother of invention

The dust has settled on the final Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) Survey, with the sector delivering impressive growth of upwards of a 2% increase in positive destinations.

Plans are now well underway at institutions across the UK to develop new strategies and initiatives to deliver a strong performance in the new centralised Graduate Outcomes survey at the more longitudinal 15-months census point.

Changes to the pilot subject-level Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) methodology include the use of Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data,  and an increased focus on the Highly Skilled Employment metric. The other DLHE metric – which simply measures if the graduate is any form of employment – will be dropped. This represents further significant relocations of the employability goalposts.

As already seen with the TEF, new performance measures can drive significant change, be a catalyst for innovation, and push employability even further up the agenda. This combination of the new Graduate Outcomes survey and increased weighting of employability metrics in the subject-level TEF creates the necessity Plato spoke of as being a driver of invention. The market is already responding.

My highlight of the recent Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) conference in Exeter was the showcase of shortlisted institutions for the AGCAS Excellence Awards. Representatives from each university delivered a two-minute pitch about their shortlisted initiative – the range of projects, level of innovation on show, and quality of the work,was awe inspiring. Coming out of that session, I was more confident than ever that the sector was more than equipped with the ingenuity and talent to respond effectively to the challenges posed by Graduate Outcomes, and to continue to sustain and grow positive outcomes of graduates across the sector.

Four challenges for the sector…

The Graduate Outcomes survey, or DLHE as was, is the single biggest social survey outside of the 10-yearly national census. It was a huge undertaking at institutional level so the new centralised model, combined with the inherent challenge of contacting graduates nine months later, brings significant challenges:

1) The response rate

This was a massive strength of DLHE with most institutions exceeding, achieving or getting very near to their 80% target. To achieve this often took a monumental effort with copious emails and social media campaigns, including offers of support, and as many as five or six calls to individual graduates. The stated target for the new survey started at quite an optimistic 70% but figures such as 60-65% have already been mooted. Many institutions went to the trouble of having DLHE callers from specific departments and courses contacting their graduates from those areas, we shouldn’t underestimate the impact on potential return rates of moving to a centralised system where it is no longer the university, but a third party with whom the graduates has no existing relationship with, collecting the data.

My concern is that it could well end up at nearer to 50% response rate despite the significant planning that has gone into the new system and the huge resource that will be devoted to the process. For smaller courses this significantly risks the reliability of the data.

It also a completely new data set; this will be year zero and, regardless of response rate, any attempt to compare Graduate Outcomes to previous DLHE results will be futile.

2) Resource implications

Although it is hugely positive that careers services are seeking to offer additional targeted services and support to graduates, which will be delivered beyond the historical six months survey date, this comes with significant resource implications. Effectively, it adds an additional cohort to support with securing graduate roles; finalists, those that have just completed their course, and those coming up to the survey date. It is crucial that careers services are given sufficient resource to support this widening of their brief.

3) Increased pressure on alumni services

You can’t talk about Graduate Outcomes without mentioning the increased importance of effective alumni relations. However, many alumni services have extremely limited resources with often a significant focus of their work being focused around fundraising. Employability outcomes massively influence student recruitment, by far the biggest revenue stream for most institutions. This reality, combined with the new Graduate Outcomes system, will lead to a shifting of priorities for alumni teams in many universities.

4) Increased uncertainty

I expect to see growth in performance from many elite institutions, as students from more privileged backgrounds often have the luxury of being able to take their time to review their options, travel and wait for the right opportunity, typically finding their way into a graduate role at 15 months. It felt like quite a comical glitch in the HE data matrix when LSE received Bronze in the TEF, in part based on a relatively paltry number of unemployed graduates at 6 months, but then delivered an almost immediate riposte by coming top overall in the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) graduate earnings data.

However, the picture for many institutions looks less certain; for example, institutions that place large numbers of graduates into teaching may find that some graduates that would have been positive destinations in the DLHE Survey are no longer being in post at the Graduate Outcomes survey date. It would only take a particularly high proportion of teachers from an institution leaving the profession within 15 months to have a significant impact, retention has been a huge issue in this profession for a number of years.

Perhaps the biggest concern about continuously increasing the focus on all forms of career outcomes metrics is that the cumulative effect could be that we start see a reduction in student choice as institutions consider the viability of running certain courses where they can be less confident of securing a high percentage of positive graduate outcomes.

The UK has a uniquely non-linear graduate labour market, regardless of the degree that you study the majority of options remain open to graduates which should mitigate against threats to student choice. I passionately believe that the higher education experience offers so much more than vocational training; it will be interesting to see if the outcome of the Post-18 Education and Funding Review reflects this conclusion.

And four opportunities…

On balance, I think the new centralised Graduate Outcomes Survey is a positive development for the sector, some of the benefits I would highlight include:

1) A richer data set

Although still only a snapshot, the shift to 15 months should provide a richer and more valid picture of graduates’ performance in the labour market. It should play to some institutions strengths, those with a course mix heavily focused on creative sectors should potentially perform better, as careers in these sectors typically take longer to come to fruition.

They are also introducing subjective well-being questions which seek to, at least in part, measure the value of higher education beyond work and study. This is a positive addition. However, the sector has raised legitimate concerns about what will be done to support those students that report having low levels of subjective well-being, HESA are very aware of this issue and have committed to ensure that training for call centre operatives covers this aspect in detail. These questions are already included in a range of Office for National Statistics (ONS) surveys so this new data will allow for comparisons between graduates and non-graduates which should provide further evidence of the value of higher education beyond the, often contested, graduate premium.

2) New opportunities and new partnerships

The 15-month census date creates new opportunities to develop and support graduates for longer after the completion of their course. There is now potential to move beyond graduate recruitment and deliver graduate development activities to support graduates to progress and excel in their roles, this support can help graduates to accelerate their career trajectory potentially leading to graduates securing promotions prior to the survey date whilst also enhancing their LEO outcomes. A fantastic example of this type of graduate development initiative is the Innovation Community Lab project at Nottingham Trent University.

It could also act as a driver for universities to build closer partnerships with graduate developers rather than exclusively with graduate recruiters. There is significant benefit to be gained from enhancing these relationships and increasing knowledge transfer between the specialists that design and deliver the training on graduate schemes and the talented professionals that deliver career development activities in universities.

3) A holistic approach

The lack of control institutions will now have over the collection, means that some universities will no longer be able to apply the pragmatic collection strategies that have delivered them marginally improved outcomes previously, such as targeting graduates from high performing courses first to ensure they are well represented in the overall collection.

This should encourage institutions to continue to invest in their careers service, further embed employability and support strategic initiatives, such as credit-bearing skills awards, that can deliver sustainable impact across their student body.

The delivery of large-scale funded graduate internship schemes to deliver guaranteed positive outcomes becomes less viable at the 15 month census date. In many strategy projects we work on, one of our key recommendations is that in order to develop students’ career readiness and competitiveness in the market, employer-led activities need to be further embedded into the academic curriculum from the 1st year onwards with a gradual increase in intensity.

The new model should hopefully further promote this more holistic approach to delivering positive outcomes and reduce some institutions disproportionate reliance on the more reactive model of focussing significant funding towards recruitment activities occurring post-graduation. Specifically, funded graduate internships which, although there are clearly a number of impressive schemes that have a high conversion rate to permanent roles and have positively impacted regional retention, are inherently difficult to deliver sustainably long-term.

4) Up for the challenge

Although based predominantly on the government’s industrial strategy, and not as explicitly linked to the launch of the new Graduate Outcomes survey, the increased profile of the employability agenda is evidenced by the Office for Students’ (OfS) choice for the first of their challenge competitions.

They have invited providers to develop and implement innovative projects to identify ways to improve outcomes for graduates seeking employment in their home region.

This is a fantastic initiative that recognises the significant challenges that careers services, and universities more widely, face to support students and graduates in achieving positive career outcomes in a highly competitive and unevenly distributed graduate labour market. This funding provides an opportunity to deliver some truly innovative interventions that should have a positive impact on Graduate Outcomes’ performance for institutions that secure funding and be of huge benefit to many underrepresented groups which require additional localised targeted support to improve their progression rates.

I always remember the hugely different levels of response to the rather sketchy requirements for international student monitoring given by the, then, UK Border Agency (UKBA); some institutions spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on new technology and systems, my own institution chose to introduce registers for all students for all classes; others made relatively minor adjustments to their processes but remained compliant. This often ultimately came down to perception of risk. I think it would take a brave institution to continue into this new age of Graduate Outcomes without investing in alumni engagement activity and further empowering their careers service to drive forward the employability agenda; the stakes have never been higher.

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