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Graduate outcomes: wellbeing

What do we know about the wellbeing of graduates? David Kernohan compares new data from Graduate Outcomes with national figures from ONS.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Questions about wellbeing are a new, and useful, addition to the suite of UK-wide data available about graduates.

Our understanding of what graduates are doing has been expanded – in one direction, we now have more information on salaries than ever before, but on the other we know more than ever on what graduates are thinking and feeling. This is an important and healthy counterweight to a public conversation that has become more and more focused on direct, quantifiable, returns on investment.

Fifteen months after a course was completed the Graduate Outcomes survey asks what has become the standard armory of subjective wellbeing questions:

  • How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • To what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  • How happy did you feel yesterday?
  • How anxious did you feel yesterday?

These echo questions in the ONS Annual Population Survey (here’s a collection of time series), which also turn up in other surveys all over the place – allowing us to benchmark graduate wellbeing against other groups.

From HESA we get five splits – by activity, subject area, degree classification, sex, and domicile. I’m going to focus on activities and subject here in the main graph, but we should also note that there is a correlation between measures of wellbeing and degree classification (those with first class degrees are happier, it seems), that as in the general population men are less anxious than women, and that international graduates are more anxious than their domestic counterparts.

Wellbeing by graduate activity

A couple of numbers to bear in mind before we start. The average rating for life satisfaction in the general UK population was about 7.7 out of 10 in the summer of 2019, 7.9 out of 10 for feelings of worth, 7.5 for happiness, and 2.9 for anxiety.

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We can see from the anxiety graph that graduates in general are likely to be slightly more anxious than the general population. We know from ONS data (October 2019) that young people are more likely to report low anxiety levels than other groups – 36.2 per cent of the general population aged between 20 and 24 report very low (with scores between 0-1 on the 10 point scale) anxiety – no graduate activity group gets above 27 per cent, which I would cautiously (remember we are comparing two large and unweighted for completion effects surveys) say was a significant finding.

On feelings that life is worthwhile, the appropriate general population comparator is that 31.2 per cent of those aged between 20-24 report “very high” (9-10) feelings of worth. For graduates in full-time employment, that figure is 34 per cent, and for those in further study we get as high as 35 per cent.

Wellbeing by subject of study

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You would expect that subject of study to have less of an impact on happiness than employment status, but the range of responses is quite striking. We see an 13 percentage point difference between a small number of veterinary science graduates (22 per cent of whom are very happy), and graduates in education or subjects allied to medicine – 35 per cent of whom report scores of 9 or 10 out of 10. The national comparator (all those aged 20-24 in the ONS data, as above) is 32.3 per cent scoring very high- which is against all graduates surveyed, 30 per cent of whom report a very high level of happiness.

However, 74 per cent of graduates scored either high or very high on happiness (between 7 and 10) – a low but still concerning 9 per cent scored low (between 0 and 4). Creative arts and mass communications graduates – perhaps in contemplation of the sorry state of pay for librarians, journalists, and artists – reported being least happy.

Looking at life satisfaction, 27.6 per cent of those between 20 and 24 in the ONS data, scored very high (9 to 10), compared to 25 per cent of graduates, which I’d argue was a margin of error difference. Those studying subjects allied to medicine and education (33 per cent scoring 9 to 10) were significantly more satisfied than the general population – but creative arts and mass communications graduates (both 18 per cent) were significantly below the national average.

Again, high or very high brings mass communications up to 69 per cent and creative arts up to 67 per cent. Twelve per cent of creative arts graduates reported low (0-4) life satisfaction.

One response to “Graduate outcomes: wellbeing

  1. An equally helpful comparison might be between how graduates feel while still students, and how they feel after graduating, That might help us understand the role that subject of study plays in wellbeing (and vice versa) Would be great if we used the same standardised questions across universities to get a measure of what’s going on. At the moment all the measures we have are university-specific and difficult to compare on a sector basis.Not that I think we need more measures!

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