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Graduate “overeducation” isn’t as simple to spot as you might think

David Kernohan has also read that back issue of the Oxford Review of Education, and played with some Graduate Outcomes data as well.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

More than a third of graduates from undergraduate programmes working in “high skilled” roles are paid less than £24,000 a year, 15 months after graduation . What is going on?

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The overwhelming majority of these graduates (even 72 per cent of those 2,080 graduates in high skilled roles earning less than £15,000 a year) agree that they are using the skills they have learned during their course.

It is possible that the 11 per cent of graduates in part-time employment, and the 10 per cent in employment and further study may be represented here, but because we are looking only at graduates reporting that “paid employment is [their] most important activity” we should be filtering a lot of these cases out. We need hardly add that salary is also affected by the region in which a graduate is working, prior attainment, and sex.

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What is skill?

It’s worth reminding ourselves what “highly skilled” actually means. As I explained here, the Office for National Statistics maintains an exhaustive list of jobs and job attributes called the Standard Occupational Classifications (SOCs) – Graduate Outcomes coded to the 2010 release of this dataset. You can search for any job of interest using this handy look-up – I searched for “Fireplace Salesperson” and the closest I got was “Sales and Retail Assistant”. Right at the bottom of that screen I saw it was coded to Major Group 7 “Sales and Customer Service”, which is in the low skilled group.

Of course, there is a small but strong history of graduates initially taking “non-graduate” roles either to earn money to live or to gain experience.

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Literature, reviewed

So how does this tie in with the larger concept of a “graduate job”? In a speech to the Social Market Foundation, Gavin Williamson cited a specific piece of research to make the point that around a third of graduates are reckoned to be “underemployed”. It was back in 2014 that Green and Henske used the concept of skills density to identify new graduate jobs that have emerged between 2006 and 2012. These included air traffic controllers – currently the best paid non-managerial role in the UK – and, authors/writers. They reported “sales and retail assistants” as non-graduate roles in which graduates were more likely to work during this period. “National government administrative occupations” is up there too. “Graduate jobs” is not a static category, it shifts and will continue to shift over time.

All this is based on an understanding of a role’s “skills density”. These skills density reports in Green and Henske come from the old fashioned approach of interviewing people and asking them about their jobs.In this case, a “survey of adult skills” conducted by the OECD, which is more usually used to look at the skills-led (or otherwise) nature of a national economy. This is a similar, but not identical, methodology (asking people who do the jobs in question) to that used to classify the UK government’s SOC codes.

Inconvenient conclusions

But fundamentally the nub of the paper is at odds with Williamson’s characterisation. Over the period of study (this is a six year old paper looking at data from around a decade ago, remember) the number of graduate jobs available grew from 32 per cent to 40 per cent. Despite a growth in the number of graduates, the number in jobs that were then classified as “non-graduates” remained stable throughout this period at around 30 per cent. To be clear on that:

“In particular the massive influx of graduates into the labour force in the age bracket 25 – 39 years has been absorbed, with no increase in overeducation.”

More damningly for Williamson’s overarching point about the value of higher education not always offering value, the paper concludes that:

“overeducated graduates receive on average lower wages compared with matched graduates, but higher wages than workers with an adequate level of education. Further, undereducated non-graduates receive higher pay than matched non-graduates, but less than matched graduates”

So even if a graduate ends up doing a non-graduate job, they would still be paid more than a non-graduate. (I don’t like the terms overeducated and undereducated, but I guess 2014 was a different time)

The debate is riven with issues like this. Skill level and salary don’t correlate as well as we may think, there’s no link between intake qualifications to a particular course and employment outcomes from that course, a “graduate job” is not a static concept, and there’s no evidence that graduates are any more “underemployed” than when the number of graduates was much smaller.

It’s a shame, as the point on which nearly everyone agreed – intermediate and higher level technical qualifications need more attention and more respect, and HE, FE, and other types of adult learning have a role to play in offering them – is blunted by attempts to build a false binary. We need qualifications and experiences that can prepare people for short-term job needs, but we also need to invest in long term skills.

4 responses to “Graduate “overeducation” isn’t as simple to spot as you might think

  1. Well done for having a go at this. A useful distinction is that ‘skills’ are the attributes needed to perform a specific role and ‘competences’ are transferable and generic, such as teamworking etc.
    Unfortunately this distinction is lost on almost everyone so that confusion abounds.

    The other issue is how these desirable attributes are fostered through formal education, if at all. Formal education is generally concerned with instruction in generic, universal, formally constructed knowledge whereas the practice knowledge required in the workplace is highly specific and mostly acquired informally. Critics of universities (not just in the UK incidentally but globally) are prone to criticise the ‘lack of relevance’ while educators are defensive because they feel this is a misunderstanding of their role. Were we to have a more explicit debate in HE about knowledge itself we might begin to build bridges with our critics and develop a clearer idea of our role in the modern world. Until that process begins we will be subject to an inarticulate attack which we cannot understand or accommodate. Worse still, ill conceived policy will continue to thwart genuine progress.

  2. A good society, a civilised society, makes maximum use of the talents of all of its members.
    One route to maximising those talents – along with ensuring that everyone has enough food to eat and decent housing to live in and feels safe and valued – is to provide everyone with as much education as they can currently make good use of. And, when their circumstances improve, more again.
    So, “graduate under-emplomentent” – the quotation marks acknowledge the problematic nature of the concept, as David and Jon clearly show – is not a failure of higher education. It’s a failure of society, of the economy, and of politics.
    Special pleading for higher education? Sure. But special pleading from a principled position, from a vision of what a better society will look like.
    I’m not suggesting that Higher Education is doing everything right.
    But you don’t have to be a total cynic to think that a government-derided subject like media studies, which includes the development of a critical approach to reading the mass media, is derided in part because the current government – to put it mildly – does not always welcome a critical approach to what it and its chorus tells us.

  3. Determining SOC codes is a dark art…. whether you use the ONS, or (more likely) the Warwick CASCOT tool

    Most generic type job titles can have more than one code and often there are often divisions between those codes into whether they are graded 1-3 or 4-9. It’s hit and miss whether the coder falls the right side of the line.

    Often a job title may, or may not, imply a graduate hierarchy -“Senior Administration Officer” may well be a higher grade and even a graduate job, compared to say “Administration Assistant” but the chances are that both will be coded as non graduate, even if the person is “Senior Administration Officer” in the Quality team of a University dealing with validation of postgraduate programmes and has a PhD! Student Records Officers in Universities are also likely in my experience to be graduates, but in SOC they get coded as non-graduate jobs as the only code for a “records” person is non-graduate. I discovered this also applied to those responsible for organising Courts of Justice records, a job which often requires a law or criminology degree.

    Incidentally my own professional qualification of Company Secretary, which took me four years to achieve the Master’s level qualification to become chartered and fully qualified, but the role is (currently) non-graduate in SOC even if you run a FTSE100 board; but if you register your burger bar as a limited company you can call yourself a company director, which is a graduate job …

    A writer, musician, footballer or actor are graduate jobs whether the person left school at sixteen with 3 GCSEs and plays saxophone in the local jazz bar or is the goalkeeper for Accrington Stanley, or whether they spent four/five years at a conservatoire getting a Masters degree or has the Nobel Prize in Literature.

    … “likely to be arbitrary” is the only way to describe it. Statistical comparisons of course depend on the consistency of the arbitrariness as to whether the coding is comparable across and between institutions or employment sectors. The thought that these outcomes are being made to determine government policy sends shivers down my spine.

    Whether it ‘s any better having SOC coding done “independently” by HESA rather than by Universities themselves also remains to be seen.

  4. Couldn’t agree more.
    Conversations around skills/competencies/attributes/experiences should be pre-emptive and negotiated where appropriate rather than a retrospective, half attempted audit near graduation…students don’t feel part of that process and have little ownership of them – the process is more like attaching sticky labels you hope won’t fall off when they graduate.

    Ultimately, not enough definition in place around expectations, outcomes and responsibility for doing.

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