Looking for local graduates

Graduates that live locally after they qualify are happy and work in meaningful jobs - why don't we know as much about them as we do about graduate salaries. David Kernohan reads a new report from the UPP Foundation

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

There is a lot of data available on what graduates do after their studies.

But we can’t really use any of it to answer questions about the way graduates contribute to their local area.

What’s missing

Graduate Outcomes captures activity, salary, and attitudes via a large scale survey a year and half after graduation. Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data focuses on salaries a set number of years after graduation, the Graduate Labour Market Statistics examine the activities of all graduates as a part of a wider survey. Only LEO and Graduate outcomes include providers as a part of their analysis, but each looks only at a very broad level (NUTS3 regions) as to where graduates live.

Here’s the LEO version from the summer:

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The Office for Students examines geographies of earnings and employment via a customised cut of both LEO and graduate outcomes. But this looks at all graduates, and uses the slightly controversial “travel to work area” as a unit of analysis.

From Botswana but no Berkshire

Without custom data, it is nearly impossible to understand the details of where graduates choose to work after they study. Knowing that graduates of both Manchester and Bolton tend to work in the North West is not helpful in understanding whether they are contributing in the areas they study.

Likewise, we don’t have great public data on where providers live while they study. Michael Donnelly and Sol Gamsu’s 2016 research for the Sutton Trust remains the gold standard at understanding how far students travel to study – we don’t get this kind of data by provider from the public HESA student releases. We can be sure (to the nearest 5) of the number of students at Reading that come from Botswana, but we can’t say anything about the number of students at Reading that come from Berkshire. Which seems odd.

The value of local life

Today’s research from the UPP Foundation is primarily focused on the value for individual graduates in staying locally. Graduates interviewed talked about how much they loved areas for their cost of living, the chance to build social capital, stay near family, and support local business – but the pressure to “move to London” is high. Local employers are keen to recruit local graduates, but “local” doesn’t mean an employer from Carlisle recruiting a graduate from Liverpool.

The data part of the report is built around a custom HESA data set and case studies of four universities – Sunderland, Hull, Lincoln, and Exeter (you’ll immediately know that is a blue, two mints, and a pink). Across these four there is a clear link between the number of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the number of graduates that stay local – mature and non-traditional students are a factor here, but commuter students come from the same backgrounds as all undergraduates do.

On the face of it this looks like the impact of a student’s background, but – illustrating why both quantitative and qualitative approaches are needed in understanding student choice – many of those interviewees talked about an active decision to stay local. Likewise, there’s a lot here to challenge the assumption of town-gown antagonism – local areas benefit from students and graduates.

This would all be great, but recent emphasis on salary data may be causing providers not to support such behaviour – if your campus is in an area known for low-skilled employment and low pay you can wave a fond farewell to a few league table places, or resign yourself to failure in something like Proceed. On the other hand there is the potential for a “virtuous circle” effect – more graduates could mean more skilled jobs, better salaries, and a more attractive local environment.

Key recommendations

Fundamentally there is a need for better quality open data on graduate, student, and applicant locale, at a provider level. Where salary data is presented, it should usually be location adjusted (as in the most recent LEO iterations) and this weighting should be clearly explained to users. But we should be giving equal emphasis to other measures that deal with satisfaction and fit to future plans.

There is room for innovation too – the report suggests a synthetic metric (graduates employed in the region of the provider as a proportion of all graduates who stay in the region) and the separation out graduate level start-up data from all university start ups.

A formal definition of commuter students – allowing for the disaggregation of other measures on the makeup of the student body – would also help understand the situation at a provider level. There’s also calls for commuter students to feature in access and participation plans.

Another entire section of recommendations looks at opportunities to encourage graduates to stay in the local area – the usual mix of information, advice, and guidance alongside better (or at least more consistent) engagement between providers and local SMEs.

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