Moving the graduate story beyond employment

IFF's Catherine Turner introduces the Graduate Index, a new way of looking at the graduate experience beyond headlines about salaries and skilled jobs.

Catherine Turner is Director of Higher Education research at IFF.

The idea of graduates living an enriched and fulfilling life is one that has guided the higher education sector for a long time.

Students go to university, not just to “get a degree to get a job” but to become more rounded individuals equipped with the skills and nous to deal with whatever life has to offer them.

However, until now, the reporting of successful higher education outcomes has focused mainly on employment; how many graduates are in paid work, whether they’re in “professional” occupations, and what salary they earn. This only shows us showcases part of the impact higher education can have, and doesn’t consider the higher education experience in a truly holistic way or the broader outcomes graduates achieve.

How does it work?

The Graduate Index is a survey that measures graduates’ successes across seven social and personal measures:

  • Social capital
  • Civic engagement
  • Confidence
  • Resilience
  • Quality of life
  • Fulfilment
  • Career progression

Within each area, graduates are asked a series of specific questions and based on the answers they provide, are assigned a Graduate Index score out of 100. The seven index areas are given equal weighting when calculating the overall Graduate Index.

Graduates’ scores can be grouped to demonstrate the relative performance of different subject areas, university groups, study modes and levels or key graduate demographics. By asking graduates how they think they are getting on in life beyond employment, we feel that the Graduate Index truly captures a more rounded picture of the longer-term impact of the higher education experience.

What insight does the Graduate Index provide?

The research has thrown up some really interesting findings with overall Graduate Index scores higher among graduates of Russell Group universities, males graduates and postgraduates. Looking at the individual index measures, however, reveals a more nuanced story. So, while graduates from Russell Group universities, perhaps predictably, outperform other university groups on career progression and quality of life, they perform relatively poorly on social capital and are on a par with others in terms of fulfilment and confidence.

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One particular area of interest is that the variance in Graduate Index scores is greater by subject than by university group. This suggests that the subject a graduate studied appears to have greater bearing on the Graduate Index score than the type of university they attended. A timely finding in the context of the government’s looming Spending Review and what that might mean for funding to universities and of specific courses.

If funding ends up being contingent on the perceived value of a course, then how “value” is defined is more important than ever. If a subject reports higher levels of social capital but lower levels of resilience (as is the case with graduates of Education subjects who took part in the research) does that mean that subject is more valuable than another which produces more consistent, but slightly lower scores across all 7 areas of the index? Could you argue the subject that doesn’t score quite as highly but does score more consistently produces more rounded graduates?

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There are also other considerations to take into account like graduates’ motivations for studying a particular subject and what they wanted to get out of the experience – confidence might be more important to some graduates and less important to others. Using the Graduate Index alongside these considerations provides a new context.

Universities running their own Graduate Index survey will be at the forefront of these conversations. They will have a detailed understanding of the wider impact their provision is having – how different courses produce different social and personal outcomes for their graduates. This can then be overlaid with analysis by key demographics and socio-economic characteristics.

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For example, to what extent is there a gender imbalance in terms of the confidence and resilience of their graduates from different programmes? Or how are their students from disadvantaged backgrounds faring in terms of their wider outcomes? If results from this research were mirrored for their own Creative Arts graduates, universities will know that they struggle on five of the seven measures but perform relatively well in terms of confidence and social capital. However, when you look at scores by gender, we see that female graduates of this subject area achieve a lower overall score than male graduates and apart from social capital, also score lower across each component area. In particular, female Creative Arts graduates score lower on the quality of life measure than their male counterparts and this seems to be driven in the main by lower mental wellbeing scores and lower levels of disposable income.

Used alongside other existing datasets that focus on more traditional outcomes as well as other datasets universities might hold themselves on applications or careers registration, this invaluable insight can be used to target certain courses for particular interventions designed to improve specific outcomes, or by careers and employability teams to support certain student groups.

9 responses to “Moving the graduate story beyond employment

  1. This is an interesting piece. The GI is a much more rounded and meaningful approach than GO. In general though, the components of the GI have been known for some time. The main value is the re-balancing of the attributes between different mission groups, although the ‘class privilege’ is still apparent in some.

  2. Interesting data but I think we also need to know more about their pre-HE contexts. I’m pretty sure students that choose to study medicine mostly come from wealthier families and are privately educated. These pre-HE experiences will have an enormous impact on some of these metrics, particularly confidence and resilience. I’m sure this is also true for other subject areas.

    1. Yes, as with some measures at schools level, the ‘value’ of higher education in these metrics is not just about students’ end points but the distance they have been able to travel given their higher education experience. Can’t help also wondering how the pandemic has impacted on the subject level feedback, given the torrid time experienced by young professionals in the creative arts amongst others.

    2. Yes this is a very important point Simon. The long term plan, we hope, is that universities will be able to look at data from the Graduate Index alongside databases they already hold containing information on other relevant social pre-HE characteristics to give that context

  3. How do you measure resilience? I assume you don’t something awful to each participant and measure how they cope. So what do you do instead? And how do you cope with differences in previous experience that might make new trauma hit differently?

    1. The measure of employability (GO) is very much a binary measure of the success of a student following graduation. Profiling student success through other measures that make a positive difference to progress beyond graduation is much more meaningful and informative for both universities and the students. Helping students to reflect on their personal development in relation to aspects of a GI provides oportunity for personal development planning. I also think this type of ‘tool’ can provide valuable information too help universities who have, for example, lower entry tarrif, a student demographic that is representative of poorer social background, are addressing the awarding gap, to better understand strenghts and weaknesses associated with different groups in terms of their development through university and to build appropriate strategies to support such different groups, ultimately enhancing emploability?

    2. You assume right, Catherine, we didn’t do something awful to each participant! Instead we asked everyone to state on a scale of 1-5 the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements including things like, not taking too much on or staying calm in stressful situations.

  4. Agree that a more holistic evaluation of graduate outcomes beyond employment is desired, especially as the GI exposes the stubborn variance between different mission groups, subjects and genders. Yes, a little like learning gain (Camille) but with different metric indicators that are equally hard to measure.

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