This statistic featured prominently in media coverage of the report and has been interpreted by many commentators to mean that universities in England are not providing value-for-money to at least half of their students and that too many people are entering higher education.
Is that the right interpretation?
I went back to the ONS analysis to find out more about what the statistic was actually measuring:
- A “graduate” is defined as “a person who is aged between 16 and 64 not currently enrolled on any educational course and who has a level of education above A-level standard”.
- A “recent graduate” is defined as “a graduate who left full-time education within five years of the survey date”.
- A “graduate job” is defined as those occupations identified as graduate jobs by academics at the University of Warwick based on their assessment of whether or not people in those occupations “normally require knowledge and skills developed on a three-year university degree to enable them to perform the associated tasks competently”.
The ONS data includes a spreadsheet indicating which groups of occupations are considered to be graduate jobs and which are considered to be non-graduate jobs. This can be used to classify the 28,000 different occupations recognised by the ONS as either graduate or non-graduate jobs.
Combining this with the most recent Labour Force Survey data, 37% of all jobs are classified as “graduate jobs”:
|SOC category||Proportion of jobs classified as “graduate jobs”|
|1 – Managers, directors and senior officials||75% (2.6m graduate jobs)|
|2 – Professional occupations||100% (6.5m graduate jobs)|
|3 – Associate professional and technical occupations||53% (2.5m graduate jobs)|
|4 – Administrative and secretarial occupations||9% (0.3m graduate jobs)|
|5 – Skilled trade occupations||0% (no graduate jobs)|
|6 – Caring, leisure and other service occupations||3% (0.1m graduate jobs)|
|7 – Sales and customer service occupations||0% (no graduate jobs)|
|8 – Process, plan and machine operatives||0% (no graduate jobs)|
|9 – Elementary occupations||0% (no graduate jobs)|
|TOTAL||37% (12.0m graduate jobs)|
So what does the ONS data tell us?
There are many anomalies in the classification, as it is not practical to classify all 28,000 occupations. A civil servant who was promoted from an Executive Officer [SOC 4112] to a Higher Executive Officer [SOC 3561] would be moving from a graduate job to a non-graduate job. Managing an off-licence [SOC 1190] is a graduate job, managing a pub or a wine bar [SOC 1224] is a non-graduate job. A singer [SOC 3413] is a graduate role, a dancer [SOC 3414] is a non-graduate role. A clown [SOC 3413] is a graduate job, the manager of a circus [SOC 1225] is a non-graduate job. And – my personal favourite – a rag-and-bone man [SOC 1255] is a graduate job, an antiques dealer [SOC 1254] is a non-graduate job. The list goes on and on.
And many jobs which are deemed by employers to require higher education qualifications are not classified as graduate jobs. For example, in order to practice as a paramedic – apparently a “non-graduate job” – the Health and Care Professions Council insists on new paramedics having an approved HE-level qualification in paramedic science. There are lots more examples, especially in associate professional and technical roles, where employers demand a higher education qualification for jobs the academics say do not need one and for occupations – including skilled trades – where higher apprenticeships have been developed.
Career progression routes for many occupations involve on-the-job training and experience in “non-graduate roles” during early careers so as to progress to “graduate jobs” after a few years. For example, the Civil Service Fast Stream recruits graduates to Higher Executive Officer (HEO) roles which are classified as “non-graduate jobs”.
Definitions and intentions
The statistics hinge on the particular definition used for what a graduate job is. For example, HESA Higher Education Leavers Statistics concludes that 74% of UK graduates who were in employment six months after graduation were in a professional job, and that this has been increasing over time.
A significant proportion of graduates working in “non-graduate” jobs are doing so out of choice rather than through an inability to find a “graduate job” (for example, many people temporarily prioritise flexible part-time work that is close to where they live when their children are very young over finding a job that fully utilises their skills) or are only doing so temporarily while between “graduate jobs”.
There is a difference between a degree being poor value-for-money from the perspective of an individual graduate and a degree being poor value-for-money from the perspective of society. Many jobs that are classified as “non-graduate jobs” demand that new entrants have higher education qualifications and attract an earnings premium compared to those occupations accessible to someone without a higher education qualification. Higher education therefore represents a good investment to these individuals: the critique is more that if a degree is not truly required to do the job then it is arguably a poor investment from society’s perspective.
Higher education provides more benefits to the individual and society than just occupational-specific knowledge. For example, given that those currently entering the labour market now are likely have to change occupation far more than previous generations did, the general skills obtained from a higher education qualification may be valuable in helping people be more resilient and flexible in retraining and adapting to rapid changes in economic structure.
What conclusions can we draw from all this?
The obvious one is that statements that half of recent graduates are in “non-graduate jobs” and the inferences often made from this that most graduates are getting poor value-for-money or that their degree is socially wasteful should be taken with a mine full of salt.
It is important to understand whether or not higher education qualifications are benefiting graduates over their careers in terms of whether the skills they develop allow them to do more highly-skilled work, be more effective and productive in their jobs and enjoy higher earnings than non-graduates with similar characteristics. However, simplistic interpretations of subjective data which has a lot of caveats and is based on the situation early on in a graduate’s career will lead to the wrong conclusions being drawn and the wrong policies being implemented.