A new way to measure graduate success

Dec 3, 2020 | Sector & policy

Government and higher education need to think more deeply about how graduate success is defined. Tristram Hooley (ISE) and Robin Mellors-Bourne (CRAC) offer an alternative to salary.

Recent policy has tried to ensure that universities are judged on the quality of graduates that they produce, but research by CRAC and ISE has highlighted a variety of problems with how quality and success are defined.

In our last post we talked about the careers of performing arts graduates. After graduation many move into self-employment where they combine work as an artist with other jobs.

While they are not likely to be high earners, most continue to be strongly engaged with their degree discipline, are happy with their work-life balance and believe that they are able to make a contribution to their artform and their community.

Many make use of the skills that they developed in their degree to practice their artform through performance, choreography, directing and other activities at the highest level.


The higher the salary, the better the graduate?

The media are often keen to disparage creative arts degrees, highlighting the low salaries that graduates typically earn and using this to argue that these courses are of little value.

Ministers have often joined in with this kind of criticism; for example, the current universities minister renounced courses that ‘do nothing to improve their [students] life chances’ and which do not ‘improve their life earnings’.

Of course, as years of ISE research shows, many employers are prepared to pay a premium for good quality graduate hires. It is also clear that, on average, doing a degree does lead to an individual being paid more. But, is it the case that the higher the salary the better the graduate? Or that it is helpful to rank universities or courses based on the take home pay of recent graduates?


Be careful what you measure

Recent policy has increased the focus on graduate salaries in search of a way to measure the outputs of higher education instead of the inputs. But, there are a lot of problems with trying to use salaries as a measure of the quality of courses.

Salary is influenced by the course that you choose, but also by the university that you study at, the regional labour market in which you live and the sector in which you work. Furthermore, the salaries that students get when they move into employment are still strongly influenced by their social and educational background.

Graduate employers have recognised this and have been actively making the case to increase diversity and address poor social mobility.

If we decide that high-earning courses are the best, we could discover that Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) degrees at Russell Group universities mainly attended by public school-educated boys from the south east of England who go on to work in finance come out top.

But, would such a finding really be a judgement on the quality of the course? We might find that lower-earning degrees in the arts, nursing, teaching and social care, or some sciences, are judged to be unworthy of funding or that students are advised to avoid them. But such an outcome would be dangerous for society if it led to a reduction in the number of people pursuing some of these valuable paths.

This is what economists call a ‘perverse incentive’. In an attempt to incentivise one kind of behaviour (delivering quality higher education), we end up incentivising a quite different, and potentially socially destructive, behaviour (reducing the number of students on socially valuable courses).


A new way to measure graduate success

We are suggesting that it is time to move away from judging higher education courses principally based on the salaries of graduates. While there is value in expecting higher education providers to attend to the careers and capabilities of the graduates who emerge from their courses, salary is too blunt an instrument.

In its place we have developed a new approach which seeks to capture the graduate in the round. We argue that you need to look at the graduate’s use of the skills and knowledge they developed through their course, their ability to make a contribution to the community, their work-life balance, health and wellbeing, and career development and optimism.

Of course, it is important to pay attention to graduates’ capacity to earn a living, but this needs to be understood in context with a greater recognition of what contribution studying a particular degree has made to the higher salary.

We believe that an approach which judges higher education on its ability to produce well-rounded graduates, and recognises what they can do rather than just what they earn, is more in tune with the way in which employers think about the value of a degree.

Ultimately, we hope that it will encourage universities to focus on preparing future generations of employees, entrepreneurs, citizens, philanthropists, artists and innovators rather than encouraging them to focus on running courses which provide a step-up to a high-earning occupation.

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