What you should know about the Graduate Outcomes data

Jun 23, 2020 | Sector & policy

ISE’s Tristram Hooley delves into the much-anticipated Graduate Outcomes data, explaining what it is and it’s relevancy in the midst of the pandemic.

The higher education wonks and data geeks have been all a flutter at the release of the graduate outcomes data.

These are the results of a new survey of graduates gathered fifteen months after they graduate. Previously most data about graduate outcomes was gathered six months after students graduated. Some people were concerned that six months was too quick and hope that the new fifteen-month survey will provide a more accurate description of the initial labour market impact of higher education courses.

This data release is just the first of many and, as David Kernohan writes, is a bit frustrating as it lacks context and analysis. I’m old fashioned enough to decry the fact that people don’t write reports anymore and to believe that data alone isn’t enough to give us the insights that we need. But the current fashion is to just publish a series of charts and tell people to make up their own story, so this is what we are going to have to do with this new data.

Survey says…

The initial research tells us quite a bit about what happens to students after they graduate. For example, most graduates (81%) are working eighteen months after they graduate. Although only 59% are in full-time employment (others are working part-time or combining work with study). It also tells us that 76% of those who are working are in the kind of high skilled job that many students might hope to get after they graduate.

Graduates who got better degrees (e.g. a first class degree) were more likely to be in work than those with worse outcomes. The subject you studied also made a big difference to your likelihood of finding work with those studying veterinary science, medicine and dentistry and architecture having some of the best employment outcomes.

It also tells us what graduates are earning. Just looking at those graduates who are in full time employment the most common salary (19% of all graduates) was between £24,000 and £27,000. At the extremes there were 10% of graduates earning less than £18,000 a year and 11% earning more than £39,000.

One of the exciting additions in the new data is that it asks graduates how they are feeling about their career as well as just what they earn. This produces some pretty positive answers with 86% agreeing that their current activity (work or study) is meaningful, 80% saying that it fits with their career plans and 72% saying that they are using what they learnt at university.

Unfair outcomes?

There are some headline differences in outcomes based on gender and ethnicity which are concerning and merit further analysis and debate. Most of the press coverage of the survey was focused on differences that are found between male and female and black and white graduates e.g. see The Guardian’s story on the graduate gender pay gap which also touches on differences in outcomes by ethnicity.

These are clearly worrying stats, but on their own they don’t tell us all that much. We need to be able to dig further down to figure out whether higher education is making existing inequalities that manifest in attainment differences or subject choice better or worse. So, for example we know that women choose different subjects to men and that the graduates of different subjects earn different amounts. How far is it that this kind of thing is driving gender inequality and how much of it is driven by higher education itself or employers’ decisions post-higher education?

The answers to these questions will have to wait. But, at least in theory, the graduate outcomes data provides us with a resource that can help us to explore some of these issues in new ways. The addition of career satisfaction measures also open up questions as to whether there is a satisfaction gap to match the salary gap and so on.

Does this even matter now?

In a normal year people would be happily combing through this data and pronouncing on the future of the graduate labour market. But, with Covid-19 and the emerging recession does any of this even matter?

The data was collected before the outbreak and so takes us back to a quaint world of the past in which we could assume that over 80% of graduates would be working.

Charlie Ball writing on WONKE gives a cautious yes to the question of whether these stats matter in a post-Covid world. They will be useful in providing us with a baseline to see how the pandemic is impacting on student employment, but he admits it will make the direct relevance of this data less in the short term.

The release of this kind of data should give us pause to reflect on what we are looking for data to do. If we want it to tell us what courses are worth studying, whether university is worth attending, if society is fair or what will happen in the future we are likely to be disappointed.

Of course it can contribute to discussion and debate around all of these issues. It would be great if policymakers and the commentariat paid more attention to the data. But, we can’t expect to answer existential and political questions about the value of higher education simply through creating a few charts.

The graduate outcomes data provides a valuable resource to inform our understanding of the graduate labour market. The next few years are likely to be challenging ones for graduates and employers, hopefully these data, alongside wider research and debate, can provide us all with insights that will help us to navigate the post-Covid world.

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