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Why graduate employment indicators should be taken with a pinch of salt

By Rebecca Orr

Wednesday 22 November 2017 Student Journalists

One way that the “success” of a university is measured is through graduate outcomes. Here's what they do - and don't - tell us about student satisfaction.

Since 2002-03, the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) has conducted the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey. Six months after they have graduated, students are asked to complete the questionnaire. Amongst other things, they are asked whether they are in employment and what their salary is. The data collected from the survey is published on the HESA website as part of institutional performance indicators. Prospective students can consult the information on the Unistats website. This DLHE data is then used by university league tables and the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) to rank institutions.

Between July 2015 and June 2017, HESA conducted a review of the DLHE survey. Feedback indicated that some changes were needed in order to ensure that the survey provided ‘rich, robust and innovative data’.[1] A New DLHE survey will be rolled out to graduates from December 2018 onwards, with data available from January 2020. The main changes to the survey are that university-leavers will be approached 15 months rather than 6 months after graduating and there will be new questions to evaluate the non-economic benefits of a University education.

These changes are an important step and show that HESA is starting to take a more holistic approach towards evaluating educational success. University leavers who complete the new survey will be asked questions like to what extent do you agree or disagree with the statement; ‘My current activity is meaningful and important to me’ and ‘My current activity fits with my future plans’.[2] These questions allow individuals to say for themselves whether they are happy with the outcomes of their University education. For many millennials like myself, job satisfaction and doing work that is worthwhile is as, if not more, important than salary level. This survey would allow us to communicate this.

However there is no getting away from the fact that details about median salary levels will continue to be reported, and students will be asked whether they are using what they learnt during their studies in their current activity. On the surface, this does not seem to be that problematic, particularly when you take into account the wealth of contextual data that is used to back these statements up. However, media reports that focus solely on these two indicators risk distorting the value of studying for example, humanities and social sciences degrees, or ‘less traditional’ courses. By focusing attention on hard outcomes rather than student perceptions of success and the student experience, reporters risk presenting a warped picture of what people hope to gain from studying at University.

Becky Orr

Hi, I'm Becky. I'm studying for a Masters in History at Warwick University. Having previously worked in HE administration, I am interested in exploring the student perspective on HE policy. In particular, I am interested in issues concerning student finance and the TEF and REF.