Writing for this year's What do graduates do? report, Gabi Binnie explores how the snapshot of the past provided by Graduate Outcomes data can inform the support required by the students and graduates of the future
The Graduate Outcomes survey provides insight into the activities of graduates once they gain their qualification and make their next step. By its nature, it is a glimpse into the, albeit recent, past. Even without the turbulence of the past two years, the world of work was changing, with digitisation, globalisation and social factors already changing the ways we work and think about work. How, if at all, can the graduate outcomes of the past help us support the graduates of the future?
The big picture
There are some differences in the employment outcomes of 2018/19 graduates, who were surveyed during the early pandemic, and 2019/20 graduates. The proportion of 2019/20 graduates in full-time employment has increased by five percentage points in comparison to 2018/19 (57.3%, compared to 52.3%). There is little difference in the part-time employment rates for 2019/20 (11.4%) graduates and the 2018/19 cohort (12.4%).
Across all subject areas, 2019/20 graduates in employment were most likely to be employed in high-skilled roles (74%), with over half employed in professional occupations (49%) and fewer in associate professional occupations (22%) and employed as managers, directors and senior officials (3%). However, graduates are also employed in jobs that are not classed as 'high skilled', including administrative and secretarial jobs (7%), caring, leisure, and other service occupations (6%) and sales and customer service occupations (5%).
Research by the Skills and Employability Board in 2022 predicts that in the next five to ten years, there will increasing demand in England for managers, directors, and senior officials and for workers in professional occupations, associate professional and technical occupations, and caring, leisure, and other service occupations.1 This is pretty good news for graduates and education providers, and we might reasonably predict that graduate employment in high-skilled roles will increase accordingly.
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What do graduates do? 2023
Being their own boss
One advantage of the survey is that it gives us some understanding of other types of work graduates undertake that isn't on behalf of an employer. Nesta's 'For Love or Money?' report (2020) shows that while creative arts graduates are more likely than others to be in part-time employment, their work is often more related to their degree than other disciplines.2 While they make up only 17% of the graduate population, they represent 46% of graduates working in the creative industries. This demonstrates firstly, why it is so important that definitions of a 'good graduate job' capture those that the graduate finds meaningful, relates to their chosen field or uses skills that they've learned during their degree; and secondly, that over half of the graduates working in these industries are not from a creative arts background.
At the time of survey, 3% of all graduates were self-employed/freelancing, 1.4% were running their own business and 2.2% were developing a creative, artistic or professional portfolio. Two fifths of graduates running their own business saw it as their most important activity (40.7%) and 42.8% of graduates self-employed or freelancing reported it as their most important activity.
The number of businesses started by recent graduates (within two years) with formal support from a UK HE provider has increased year-on-year since 2014, with 15,793 graduate start-ups active in 2020/21, employing 46,723 FTE employees and producing an estimated turnover of £3,361,635.3 A total of 4,528 graduate start-ups with formal business/enterprise support from the HE provider were launched in 2020/21, the highest number since data collection began in 2014/15.
This reflects the start-up market across the UK, with a record 772,002 new businesses started in 2020, an increase of 13.25% since 2019.4 The UK is ahead of India and China when it comes to start-up funding, with a record-breaking £29.4bn invested in UK start-ups in 2021 and an even greater figure predicted for 2022.5 Research by the Global Entrepreneurs Centre found that nearly 13% of UK adults in 2022 are in the first three months of starting a new business or are already running a young enterprise, compared to 8% in 2020.6
Clearly, the UK's entrepreneurship bubble is booming, and graduates from all disciplines can become creators of their own businesses or intrapreneurs within established ones. The role of careers and employability professionals in supporting graduates who aspire to entrepreneurship is recognised by UKRI, with examples of Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) being used to support enterprise labs, internships and development programmes for students from any discipline, as well as more 'traditional' graduate start-up services.7
What we can say with some certainty is that undertaking a university degree undoubtedly helps graduates develop essential skills that will equip them for success in the future.
Skills for the future
In their research for the Department for Education, the Skills and Employability Board identify four categories of skills that they predict will become increasingly important in the labour market of the future:
- STEM knowledge, including specialist skills such as medicine and dentistry, therapy and counselling, and psychology.
- Skills related to educating and training others, as well as being an active learner.
- People skills, including negotiation, persuasion, and resolving conflicts.
- Application of knowledge skills including critical and creative thinking, complex problem solving, and decision-making.
There's some clear commonality between the skills predicted to increase in demand and the skills already required of graduate recruits by employers,8 but there's a gap for a fifth category - skills that will set graduates up for success in the continuously evolving labour market. The World Economic Forum identifies analytical thinking and innovation, technology use and design and resilience, stress tolerance and flexibility amongst their top ten skills for 2025, while other analysts suggest grit, perseverance, driving change and innovation, and emotional control as critical for the future of work.9
The last two years have shown that attempting to predict the future is a risky business. What we can say with some certainty is that undertaking a university degree undoubtedly helps graduates develop essential skills that will equip them for success in the future. The challenge often lies in students' recognition and articulation of their skills, which is where extracting and surfacing the employability value of degrees, authentic assessments that mirror the working world and opportunities for interaction with employers (either extracurricular work experience or embedded in the curriculum), can help.
But there's another approach too. Experiential learning programmes can be a scalable and quick alternative to adding new content to the curriculum. These opportunities - which I like to think of psychological incubators - can provide students with the chance to try something new for the first time in conditions that mimic the hybrid working world, gain feedback and fail fast in a supportive environment. Immersive events, such as the University of Leicester's Enterprise and Innovation Lab, brings the idea of entrepreneurship to life for those who may never have considered it and provides them with the skills and mindset they need to thrive in the fast-changing future world of work.
Download the full report
What do graduates do? 2023
- Understanding current and future skills needs, policy report by the Skills and Productivity Board, produced on behalf of the Department for Education, May 2022.
- For Love or Money? Graduate motivations and the economic returns of creative higher education inside and outside the creative industries, Martha Bloom, 2020.
- Intellectual property, start-ups and spin-offs, HESA, June 2022.
- The CFE business startup index, Centre for Entrepreneurs.
- UK tech start-ups overtake China to achieve record-breaking first quarter investment, The National, June 2022.
- New British businesses hit record numbers, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, The Times, February 2022.
- Higher Education Innovation Funding: case studies 2021, UKRI, July 2022.
- Student Development Survey, ISE, 2022.
- Defining the skills citizens will need in the future world of work, McKinsey & Company, June 2021.
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