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Key trends among UK first-degree graduates

January 2019

Do graduates still enter the same professions as five years ago? How are they looking for jobs? Are SMEs able to compete with the graduate schemes offered by large organisations?

A look back at HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data - which each year captures what new first-degree graduates are doing six months after graduation - sheds light on these questions and more.

More graduates are pursuing further study

Full-time work is the most common outcome for UK-domiciled graduates after completing their first degree, although the percentage of individuals employed on this basis has fallen slightly from 58.1% in 2013/14 to 56.7% in 2016/17. Part-time work among graduates is also declining, with a 13.5% decrease in the percentage of graduates entering this type of work since 2012/13.

However, UK higher education institutions have experienced a surge in numbers taking further study (+29% since 2012/13), which could account for the declining employment rate. This rise was particularly evident following the introduction of UK postgraduate loans in 2016.

Overall the labour market appears to be in good health, with graduate unemployment declining 31% over the latest five years of available data, from 7.3% in 2012/13 to 5.1% in 2016/17.

The gender gap has widened

Females may have been underrepresented at universities traditionally, but they now dominate the student cohort. The data for graduates by gender over recent years is in line with this, with the number of female graduates increasing by 30% since 2005/06. With the gender gap widening, finding ways to increase male participation rates in higher education is a challenge for the sector.

Most often, graduates are in their early 20s, having entered university after completing further education. A few opt to study later in life, although the mature graduate cohort is shrinking, with the proportion of graduates aged 40 or over declining by 13% since 2012/13.

Nursing is still the leading degree subject

Knowing what degrees are increasing in popularity can help universities understand which courses will attract large volumes of applicants. This information can also help employers understand what groups are entering the labour market and whether they need to broaden their recruitment criteria to gain applicants.

The past five graduate data collections all recorded nursing as the largest segment of graduates, with growing numbers in this field since 2012/13 (+48%). It is unclear whether this rise will continue as the scrapping of bursaries for nursing and midwifery students in 2017 could disrupt the trend. This is particularly concerning as the demand for nurses in the UK is outweighing supply, with many vacancies left unfilled each year.1

Psychology was second, with a 10% increase in graduates over the past five years. This has overtaken business studies, which now makes up the third largest segment of graduates.

Other popular subjects with rising graduate numbers since 2012/13 include:

  • computer science (+14%)
  • academic studies in education (+12%)
  • management studies (+14%)
  • mechanical engineering (+35%).

Among the most common degrees studied, those with falling graduate numbers include:

  • teacher training (-16%)
  • social work (-17%)
  • English studies (-10%)
  • design studies (-6%).

It is important that students are still encouraged to take up these subjects, particularly social work, where there is significant demand for graduates in the labour market.

The demand for graduates has intensified

The number of graduates in professional-level jobs has increased year-on-year from 66.3% in 2012/13 to 73.9% in 2016/17.

The most common subjects studied (particularly vocational ones) are often reflected in the professional-level occupations entered after graduation. It is therefore unsurprising that nursing has been the most popular role for the past five years, with the graduate intake increasing by 56%.

Marketing is a growing industry, with more graduates (+6.5% since 2012/13) opting to begin their careers in this field, elevating it to the second most popular professional-level job entered last year.

More graduates are employed as programmers and software developers (+43%), business professionals (+33%), midwives (+27%), artists (+21%), and finance and investment analysts/advisers (+14%). While this might sound promising - as many of these occupations are in demand - the UK is still suffering from shortages of talent and skills, particularly in software development and midwifery, despite the increased intake of graduates.

Since 2012-13 there's been a fall in the number of graduates opting to pursue careers in web design and development (-26%), secondary teaching (-22%) and managing and directing in retail and wholesale (-17%). This is concerning for employers as some of these professions have the largest number of vacancies that employers report as 'hard to fill'.2

Some industries are struggling to compete

The human health industry has remained the largest employer of graduates in the UK over the five-year period, with graduate intake rising by 20%.

More graduates in the UK are also gravitating towards the legal and accounting (+19%) and computer programming and consultancy (+24%) industries.

Nevertheless, this growing proportion of entrants is not widespread. There are a number of popular industries that have experienced a decline in their share of graduates, including:

  • education (-9%)
  • retail trade (excluding motor vehicles) (-17%)
  • public administration and defence (-11%)
  • social work (-18%)
  • accommodation (-20%)
  • office admin and support (-30%)
  • construction (-18%)
  • management consultancy (-24%).

Big businesses are attracting more graduates

The majority of graduates in 2016/17 worked for a large business (70.2%) and this has remained consistent since 2013/14.3 The NHS could account for a significant share of this percentage as it is one of the dominant graduate employers in the UK.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are sometimes favoured by graduates for the opportunity to develop a range of skills with a high degree of responsibility. However, they can struggle to compete with the structured training schemes offered by larger organisations and the stronger relationships they have with universities.

Also, many occupations in demand at SMEs are in shortage areas.4 These factors could explain the drop in the percentage of graduates working for an SME from 36.3% in 2013/14 to 29.8% in 2016/17.

Graduates favour jobs that fit their career plan

It appears that graduates in 2016/17 were more likely to accept a job because it fitted into their career plan or it was exactly what they wanted (43%) than they did in 2013 (39.7%).

Accepting a job based on the opportunity to progress in an organisation is not the most widely reported motive, but the figure has risen slightly from 5.7% in 2012/13 to 6.2% in 2016/17. Detailing graduate training and progression in job advertisements could encourage more applicants.

Graduates today are slightly less likely to report they accepted a job to earn a living/pay off debts (15.8%) than they did in 2012/13 (18.8%).

More jobs are found through careers services

Keeping up to date with graduate job-seeking behaviour is important to ensure job advertisements are effectively reaching the desired talent pool.

Employer websites, and recruitment agencies and websites, consistently remain the preferred method for graduates to find employment.

It is encouraging to see that more graduates in 2016/17 are utilising their careers services to find employment (10.8%) - a 24% increase on the 2012/13 figure (8.6%).

Finding jobs through media sources (including newspapers and magazines) seems to be shrinking (-58%). There has been a marginal decline in the use of personal contacts (-14%) although many still rely on them to secure employment.

The use of social media has risen slightly over the years, but often this is used to signpost individuals to vacancies on an employer's website, where they will then browse and apply for jobs.

Also in this series


Due to changes to SOC, some data can only be compared over the past five years (from 2011/12 onwards).

  1. NHS increasingly desperate for nurses and midwives as applications continue to fall, The Telegraph, 2018.
  2. 10 things students should know about the UK graduate labour market, 2018.
  3. Data for employer size is unavailable prior to 2013/14.
  4. 10 things students should know about the UK graduate labour market, 2018.

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