Mark Stow and Gemma Green emphasise the importance of listening to graduate voices when determining the 'value' of higher education, in the latest edition of What do graduates do?
The measures by which the relative success (or failure) of our universities are judged is the subject of increasing political scrutiny. Many across the sector lament the binary interpretations of relative 'success' as crude measures of the 'value' of higher education. Measures such as graduate salary and the labelling of occupations as 'professional-level' pay little attention to the individual that sits behind those metrics, nor the context or their motivations for university study, which are often very personal and subjective.
Furthermore, defining the value of a degree by its relative monetary return to the Treasury pays little regard to a system in which jobs that require a degree can sometimes lead to careers with relatively modest remuneration (and this is before we even contemplate the differentiated graduate labour market and regional variations of salary). To define value by salary fundamentally detracts from the social and cultural value of such pursuits.
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What do graduates do? 2023
With this in mind, it has never been more important to develop a deeper understanding of graduates' individual perceptions. Understanding the graduate voice is critical to inform the development of the support services universities provide, such as bespoke and differentiated careers and employability education, as well as providing a contextual narrative to influence and stimulate agency within institutions, and to counter the implicit assumptions of value enforced by our metricised system.
To date, although some league table providers have started to experiment with the use of graduate voice data in their metrics, the dataset is still relatively underutilised and there are no immediate plans for it to be drawn upon in the regulation of student outcomes (in England).1 Nonetheless, analysis of the 2019/20 data still provides a useful insight into the graduate perspective, which can either challenge or re-enforce our perceptions of the graduate labour market.
The Graduate Outcomes survey asks graduates to reflect on their activity to date and covers three key aspects:
- The extent to which graduates feel they are utilising what they learnt during their studies in their current activity.
- The extent to which graduates perceive their current activity as meaningful.
- The extent to which graduates feel their current activity fits with their future plans ('on track').
Across the three datasets, we see a relatively positive representation of the graduate voice and the perceived value that they place on their university education. 61% agree or strongly agree that they are utilising what they learnt during their studies, while 82% agree or strongly agree that the activity they are engaged in is 'meaningful', and 72% agree or strongly agree that their current activity is 'on track'. As such, the data demonstrates that graduates acknowledge the impact of their university education upon their current activity, that this activity is of subjective value to them, and that their activity is presenting positive prospects to help them achieve their future plans. These insights alone move us beyond the binary definition of value.
Interestingly, the distinction between vocationally-focused disciplines and other disciplines is less evident in graduates' perceptions of how meaningful their activity is.
Across all three of the metrics there is, inevitably, subject variation in the responses. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also a clear split across those disciplines which arguably have a more vocationally-focused pathway. This trend is more overt in graduates utilising what they learnt during their studies (ranging from 50% in Politics up to 76% in Education) and with the 'on track' data (ranging from 62% in Art up to 83% in Civil Engineering). Interestingly, the distinction between vocationally-focused disciplines and other disciplines is less evident in graduates' perceptions of how meaningful their activity is. This suggests a more consistent sense of value in the activities that graduates are undertaking across all disciplines (the lowest positive response was in Cinematics and Photography at 73%).
Variation by student characteristics
Exploring the data by student characteristics (BAME, polar quintiles, and disability) reflects a similar picture to what we often see in institutional Access and Participation Plans (APPs), with a negative percentage gap across all the student characteristic groups. The largest gaps are for Black and minority ethnic graduates' perceptions of their current activity being 'on track' when compared to their white peers (-3.6%) and for graduates who have declared a disability when compared to those without a disability (-3.2%).
Interestingly, the negative trends are reversed or reduced when we explore polar quintiles, with a positive gap (+0.7%) identified in utilising what they learnt during their studies for graduates from low participation neighbourhoods compared to their peers from areas with a higher propensity to attend HE. We also see a less pronounced gap (-0.8%), when we consider the extent to which graduates perceive their current activity as being meaningful. This perhaps reflects the difference between expectation and reality, and the value some students from low participation neighbourhoods place on their activities and opportunities for progression within the context of their background.
The context which the graduate voice data can add to the traditional analysis of graduate destinations has the potential to be incredibly powerful. A valued ex-colleague once reflected that our current system of capturing the value of universities increasingly means that we are 'managed by proxies for which there is no consensus', so if you want to know how our graduates are really doing 'why not just ask?'2 The graduate voice dataset goes some way to enabling us to do so, and it is perhaps up to the sector to commit to using it more to effectively challenge and influence the ongoing political and divisive narrative of value.
- Consultations: Student outcomes and teaching excellence, ONS, July 2022.
- Why not just ask? The potential value of alumni views in assessments of teaching excellence and learning gain, Rigby, 2016.
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