For decades, we have been judging success in Higher Education (HE) by the labour market outcomes of graduates six months after graduation… like this is a good indication of achievement?
In 2000, British workers were estimated to hold four jobs during the first ten years of their careers, and five jobs over the first 20 years. The equivalent for Germany was two and a half, and three jobs respectively, showing not only that job-hopping in early career is more commonplace in the UK, but also that the British labour market is more flexible than in Germany.
Since then flexibility has been increasing, at least as far as the value of job tenure goes to show: the wage return to 20 years’ tenure nowadays, is at the same level as ten years’ tenure achieved for workers in 2000, making it less valuable to stick to a specific path in the early career. In fact, the return to tenure below two years is essentially zero, which means job-hopping does not bear a cost in wages in those early days.
Given the extent of job hopping in early career in the UK, the time has come to revise the milestone of six months from graduation and the focus on wage return as the main benefit of HE. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) is leading such a revision and the National Centre is playing an active role in the discussions. This is not just an internal revision of methods for data collection, but an open public interest consultation, and rightly so, because the data on destinations and outcomes of HE graduates is a collective asset: of value for students to make informed career choices; for universities to keep track of their offer to learners; for employers to evaluate the changing supply of graduate talent; for the public sector to assess the benefits of taxpayers’ funding; and for UK plc to understand the pipeline of education into career paths.
The latest data on Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education was released last week – we use this data to track graduate employment in industry, for the NCUB Collaboration Progress monitor, and to build our understanding which aspects of HE experience contribute to employment after graduation, as well as the role of work experience vis-à-vis the academic expertise.
The public interest consultation of DLHE can be followed through Twitter on #newdlhe and on the HESA website until 14 July, and it is timely, because new legislation passed in 2015 means that evidence on employment and wages can now be accurately sourced from administrative data on taxes and welfare, at least for graduates who stay in the country. This will likely provide us with information on employment histories, job-hopping, and the career progression of HE graduates, without having to ask graduates themselves as it has been done in the past. It will improve the quality of information about careers we get and releasing survey resources to repurpose.
This potential for repurposing a survey that is already in place opens many doors for improving an asset that belongs to all of us, making it more accessible and more suited to our needs, over and above whether it happens at six months or not. For example, whether we should (and indeed could) better capture achievement other than employment and earnings, like broader skills, work experience, or satisfaction with the HE experience. There are model questions in the consultation to aid discussion of these matters.
It is a challenge to make a change this big, but a challenge that makes us wonder why we need this survey, and what it offers over and above the multiple other bespoke surveys of employability out there. Each bespoke survey serves a particular purpose for a limited set of clients, say the satisfaction of students within 30 universities, or the skills gaps reported by the top 100 employers. Results of bespoke surveys can sometimes be used to benchmark the included clients, some universities and employers may only care about what a handful of their competitors do, but not beyond. Official statistics provide a reliable and credible overview of the whole sector, no cherry-picking, and good representation is key for a fair assessment of performance across all HE Providers.
With this consultation we all learn about and shape these official statistics and collectively own our destinations and outcomes of higher education data. Every submission counts!
Dr Rosa M Fernández, Research Director, National Centre for Universities and Business