Where are graduates six months after leaving university?

The best day of year for me so far was 28 June, because my copy of the annual Destination of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) survey dataset arrived. I am in nerd heaven.

The DLHE is conducted after six months, and everyone from the UK who has left university at all levels in the academic year is surveyed, with a statutory response rate of 80%. I do not know of a larger survey conducted every year in this country. It is an exceptional piece of survey-based research, and it is chock-full of interesting things because it asks far more than “do you have a job?” It is one of the jewels of the UK HE sector, and the envy of the world. We need to celebrate it.

This year, the figures show, as predicted by people in the field (ok, by me) that the outcomes for graduates slipped a little from 2010, but are still better than they were in 2009.

Because of the way it’s often reported, it’s easy to come away with the view that this is some kind of official survey for measuring whether graduates get jobs or not. Well, DLHE does do that, but it’s far, far more interesting than just ‘the graduate unemployment data’.

The UK has been conducting an annual graduate survey since the 1960s, giving us a body of evidence about the early careers of graduates that is the envy of the world. Nobody else has this, and they would all love it. I have in front of me, as I type, the results from 1961-62, where we can examine the outcomes for all 72 female engineering graduates, and contemplate the idea that going from a first degree into secretarial college was a sufficiently common and accepted idea for women graduates that it had its own separate outcomes category.

From this year’s DLHE we can examine whether graduates go to work in small businesses or not (43% in 2010/11), where in the country they’re getting jobs (330 of last year’s graduates got jobs in my home town of Wigan, and 59% of those were graduate jobs), how they found their jobs (the most common way is through contacts, one reason why work experience is so useful, but also a little more baleful in certain industries), and generally explore a large range of questions about how young university leavers take their first steps into the employment market.

And because it’s a long-running survey, we can do some comparisons over time as well. So, for example, we can see that the recession affected some graduate jobs markets more seriously than others. Or, rather, we can provide proper evidence for it happening.

But, of course, there are a number of things it doesn’t do either. It’s a snapshot after six months. Most of this cohort’s graduates will still be working in 2050, so what’s happening now isn’t a perfect answer to thorny questions such as “will my degree be worth it”. If you’ve a good job at Christmas, there’s no guarantee you won’t lose it later, just as we can’t say that just because someone was unemployed or in low-skilled employment at the time of the survey, they’ll never get a good job.

That’s not the fault of the DLHE, of course, that’s where further research into career progression comes in. At the moment, there is a longitudinal version of the survey, which runs every other year, and looks at graduates three and a half years after graduation. The last one looked at graduates who left university in 2007 (so just before the recession), to see how they were faring in 2010 (so just after it). Not surprisingly, a lot had been in and out of employment, but the unemployment rate overall was down, and graduates had also moved out of non-graduate jobs and into graduate employment – even in the recession.

It also means it isn’t really very good for comparing courses or universities. Two individual institutions running ostensibly the same course will have a different syllabus, different student cohorts with different characteristics in different parts of the country and hence addressing different jobs markets. They’ll likely have different outcomes as well, which are likely to be a response to their different circumstances, only some (and we don’t know how much) are to do with the ‘quality’ (depending on what you mean by ‘quality’) of their respective course contents.

Is this a good survey?

Yes. It forms a crucial part of the body of evidence about UK higher education. It is not perfect, but, for what it does, and with an 80% response rate, all major groups are adequately covered, from people with low qualifications to people from low-participation backgrounds.

What bits should I look out for?

Anything that is used effectively and understanding what the survey can and cannot do. This data does not tell us if this year’s graduates will pay their debts off. It does not tell us if they will come to conclude it was not worth going to university. It does tell us what graduates did just after leaving university, how they got there and gives us a lot of detail about that section of the economy that recruits graduates.

Pass or fail

Pass. BUT, there is a postscript here. This is fabulous data, painstakingly collected and full of fascinating information and it is not used anywhere near enough. It’s not hard to get hold of the basic bits. Look at it, and use it.

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