Covid-affected graduate data could highlight regulation issues

Rise in unemployment shows how graduate outcomes data can be affected by factors other than higher education

July 20, 2021
Magnifying glass searching job adverts illustrating graduate outcomes survey results
Source: zimmytws/iStock

The potential for graduate outcome statistics to be influenced by economic shocks such as the pandemic has been highlighted by the first official survey of UK university leavers since the Covid crisis began.

According to the second annual Graduate Outcomes dataset, which last year surveyed those who left university in the 2018-19 academic year, 7 per cent of graduates were unemployed when asked about their activity compared with 5 per cent the year before.

Meanwhile, the proportion of 2018-19 graduates who were in full-time employment was 56 per cent, a fall of 3 percentage points compared with the 2017-18 graduating cohort.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa), which runs the survey looking at leavers’ activity 15 months after graduating, said the statistics were broadly in line with wider data on youth unemployment in the UK during 2020.

But the apparent impact of the pandemic on the figures – especially when drilling down into the statistics on graduates by subject area or types of employment – may raise questions about the government’s apparent aim to see such data used to ensure “minimum standards” on graduate outcomes at universities.

For instance, the latest data show that graduates who studied creative arts and design saw both the largest decrease in the proportion in full-time employment and the largest increase in the proportion unemployed between the two surveys.

They were also among those seeing the largest decrease in the share of graduates who had gone on to a highly skilled job – down from 53 per cent to 46 per cent when looking at full-time undergraduate courses at universities – between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 cohorts.

Highly skilled employment is one of the metrics that observers believe could be used in the future to clamp down on what the government has deemed "low quality" provision.

The Office for Students, which has just proposed a new batch of conditions on quality, has yet to put forward its detailed proposals on the use of such metrics, saying there will now be a further consultation in the autumn. But one of the concerns that has been raised over the use of such data to ensure standards is how they can be influenced by other factors such as national and regional economic conditions. 

Elsewhere, the latest Graduate Outcomes data also showed that there was a bigger increase in the proportion of black and minority ethnic graduates saying they were unemployed than for white graduates when comparing the 2018-19 cohort with the previous year’s survey.

Bachelor’s graduates who had attended private school were also less likely to be unemployed (5 per cent) than their state school counterparts (6 per cent) among 2018-19 leavers, figures that showed no difference from the year before.

And there were more people on zero-hours contracts for the cohort surveyed during the pandemic; almost 8,000 respondents said they were working on such terms – 4 per cent of graduates – up from 3 per cent for 2017-18 graduates.

Meanwhile, the impact of Covid could clearly be seen in the data on the industry where graduates were employed, with 21 per cent of those in UK work saying they were in jobs related to human health and social work (up from 19 per cent).

Despite the survey collecting most of its responses after the pandemic hit in March 2020, Hesa said the quality of data remained high with better response rates than for the 2017-18 survey.

And after investigating the dataset and comparing it to the 2017-18 results, there was also “no reason to think that the pandemic introduced bias into the responses received”.

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