Short-sighted measures of graduate success are good for no one

Graduate careers are long and pay varies by region – so why measure course value on graduate salaries 15 months in, asks Neal Juster

July 27, 2022
Join the dots owl
Source: Getty

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

That has certainly been true in my career. At the time, moves to a new organisation or change of role within an organisation often didn’t seem to be part of any grand plan. I took opportunities as they arose and adapted as my life circumstances changed. But, with hindsight, my various moves appear to amount to a logical and well-planned strategy to become vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

This reflection only increases my frustration with the UK government’s current obsession with measuring the quality of a degree course by reference to the jobs its graduates are in and the average salaries being earned 15 months after leaving university.

Most graduates have hardly even started plotting dots 15 months into a career that might span 40 years or more, let alone worked out how the dots might one day connect. A degree is not a fast-track ticket to the executive suite for most. The career advantages it bestows manifest over years, sometimes decades. Indeed, a 2018 report by the Department for Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, based on longitudinal data, suggested that the “graduate premium” is actually weakest in the few years straight after graduation, but then increases. It’s a long game. We can’t declare winners before it has really begun.

Among other things, doing so risks exacerbating regional inequalities by directing the best graduates away from courses that, on paper, offer the lowest returns. This would not only run counter to the government’s levelling-up agenda, it is also potentially bad for students. While Lincoln, for instance, does not have the clusters of large, high-paying sectors that some big cities benefit from, we have a lower cost of living and a high quality of life for graduates who stay in the region.

Moreover, the University of Lincoln already attracts inward investment and big employers to the region and creates conditions for new and small businesses to emerge and grow by supplying the skills and the research and development that firms need. We have a track record of anticipating and leading emerging industries in areas where the region has a niche, such as agri-robotics and sustainable food manufacturing; 30 per cent of UK food passes through Lincolnshire at some point in its manufacturing cycle, so we are able to make a real difference. We have a key role to play in tackling key challenges for food security and renewable energy in the decades ahead, and the value of the skills provided for these sectors should not be measured by salary alone.

There are other subtleties, too. Consider the arts. It takes time for creatives to apply their learning from university and become what others might regard as successful. But it is recognised that London’s arts sector is disproportionately well supported by government and lottery funding. These regional imbalances are not reflected in a like-for-like measure of outcomes for arts graduates.

Ideally, in Lincoln and other comparable places, we want more talented people to stay in the region to work or to launch their own businesses. This will help reduce regional inequalities and eventually raise salaries in the region. But tying course reputation and funding to first jobs and salaries may ultimately incentivise universities to close some courses and encourage recent graduates to seek their fortunes in big cities to earn more money faster.

We also need to challenge big graduate employers to stop their Russell Group snobbery. At a graduation ceremony earlier this year, a Lincoln alumnus addressed the graduates. The first in his family to go to university, he graduated almost 20 years ago from Lincoln’s Law School. He was told by his top choice of employer that its graduate scheme was mainly for Russell Group graduates and to be considered he would have to enter a national negotiation competition. He did, and he won. Now he is a partner in that firm – a firm that could have missed out on his talent due to preconceived expectations.

But must all Lincoln law graduates go to work for big commercial law firms in London to be considered a success? After all, people in Lincolnshire need good lawyers, too.

This is why the question of how we measure graduate outcomes goes to the core of the levelling-up agenda and the role universities must have in spreading wealth and prosperity more evenly across the UK. 

It is senseless and counterproductive to judge graduates on the first dot they make in their big career pictures. We need to trust that all the dots they make over the decades will join up meaningfully in the future. And our experience at Lincoln is that they do. They reveal very clearly how the knowledge and skills that people acquire as undergraduates goes on to help them make the world a better place – regardless of which part of it they live in.

Neal Juster is vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln.

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Reader's comments (4)

Judging universities by graduate 'success' (however it is defined) is also naïve in the sense that it simplifies this success as solely determined by what the university does - what this myopic operationalisation of graduate success ignores is, for example, (i) graduate choice in the subject they choose to study (e.g., graduate are free willing human beings who can choose to take degrees that have lower job prospects/pay with higher job satisfaction), and (ii) the future job market when they graduate in 3-4 years' time (by which no entity has the capacity to accurately predict). Surprise! Consumers often make poor choices - it is the nanny state all over again - people *cannot* be allowed to make bad decisions and when they do, they certainly *cannot* be permitted to suffer the consequences of their poor decisions. It never ceases to amaze how politicians can come up with the most inane policies. It sometimes looks as if they are barely educated or something.
A University education is about so much more than preparing students for their 'first job'... it's about equipping them with an open and enquiring mind, with the ability to think and learn for themselves - often in a subject quite removed from the one in which they immersed themselves for 3-4 years. Like Professor Juster, my lifepath makes slightly more sense in hindsight than it ever did at the time. Who could predict that studying Botany at university would lead through an assortment of 'non-professional jobs' (as I describe on my CV the first few years scrabbling around doing advice work, bar work, data entry and being a school laboratory technician) before embarking on a role as a trainee programmer in a software house which years later has culminated - via consultancy, web development, & teaching in FE - to my current post as an academic in computer science? Yet that open and enquiring mind that thinks independently and learns anything it get its hands on was developed during an original BSc in Botany from the then University College Cardiff. I may not think about plants very often these days, but the wider skills serve me every day. That is the value of my degree... not pulling pints which is what I think I was doing 15 months after leaving :)
Measuring the value of a University course based on the earnings / salary of new graduates 15 months after leaving their institution is very stupid and totally inappropriate. We must all oppose this initiative by Government. It is the wrong policy and has little connection with the "value" of a degree." Most London graduate salaries, in the first 2 years after leaving University, for students who stay to work in London are 20% higher than in other UK cities. There is no causal connection with the quality or value of the teaching. The choice of subject studied and employer chosen both have direct links to salaries. It is very difficult to measure "financial value added" to an individual attending a University on a particular course and even more difficult to attribute any success achieved by the individual from their specific experience at a particular University. The success could arise from making contact with a particular individual or group of people rather than the staff of the University, or simply be down to luck. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that those who have attended a top University, will, on average earn more than other students over a lifetime. They had a better start, getting more academic points to get into the University, getting higher grades in their GCSEs, getting into the best senior, junior and primary schools. They have also usually benefited from having richer and more intelligent parents than those from a disadvantaged background. Genetic and social background still has a major influence on financial success. Just because this is seen by many as unfair, does not eliminate the affect.
As an academic who has also worked outside of academia I am instinctively sympathetic to the arguments that HE should be about intellectual enrichment in all of its forms, not just a route to a career. However, as someone from an underprivileged background I also realised that there was no going back to my roots – I was making myself an outsider to my upbringing when I went to university. Career focus was, therefore, important to me even some decades ago when such a low proportion of the population entered HE that any degree subject probably did improve employability significantly. Since then, I have seen family and friends from similar backgrounds to mine in more recent times make, in my opinion, poor choices of institution and/or subject and have ended up not finding graduate level employment, returning to their roots in employment not requiring degree level abilities and being more of an outsider than when they started HE. Resentment at feeling misled (often at open days etc) typically outweighs the intellectual benefit and enjoyment of their time at university. I certainly don’t want to undermine the wide array of benefits to higher study beyond employability, but I would like to see my multi-generational middle class academic colleagues demonstrate greater humility with regard to the experiences of some of their students. Instead of periodic sabbaticals for research purposes perhaps every so often spend a few months working in the non-graduate environments that some of your graduates may find themselves in to get a real sense of why graduate employability matters to them. That would make this debate far more informed.