Contextual caveats

March 3, 2011

Christine Buccella's feature, "The pursuit of hire education" (24 February), was a lucid reminder that students have a wealth of information available to them as they make their university choices - not all of it to the liking of individual institutions. But while showcasing the utility and breadth of the data coverage, Buccella inadvertently showcases the pitfalls of failing to adequately explain or contextualise it.

When she mentions, for example, that "six months after graduation, salaries for (University of) Southampton graduates averaged £23,160 compared with £21,220 for those from (the University of) Manchester", she fails to point out that Southampton and Manchester are very different institutions, with different subject mixes, student bodies and, crucially, local labour markets. As many graduates choose to start their careers close to their institution of study, these data could merely highlight the difference between average salaries in the South East and North West of England - not to mention the relative cost of living and hence disposable income.

It is unclear what these figures tell us about university quality. Good but complex information goes hand in hand with good guidance to contextualise it; it is easy to mislead students and advisers who may not be familiar with the caveats that are necessary to ensure that data are as useful as they can be.

Charlie Ball, Deputy director of research, Higher Education Careers Services Unit

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