'Bonkers' job index irks v-cs

April 23, 1999

Vice-chancellors and funding chiefs have hit out at government attempts to measure graduate employability.

They are concerned that the performance indicator for employability, due to be published later this year, is fundamentally flawed and fails to consider students embarked on lifelong learning.

The Department for Education and Employment asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England to devise such a performance indicator by 2000.

However, the measure will be based on the survey of first destinations for graduates, which many vice-chancellors find unacceptable.

"While it is entirely right to ask how the higher education sector interacts with employers, the concept of first destinations is pretty unhelpful," said Tim O'Shea, master of Birkbeck College. "It is almost counter-productive to use these statistics." The issue was discussed at HEFCE's annual conference in Loughborough last week.

The performance indicator will look at the proportion of graduates and diplomates still seeking work six months after qualifying. However, it will only consider those who completed full-time courses at degree, Higher National Diploma and Higher National Certificate levels.

"Universities are concerned with lifelong learning and many have a high proportion of students in employment who are taking further qualifications to enhance their employability," said Roderick Floud, provost of London Guildhall University. "Such an effect is completely ignored by the first destination survey, which applies to an outmoded view of higher education."

Most of the students at Birkbeck College also study part-time.

"If you can't deal with what happens to part-time students, you are missing so much of what is going on," said Professor O'Shea. "It is painting an absurdly skewed picture. The other thing that is bonkers is looking at employment six months rather than three to five years on."

HEFCE has sympathy with the vice-chancellors' concerns but is unable to gather better data to produce a more robust performance indicator by the 2000 deadline. "The only employment data we have at the institutional level are the first destination surveys," said Bahram Bekhradnia, director of policy at HEFCE. "They are partial and there are concerns about their quality. Any measure of employment must include part-time students in order to be comprehensive."

Vice-chancellors are also worried that the subject mixes offered by different institutions could skew the statistics. "In a number of subjects that we teach, such as the creative arts and media, self-employment is a perfectly normal career route," said Geoffrey Copland, vice-chancellor of the University of Westminster. "How is that going to be picked up in the employment statistics?" In other subjects, such as law, many graduates go on to further training rather than employment, he added.

The concerns were raised with the science minister, Lord Sainsbury, when he addressed last week's HEFCE conference. "Any statistic like this has to be thought through carefully," he conceded. "It is essential that measures (for graduate employability) are reliable and realistic."

The government and council are looking at ways of improving the employability performance indicator for future years.

"There is quite a lot of evidence that for useful and meaningful employment statistics, you need to look over a longer period than six months - ideally ten years," said Mr Bekhradnia. "However, this would be very expensive. A cheaper way would be to use the National Insurance and tax records of graduates but there are civil liberties issues there."

Another issue is whether the employment should be sorted into different types. "It is a weakness that the first destination survey makes little distinction between different types of job," said Mr Bekhradnia. "Some jobs are more relevant to the outcomes of higher education than others."

But Professor Floud argued against creating tiers of "graduate" and "non graduate" jobs. "The structure of qualifications in any career other than law and medicine changes dynamically with the economy," he said. "Look how hotel management has become a 'graduate' career."

Professor Floud also argued whether such a performance indicator was necessary. "Is there a problem to which employment statistics are the answer?" he asked.

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