It is “delusional” to attempt to measure the success of higher education institutions using data on graduate employment, a leading academic has warned.
Employment data are set to be used to compare English universities in the teaching excellence framework, but Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, used his keynote address to the annual conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education to highlight the multiplicity of factors that affect the careers and earnings of graduates.
Professor Marginson said these factors go beyond the regularly discussed links between graduate earnings and family background, type of school attended, type of university attended and field of study.
Students, he said, frequently do not make their educational choices on the basis of future earnings, but instead are motivated by building social networks, accumulating cultural capital or immersing themselves in fields of knowledge.
In addition, Professor Marginson said, qualifications are only one factor in employers’ selection of candidates, with issues such as time and place also affecting the available pool.
Therefore, there is no “closed system” allowing for causal relationships to be identified, Professor Marginson said.
“It is delusional to measure or compare the quantity, quality or productivity of education programmes, institutions or systems, on the basis of the private rates of return to, or the rate of employment of, those graduates,” he said.
“Statistical methods designed to eliminate the effects of all factors other than higher education flounder given the number of variables, the interdependency between them, and the impossibility of isolating each separate causal factor from all the others.”