Performance indicators designed to measure universities' success in getting graduates into work are worthless, a professor of economics who has studied the formula and pronounced it fundamentally flawed, has said.
The indicators, devised by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, are based on "totally inadequate" data, according to Jim Taylor of Lancaster University's Business School.
"The aim of developing statistical methods to accurately measure the employability of each university's graduates is fine," Professor Taylor said. "But in practice, the published performance indicators have substantial and serious weaknesses. They are completely meaningless."
Graduates from some long-established universities are able to get a job quickly after graduating because of a "halo" effect. High employability may indicate that a university is highly regarded by employers because of its past achievements.
Graduates from newer and less fashionable universities are consequently at a disadvantage.
Another factor ignored by the benchmark is location. "Students in universities where there are plenty of jobs have an obvious advantage over more isolated areas," Professor Taylor said.
However, these shortcomings paled into insignificance when compared with the inadequacy of the data, Professor Taylor said.
The employability rate is calculated from the annual First Destinations Survey conducted six months after graduation.
The methods used to collect the data differ between universities and there is no accuracy check. Therefore a university judged to be performing badly may simply be less skilled at finding graduates who have managed to find employment.
A further criticism is that the first-destination data reveal only how quickly graduates get jobs. Graduates may want to delay making a decision about their long-term career. Moreover, the employability indicator provides no information about the quality of the jobs acquired.
"We really need information over a much longer period of time, such as three years or more after graduation," Professor Taylor said.
"We also need information about the type of job training being received, as well as salary levels, job turnover and job satisfaction."
Hefce said its indicators were designed to provide reliable information on the sector, providing a consistent set of measures.