Graduate salary metrics ‘help push leavers towards London’

Fixation on outcomes data means universities have little incentive to persuade their graduates to stay local 

September 14, 2021
Golden Triangle, Oxford, Cambridge, London
Source: iStock

Metrics that use graduate salaries to assess UK universities’ performance could be acting as a disincentive for institutions to help their leavers stay in their region and boost their local economy, a new report suggests.

The report, by the social mobility thinktank the Bridge Group, says that typically lower salaries outside London meant universities had a reason to support graduates moving to the capital and find employment with large firms.

It calls for salary data on leavers who stay in the same region as their university to be published separately and placed in the context of other salaries in the area to help boost local economies’ retention of graduates.

The report, based on a study of data from the Higher Education Statistic Agency’s Graduate Outcomes survey and interviews with graduates and employers, finds that just over half of UK graduates stay in the same area as their university after leaving.

Although those who commuted to university, and are therefore probably from the area originally, were much more likely to stay (76 per cent), almost 40 per cent of non-commuting students still remained local to their institution.

The report finds that decisions to stay in the local area were motivated by well-being, financial independence and health, rather than higher salaries. Graduates who stayed in the area were also more likely to be from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Some graduates interviewed for the report, who had attended the universities of Sunderland, Hull, Lincoln and Exeter, noted that a “traditional narrative of geographically mobile graduates seeking to maximise their earning potential…advantages those from higher socio-economic backgrounds”.

“A university agenda that aims to encourage social mobility should be wary of using metrics that inadvertently weight the successes of graduates from higher socioeconomic backgrounds over the successes of graduates from lower socio-economic backgrounds,” the report adds.

It goes on to say that the study had found a perception that the government’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes graduate salary data “act[s] as a disincentive for universities to support their graduates in staying on in the region. This needs to be addressed, if universities and their graduates are to increase their contribution to the levelling-up agenda.”

Writing in the report’s foreword, Chris Skidmore, the former universities minister and chair of the advisory board for the UPP Foundation, which funded the report, says the study “highlights the need for why we need a more inclusive, careful and more balanced understanding of how we define successful graduate outcomes.

“Data of course remains important, but we must start to refocus on how we measure value rather than the price of higher education.”

Penelope Griffin, director of higher education and impact at the Bridge Group, said: “This report shows that while graduate retention in the regions is undervalued, there are practical steps that we can take to address this – and to support its growth.”

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

to be honest, I just wish we'd stop trying to measure everything in a "know the cost of everything and the value of nothing" fashion. Not only does it have unintended consequences but it distorts science. As a translational scientist I do support addressing public needs with my research, but some of my work in the past, driven by academic interest rather than targets, has had very large consequences in unimagined directions.

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