What are the job prospects for art and drama students? It is a sensitive question for conservatoires and art schools keen to dispel accusations that their graduates are less employable than those from other academic disciplines. But rather than clarifying the issue, official figures for graduate destinations published this week have added to the confusion.
Institutions specialising in the arts, dance and drama have emerged with both the best and the worst graduate employment figures in the latest performance indicators for the sector.
The Northern School of Contemporary Dance, for example, is one of four institutions to notch up a "perfect" 100 per cent score - suggesting all its graduates secure jobs. In contrast, the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama has a figure of 76.1 per cent - indicating that nearly a quarter of its graduates had yet to find a job.
The heads of the institutions say the indicators, published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 2002-03, bear little relation to reality.
They argue that the voluntary survey of how many graduates are in work six months after graduation is too crude a measure to take into account professions such as acting, where short-term contracts are common, or the impact of a low response rate, particularly for small institutions.
A spokeswoman for the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama said: "Half our graduates are actors. The survey is taken just when those who have been in Christmas shows or pantomimes will be out of work and may be preparing to start their next job. Overall, our graduate employment record is extremely good. We need to look at how we can collect and present the data to show our employment rates. We need to make sure we have evidence that better reflects the employment patterns of our graduates."
Gurmit Hukam, principal of the Northern School of Contemporary Dance, said the indicators could give a false impression when a high proportion of graduates were in fact in further study.
The school, which became part of the Conservatoire for Dance and Drama the year after the survey, saw nearly half of its graduates join a further course in 2002-03.
Mr Hukam said: "That is now not unusual for dance. I would love to say we have a 100 per cent employment record - but realistically that just does not happen. You might ask what exactly do these indicators mean?"
Hesa, which took over the job of publishing the data from the Higher Education Funding Council for England this year, said the survey was designed to collect more detailed information than was previously gleaned from the first destination exercise.
A spokesman said the information was checked and institutions given the chance to see it before publication. "It is a voluntary survey, so it's only as good as the people who respond to it," he added.
The survey concludes that 92.5 per cent of undergraduates from academic institutions were working, studying or both six months after graduation in 2002-03.
EMPLOYMENT INDICATORS 2002-03
Top five institutions
% graduates in employment
or further study Northern School of Contemporary Dance 100 Royal Northern College of Music 100 The School of Pharmacy, London 100 University of Wales College of Medicine 100 St George's Hospital Medical School 99.4
Bottom five London Metropolitan University 83.2 Glasgow School of Art 83.0 University of East London 82.9 Wimbledon School of Art 82.3 Conservatoire for Dance and Drama 76.1