Tax data part of UK graduate employment survey by 2020

UK’s university statistics agency will publish graduate salary data from tax records instead of relying on survey responses

March 6, 2017
Graduating student displays a Hire me sign written on his mortar board
Source: Alamy

Salary data from tax records showing exactly how much university leavers are earning is set to be integrated into the UK’s main survey on graduate destinations by 2020.

The new version of the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey – which in a change to current practice will also look at graduate outcomes 15 months after students leave university rather than the current six months – will include linked salary data from the UK’s tax body, HM Revenue and Customs.

Using data from tax records to show graduate salaries has already been mooted by the government as part of other projects, most controversially as a measure in the teaching excellence framework (TEF).

The DLHE, which is run by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, will use the same tax data that are already being produced for the Department for Education’s Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) project. An experimental first release from LEO last year highlighted the wide variation in earnings for law graduates from different English universities.

Details of how the LEO data will be incorporated into Hesa’s DLHE published survey results, starting in 2020, were outlined on 6 March in a consultation on the final proposals.

Hesa says in its report that “individualised salaries can be derived from data held by the HMRC. Utilising an anonymised process, this data can be linked or matched to Hesa data with a very high success rate.”

The tax record data will be supplemented by optional questions in the survey about salary – mainly to capture information from those working overseas – but Hesa says LEO will become the “principal source of published information on graduate earnings data” in the new DLHE.

Universities have expressed concerns in the past about using the immediate salaries of graduates in some fields – such as arts courses – as a measure of how well a course has prepared them for a future career.

Perhaps to address this, Hesa’s proposals for the DLHE also outline plans to include new questions in the survey that aim “to capture alternative measures of success”.

“Graduates will be asked about the meaningfulness of their activity, how their skills are being used, and about their progress towards future goals,” a Hesa spokesman said. “The survey will also gather information on graduates developing creative portfolios, starting their own businesses or pursuing other non-traditional career paths.”

The DLHE’s current practice of surveying graduates just six months after leaving university has repeatedly prompted questions about the usefulness of such data, although a longer form of the existing DLHE does survey a smaller sample of the same graduates three years later.

Hesa proposes to move towards a single survey of graduates after 15 months, a compromise between strong preferences expressed in its original consultation for a survey at either 12 months or 18 months after graduation.

Dan Cook, Hesa’s head of data policy and development, said that moving the DLHE to a 15-month time frame might mean that it is more comparable with other countries’ measures of graduate outcomes, although this was not a “direct aim” of its review.

“The crucial factor in selecting 15 months is to obtain the most useful information about transitions into the labour market following graduation, while retaining a sufficiently high response rate,” he said. “That the…model is more comparable with international surveys is an additional benefit that our model delivers.”

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