Use graduate earnings data to shape university teaching, says Cambridge professor

Anna Vignoles argues salary statistics can be used to identify in-demand skills

September 30, 2015
Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge
Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge

Graduate earnings data should be used to help shape university course provision, according to a leading researcher.

Anna Vignoles, professor of education at the University of Cambridge, was set to tell a conference on 30 September that salary data could be used to identify skills that employers are being forced to pay a premium for, indicating that they are in short supply.

The Confederation of British Industry has reported that 55 per cent of employers are not confident that there will be enough people available in the future to fill their high-skilled jobs.

Professor Vignoles was due to tell a Rustat Conference on big data at Jesus College, Cambridge, that the salary data could be used to identify subject areas where more degree courses are needed, in the hope of closing the gap between employer expectations and graduate skills.

“Many firms have difficulties recruiting people with the right skills, and are having to pay a big premium for some skills,” Professor Vignoles was set to say. “Although we can survey firms about their needs, the results can be misleading, not least because only a select group of companies may respond.

“I have been working with colleagues to accurately analyse graduate earnings, using anonymous government administrative data. This type of analysis can show how earnings vary for different types of graduates, and so indicate which skills are in short supply.

“For example, let’s say that the next stage of our research reveals that graduates with strong analytical skills are in demand. This data could inform students, universities and policymakers, and may result in courses offering more training in analytical skills. More graduates will then have the analytical skills needed by businesses, and the skills gap should start to close.”

Professor Vignoles’ most recent research, conducted with colleagues from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Harvard University, drew on anonymised tax data and student loan records of more than 260,000 people. It found that, while the graduate salary “premium” was bigger for women than it was for men, male graduates continue to earn considerably more on average than their female counterparts.

“Providing information is not enough to change policy, but without good data any policy development is likely to be ineffective,” Professor Vignoles was to say. “The UK is world-leading when it comes to education data, but it is only recently that a big data approach has been used to look at graduate earnings.

“Fully exploiting the government’s education data could help to bridge the UK skills gap.”

Professor Vignoles was set to say that there needs to be an “informed debate about the extent to which members of the public are happy for data collected by the state to be used in this way”, to ensure that people’s privacy is protected.

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