Wider-access advocates may debate the best means of improving access to higher education. But virtually all agree that the most effective incentive for potential students is the prospect of better employment opportunities.
Although a degree can open doors, there is a need to challenge some myths about the graduate labour market based on partial information or outdated research. While these capture the headlines, there is a wealth of expert knowledge on current and emerging trends in graduate employment in higher education careers services that is largely untapped by labour-market researchers.
This expertise is based not only on an annual survey of graduates'
destinations, the First Destination Survey , but also on information that flows daily from the labour market through careers services to students.
Another problem is that there is government pressure to use the First Destination Survey as an institutional performance indicator. Once the numbers are crunched, however, and published as league tables, the immediacy of their relevance for careers-guidance purposes has receded.
To make matters worse, researchers, starved of data, draw conclusions about graduate employment prospects from outdated research that has been superseded by recent developments in the graduate labour market. For example, a report published in 2002 on Scottish graduates used data gathered in 1998 about 1995 graduates. It concluded that Scottish graduates were less likely to be underemployed than graduates elsewhere in the United Kingdom and were more likely to be in degree-related employment.
These findings appear to describe the current picture but in fact reflect the situation in the mid-1990s. Since then, changes have swept across higher education and the economy, making it dangerous to extrapolate conclusions for the graduating cohort of 2002. Furthermore, the inclusion of medical graduates in the Scottish sample but not in the sample for the rest of the UK seriously skews these results.
If dates ring alarm bells, so too do small sample sizes. A recent report credited graduates in Scotland with the highest earnings in the UK. This is a dubious claim based on a relatively small sample of salaries offered by a narrow range of major graduate recruiters.
Research necessarily takes time and it can yield valuable insights on graduate employment patterns. Nevertheless, it can provide only a retrospective picture. Meanwhile, the world moves on. Finalists and employers alike want to know what will happen next. Higher education careers advisers are not clairvoyants but they are in daily communication with students and employers and are the first to spot emerging trends in students' attitudes and recruiters' behaviour.
They see the impact of mass higher education on the nature of graduate employment, which includes an increase in the number of graduates taking jobs outside the traditional managerial and professional occupations in major private and public-sector organisations. This prompts them to urge a wide range of employers to seize the opportunity to develop their business practices by capitalising on the availability of a highly skilled labour force from diverse backgrounds. They also encourage students to look beyond the traditional sources of graduate employment and to take the initiative in developing their own career paths.
Time and again research findings have verified belatedly what careers advisers already knew. This does not negate the value of graduate labour-market research but it demonstrates the pressing need for collaboration between researchers and careers advisers. This is the only way to capitalise on the pool of expert knowledge in careers services.
University of Strathclyde