Politicians must rethink their ideas about graduate success

Research on dance and drama graduates demonstrates that post-degree satisfaction is not all about salaries, argue Tristram Hooley and Robin Mellors-Bourne

November 21, 2020
National Conservatory of Franche-Comte
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Looking at the careers of those who study dance and drama calls into question simplistic assumptions about graduate ‘success’

The stereotypical idea of “graduate success” conjures up visions of bright young people wearing smart suits heading off to corporate jobs. This is an important part of the graduate labour market, but it has always been a small part. Graduates work all over the economy, in the public sector, in charities, in small businesses and often in jobs that do not require a degree.

Policymakers have often struggled with the complexities of graduates’ careers. Some seem to want a simple story in which university education is either powering the economy or a complete waste of money. In the UK, we have ended up with measures based on the Longitudinal Education Outcomes data and the Graduate Outcomes survey. These focus on the average salary that graduates earn, how likely they are to be employed and whether they have a graduate job (the definition of which has seen an ocean of ink spilled). A successful graduate is, therefore, assumed to be someone who is employed (rather than self-employed), works in a job that is usually done by graduates and earns an above-average salary.

The development of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), whose metrics include graduate outcomes, means that even greater weight has now been heaped on to these same measures. Salary and the chance of employment no longer just define the success of individual graduates; they are also used to identify whether courses, academic departments and institutions are any good.

Similar issues underlie debates about the value of particular disciplines and courses in other countries. Recent Australian measures to raise fees and reduce government support for students in certain humanities subjects – described as “potentially the greatest hit to Australia’s humanities sector in a century” – rely on (fiercely disputed) claims about the employability of such graduates and the subjects’ failure to equip people for crucial jobs in growth areas.

We want to challenge the basic premise that higher earnings are the best criterion for judging graduates’ success. If we relied on earnings alone, we would have to conclude that nurses were less successful than bankers. This leads us down a dangerously reductive way of thinking about careers and graduates’ success.

The problems with this way of thinking became very apparent to us recently when we conducted research on the career outcomes for graduates of dance and drama degrees. These graduates often turned out to be self-employed and/or in part-time work, sometimes combining work in the arts with “non-graduate” work, and rarely earning high salaries. By the definitions that are being baked into performance indicators such as the TEF, these would not count as successful graduates, and the assumption would be made that their courses and the institutions where they studied must be of poor quality.

But, clearly, graduate success is more complex than this. In our study, therefore, we sought to develop a more subtle, multifaceted understanding of life and career success that recognises that graduates, like the rest of us, can be successful in some ways but not in others.

We were interested in whether they used the skills they had developed while studying and whether they remained engaged in their discipline. Though we didn’t ignore their earnings, we also wanted to know whether the graduates felt that they were able to “make a difference” through their careers and pursue activities that were in line with their values. Finally, we asked about their health and well-being and whether they were satisfied with their career so far and optimistic about the future.

Almost 90 per cent of our respondents maintain a connection to the art form they studied (through paid or unpaid activity) and four out of five feel they have built a good career since they graduated. About the same proportion feel that their course contributed positively to this. More than 80 per cent have shared knowledge of their subject with other people or communities and over three-quarters feel they have made a positive contribution to their local communities.

In short, most are, in many respects, highly satisfied with their careers. Is it sensible for us to then conclude that these graduates are not successful merely because they have studied for occupations to which society accords cultural but not financial value?

Simplistic relationships between inputs and outcomes will always be problematic and should be used with care. But if we are going to assess graduate outcomes at all, let’s at least try to give due weight to what matters to society and to graduates themselves.

Tristram Hooley is chief research officer at the Institute of Student Employers. Robin Mellors-Bourne is director of research and intelligence at the Careers Research and Advisory Centre. Their report, It Helps to Have More Strings to Your Bow, is available on the Careers Research and Advisory Centre’s website, crac.org.uk

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