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Is it time to rethink how we measure graduate career success?

Chris Percy is an independent researcher and policy adviser
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As UK Higher Education professionals know, salary is often a prominent measure of graduate career success and the perceived value of degree courses.

But as the labour market evolves away from a ‘job for life’ model, this metric is even less sufficient than it once was.

In areas like the arts or public sector in particular, we can’t hope to measure success based purely on how much a graduate earns in their first years post-graduation.

Career Satisfaction Beyond Salary-Linked Benefits

To tackle this, the Edge Foundation recently conducted research to identify factors contributing to career satisfaction beyond salary-linked benefits.

This used data from the graduate destination surveys commissioned by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

The data comprised self-reported graduate career satisfaction six months after graduation and 3.5 years after graduation.

The research focused on full-time undergraduates who went straight into work after finishing their degrees.

Eight Career-Related Factors of Higher Education Provision 

The regression analyses relate eight key aspects of graduates’ reported university experience and degree relevance to their career outcomes, termed here as “career factors”:

1. Great Transferable Skills Support?

  1. Communicate effectively in your work
  2. Make good decisions in your workplace
  3. Make effective use of information and communication technology in your work
  4. Be innovative in the workplace
  5. Work effectively with numbers
  6. Take initiative and personal responsibility in your work
  7. Solve problems in your work
  8. Work effectively with others
2. Degree Grade Important?
3. Degree Subject Important?
4. Degree Type Important?
5. Degree as Evidence of Skills?
6. Work Experience in Degree?
7. Qualification Formally Required?
8. First Job via University?

Our study “Drivers of early career success for UK undergraduates: An analysis of graduate destinations surveys” found that – of the eight career-related factors analysed – support for transferable skills had the strongest relationship to career satisfaction.

Graduates who were positive about gaining transferable skills at university (things like flexibility, self-management, creativity, determination and resilience) reported higher job satisfaction.

Employer surveys have also shown that these skills are of high importance. Clearly, then, these skills are a vital part of the HE offering.

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How can we better integrate transferable skills into the university experience?

One example is Cardiff University’s National Software Academy (NSA). The NSA has ormalised the teaching of transferable skills by articulating the skills to be achieved into each module. Relevant skills are consistently addressed and assessed. Students acquire them in several ways, for instance through regular workshops with external experts.

They learn how to do things like deliver professional presentations, while the physical learning environment emulates the workplace. Crucially, students have regular opportunities to put these skills into practice via real-world projects and work placements.

Career Relevance Of Degree Subject

The research also found strong links between career satisfaction and the relevance of a student’s degree subject to their job. Yet less than 50% of those surveyed reported that their degree subject was actually important for their entry into the workplace. This suggests the potential to enhance career satisfaction with degrees linked more closely to the labour market and shaped to students’ aspirations. Access to work experience and relevant employer interactions could help. Universities could also help students better understand how their area of study links to key industries or employers.

A good example is Salford University. Their Industry Collaboration Strategy facilitates greater interaction between students, industry and community partners. Input from industry professionals ensures that degree courses are relevant to the issues graduates are likely to face in careers related to their area of study.

Relevant skills are taught via the curriculum (e.g. employer projects) but also through work placements. Access to labour market intelligence also helps students identify and pursue potential career paths. Importantly, this has proved successful even in subject areas like the humanities, which are not always strongly associated with specific vocations.

University Supported Career Planning

Finally, our research identified a positive link between career satisfaction and a proactive approach by universities to supporting students’ career planning. For instance, graduates who said they found a job through university (e.g. via careers service or their course) earned £1.2K more per year on average than those who found jobs via a recruitment agency or website (the most common route). Yet only 8% of graduates found their first jobs with this support. In addition, better career planning and prior preparation resulted in greater career consistency over time, which in turn was associated with higher career satisfaction.

HE careers services have potential to play a greater role than some presently do. Take, for instance, the Careers and Employability Service at Sheffield Hallam University. Rather than acting as a standalone service, they work across university departments to provide specialist placement support, job search advice and staff CPD. Each student is also allocated their own support, academic and employment supervisor, who offers careers and one-to-one business advice (e.g. how to start a company).

A Fifth of Graduates Don’t Feel Well Supported – Where Do We Go From Here?

More than 70% of graduates in our study were positive about how HE prepared them for the future. While this sounds reasonable, it still means over a fifth do not feel well supported. Where to go from here? A good starting point for those seeking reform is the Skills Builder Partnership’s employability skills framework.

Edge can also help. We partner with many universities who adopt new approaches, and today (2 Dec), are hosting a research symposium exploring three innovative HE models in the UK. We’d love to see you there.

Katherine Emms is a researcher at the Edge Foundation, an independent education charity dedicated to transforming the way young people develop the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century.

Chris Percy is an independent researcher and policy adviser who focuses on school-to-work transitions, lifelong career pathways and the changing world of work.

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