How the University of Sydney is using data to further improve its graduate employability

Making lives better is at the heart of this data-driven mission at a world-leading university

Founded in 1850, the University of Sydney (UoS) is the oldest university in Australia, and is also amongst the most prestigious higher education institutions in the world, consistently making it into the top 50 best universities according to the QS World University Rankings (currently rated 42nd). With 34,000 undergraduate and 25,000 postgraduate students each year, it is also a key institution for the Australian and wider Asia-Pacific professional labour market, and its reputation as one of the world’s best universities in terms of graduate employability has been confirmed by QS, which rates it as the fifth best globally.

At the heart of the university is the aim to improve lives by equipping students with the leadership qualities that will prepare them to go out into their communities and serve at every level. Yet with the world of work undergoing a period of rapid change, especially in terms of the skills being demanded by employers, the university has been looking for new ways to understand the impact it is having, so that it can keep up and ensure it continues to meet the needs of students, employers, communities, and the wider labour market.

Understanding graduate outcomes

For a university that is ranked so highly for graduate employability, there could be a temptation to rest on its reputation. But at a time when more questions are being asked of universities to prove their outcomes, UoS is taking a proactive approach, seeking to gain a better understanding of what specifically its alumni are actually doing in the workplace.

To help them achieve this, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, Prof Pip Pattison, recently commissioned Emsi to undertake a major research project to analyse what the institution’s former students are achieving in the labour market. In particular, they were keen to find out the following:

What is the interaction between our graduates’ degrees and the career pathways they have pursued?

What kinds of skills are our graduates using, and how do these make them distinct?

How can we use this data to benchmark our performance and identify where and how we can improve?

According to Ainslie Bulmer, the university’s education portfolio executive director, the primary purpose of the report was to put more science behind understanding what its alumni are doing.

She says: “What we were particularly keen to find out, is how closely our course areas are aligned with what our graduates are doing, and whether there are particular skills that they have that give them an advantage in the labour market. The Emsi report is full of insights that help us understand these issues much better.”

Identifying graduate outcomes

The report is in two main sections, the first is focused on graduate outcomes, using Emsi’s graduate profiles data to analyse the careers pathways taken by the alumni, in order to identify how well the institution reaches different occupational labour markets from its course subjects, where its graduates are most active in the labour market, and how they fare in terms of accessing higher-end job opportunities. The analysis looked at a total of 1.9 million profiles across all Australia’s higher education institutions, with a ‘concentration index’ used to compare the share of UoS graduates in 20 different career areas with graduates from all other universities. It could then determine career pathways where UoS has a higher or lower concentration of graduates than other universities.

The study found UoS graduates are more likely to find careers in legal and regulatory services; marketing, advertising and public relations; and business and financial analysis than is typically the case for all other graduates. In an accompanying analysis of wage profiles, the study also found that UoS alumni are, on average, paid slightly more than graduates from other universities, but there are also a number of key areas where they are paid significantly more.

Understanding skills clusters

The second part of the report examines skills clusters. Using Emsi’s unique methodology, it looks at the strengths of particular subjects in the labour market by identifying correlations between skills cluster and single roles. It was then possible to get a sense of whether and where UoS alumni are finding niche positions, what skills they value, and how their skills differ from those of their peers.

The university looked at four clusters – business, law, humanities and social science, and STEM – and among many other findings, the research revealed that for UoS graduates in business and social sciences, they typically have a greater emphasis on change management and stakeholder management.

How will these findings be used?

There are a number of different ways UoS is considering using the findings:

  • Internal discussions: the wealth of detail offers a great opportunity to have conversations about graduate outcomes.
  • Engaging employers: UoS hopes to explore whether enhancing certain skills would add more value for employers.
  • Informing students: UoS hopes to use the data to help their cohort make more informed decisions.

For a university with a world-class reputation, particularly for graduate employability, the research has not only helped confirm much of what was known anecdotally, but it has also provided a more scientific basis from which improvements around future employability can be discussed and implemented.

Bulmer says: “Emsi’s report provides us with a benchmark, both in terms of how we move things forward internally, and also how we are faring against peer institutions. We now have solid evidence, which we can use to better plan how we are going to keep up with the rapid workforce changes we are seeing, and so provide an even better service to all our stakeholders.”

For more information about how data can be used to help your university improve graduate employability, contact Richard Hewitt, director of higher education at Emsi by emailing: richard.hewitt@economicmodelling.co.uk