Careers services dislike ‘spirit and appropriateness’ of LEO data

Report suggests focus on graduate careers has fundamentally changed the way universities operate

University careers services dislike longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) data as a measure of graduate success, a new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) suggests.

The finding comes from a new report which concludes the focus on graduate employment has fundamentally changed the way universities operate.

The joint report was conducted with The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, which surveyed heads of careers services in 48 higher education providers (HEP) on the changing nature of their work.

While respondents overwhelmingly (93%) said the increased focus on graduate outcomes has had a positive impact on their work within a university, the report also identifies that many in university careers services have “concern about the spirit and appropriateness of” LEO data.

“[The survey] highlights the influence that the availability of LEO data has on the idea of ‘low-value degrees’. The survey responses show careers services do not share this enthusiasm. Instead, they are concerned about the reductive nature of this measure of graduate success, which relies solely on pay,” the report notes.

Despite 76% of careers services reporting an increase in student engagement in the last three years, only 45% of careers services have seen an increase in funding to cover the additional demand, compared to 55% who have not.

In their survey responses, staff said students in their first and second years were more likely to contact their careers service than in the past. Careers services also report more demand from students for personalised, one-to-one support.

Lots of people think careers services sit in a room at the edge of campus for students to stumble upon, but that view is out of date
– Dr Bob Gilworth, president of AGCAS

What policy has made an impact?

When asked to reflect on the influence national policy played in their work, only 2% of respondents said LEO data had had the most impact, with access and participation plans considered much more important for careers services.

LEO data has been criticised for tying the value of an undergraduate degree to the average earnings of undergraduates. The report repeated findings from a 2019 Hepi/Unite Students report, The New Realists, which found that only 13% of students rate being wealthy as an important factor for them when choosing to study a degree. It said this measure of value was not one prioritised by students.

However, the new Graduate Outcomes survey, which is expected to publish its first set of results in April, was considered the most impactful recent policy change by those in careers services.

The Graduate Outcomes survey replaced the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey, following allegations that universities were “gaming” the system. Under DLHE, universities were expected to collate graduate outcome data for the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa). The new survey will be conducted directly by Hesa.

Dr Bob Gilworth, president of AGCAS, told University Business many of the survey responses suggest those in careers services hope the new graduate outcome survey results could “balance out some of the more reductive messaging from LEO”.

Read more: Graduate incomes no measure of success, argues UUK president

Why does the report matter?

Dr Gilworth said the report mattered because it was the “first time the sector has written about this issue from the point of view of professionals working in this area day-to-day”.

The AGCAS president said the work of careers services had expanded in recent years, and many now have responsibility for placements, internships, volunteering and international study.

“Lots of people think careers services sit in a room at the edge of campus for students to stumble upon, but that view is out of date. They think careers services are only there to look at their CVs. Careers services are whole institution operations and are often brought in at the early stage to help draft access and participation plans. Their work extends into the curriculum and employer engagement,” he said.

When asked what the biggest barriers were for improving social mobility for students from widening participation backgrounds, Dr Gilworth cited social capital as the primary challenge.

“Social capital includes pragmatic things like understanding how the graduate labour market works. When the Institute of Student Employers surveys members, they find employers don’t recruit based on discipline. A bank is just as interested in history graduates as maths graduates, for example. Middle class students get that, less well-off kids don’t.

“The other issue is the persistent idea students have that in order to access the careers service they need to know what they want help with. Our services are stuffed full of people to help them figure that out. If you pitch up and say I haven’t a clue, that is absolutely normal,” he said.

What is changing?

Dr Gilworth said data collection was becoming more commonplace within careers services.

A new careers’ registration survey, which he pioneered during his time at the University of Leeds in 2012, has since been adopted by over 90 universities. The survey allows careers services to collect information on its intake and begin signposting students at the beginning of their degrees towards help, advice and guidance.

Reflecting on the fact that more than half of careers services have not received more funding from their university, Dr Gilworth said his members were “pragmatic realists” who were “doing more with less” but added his members would need more funds to offer the “personalisation that students value”.

The report also said new data collection was focusing on measuring employability. “DLHE data has been criticised for measuring employment outcomes rather than employability. Employability can be defined in many ways, but generally refers to the ability to gain and maintain employment, obtain new employment if required and the quality of the work,” the report noted.

The NUS said the focus on graduate careers was having an adverse effect on student wellbeing.

Claire Sosienski-Smith, NUS Vice President (Higher Education), said: “The focus on employability and graduate outcomes is not having a positive effect on students. We see this through the increased levels of stress and anxiety that they experience.

“Since the tripling of tuition fees, the burden of debt hangs heavily over students entering higher education and this explains why there is a greater focus among some on their future careers. As careers services have received more funding it is a natural step that they will see more use from students.

“But this change in focus shifts attention from many of the most important benefits of studying and the transformative nature of education. Graduate outcomes is a reductive measure for whether someone has had a perceived ‘successful’ education and the report highlights the disparities between the measures institutions and students care most about.

“It would be more insightful to look at the impact the focus on employability has had on students and their wellbeing.”

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