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Employability data has been heavily relied on by a generation of students, looking to get the best value for money from their degree, but shockingly this information is not always reliable.
When deciding which university to attend, or indeed whether to go to university at all, future careers are never far from the minds of prospective students or their parents. Cardiff University’s “Simply Parents” site lists six reasons to attend university, four of which relate to future employability. For many, the “university experience” and intellectual curiosity are major contributing factors. But, now the cost of a degree has risen to roughly £30,000, unsurprisingly people want a return on their investment.
For this reason it is more important than ever that graduate employment statistics are reliable and transparent. At the moment, however, this is not the case. The most popular higher education surveys, published by the Guardian and the Times newspapers, rely on data collated by HESA, the higher education statistics agency. This organisation, although it sounds thoroughly independent, it is part funded by the universities themselves. Furthermore, universities collect their own data so are free to interpret the HESA’s ambiguous guidelines as best suits them. This means none of their data can be taken as truly objective.
Aside from this lack of impartiality, individual results may be untrustworthy. Universities have set up schemes specifically to boost their employability rating. Sussex, for example, it was revealed, were spending £222,000 annually on a three month internship scheme designed to boost employment statistics for the period in which the HESA’s research was conducted.
This is not the only scandal surrounding the collection of this particular data. In 2013 Derby University was dragged into the limelight when they were accused of deliberately doctoring their statistics. The HESA’s survey found that 96.1% of Derby’s recent graduates were in employment, more than both Oxford and Cambridge. It was alleged that, by listing any unemployed students as “other”, suggesting they were ill, pregnant or travelling, or by ignoring these entries all together, they had insured their high position.
An independent evaluation found that this was not the case. However, new allegations against other universities have further undermined the HESA’s legitimacy. In addition to only targeting those graduates most likely to be in employment, researchers were asked to engage in highly fraudulent practice, explained one university employee. “To my shock I found myself being asked to make any salary below £10,000 a year “disappear” because they were bringing the average down”.
In an article for Times Higher Education, the employee who is not named, also describes how candidates who could not be reached on the phone, but were in employment, were “cyber-stalked” so that their forms could be completed. In addition, many non-graduate level jobs were bumped up to graduate level as candidates were forced to admit some level of managerial responsibility.
Over 30% of graduates were overqualified for their jobs in 2006. As more students enroll in higher education, this number may increase.
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Amid fears that the UK’s higher education policy is creating an overqualified workforce, obliged to accept jobs at a below graduate levels, employability statistics could play a more pivotal role in individual and governmental decisions than ever before. The doctoring of this data may encourage those whose career prospects would not be improved by the receipt of a degree, to chose this option above an apprenticeship or short course, which may better suit their needs.
Many recent graduates like myself may feel resentment at being misled, now that the ambiguity of this data has fully coming to light. According to lawyer, Joel F. Murray they would be entirely justified in this belief. His investigation into the manipulation of graduate employment statistics by American law schools, finds that in doing so, they are in violation of various consumer protection laws. After all, with the rise in tuition fees to £9,000 a year, we are consumers, not beneficiaries.
In this light, I believe that data on universities should be collected and collated by an independent research body as in any other industry. In the meantime awareness needs to be raised on this issue so that future generations can take employability ratings with a pinch of salt.
Personal testimonials, from recent graduates in your chosen degree topic, may prove useful in determining the necessity of a university education.
For many, the skills learnt at university might not particularly influence their ability in future jobs, but a degree could provide a necessary foot in the door. With three years in higher education costing over £30,000 to the individual, not to mention the cost to the government, perhaps the time has come to rethink whether or not it is really worth it.