Statistical Shenanigans Stun Surveys

It’s the time of year when surveys come out about graduates – there’s lots of surveys, but the ones that tend to get the most reporting are the Destination of Leavers results which come out via the government and are collated by the universities, and the Association of Graduate Recruiters surveys.

Both are high quality surveys, with lots of respondents, and great care to collate and disseminate information accurately, but as with all surveys they have shortcomings too:

Destinations – this survey is based on the responses of graduates 6 months after graduation.  So the first question is whether 6 months is a sensible time frame to determine whether a degree has been useful to a career – another survey, by HighFliers suggests that roughly half of graduates haven’t started to do anything about jobs until after graduation, so they are unlikely to have found their ‘career’ by January.  It also has a notion of whether the job is at ‘graduate’ level, which is based on quite a prosaic definition – this takes no account for whether the job is right for the individual, or may be a useful stepping stone on their long-term career path; it just deminishes ‘non-graduate’ jobs and tags the job-holder as underemployed.

The AGR Survey – this is a survey of AGR members who choose to participate, and covers a huge and varied list, but it does mean that it is partial as members tend to be larger organisations that have graduate programmes, rather than the small organisations that employ the majority of people in the UK.  It’s great for these organisations to benchmark themselves against their competition, and provides excellent information on a subset of the labout market – but it is just a subset.

And then of course we find out about the results via the agenda of our chosen news provider who is free to pick the stats for the elements that best suit their narrative – 20,000 unemployed graduates sounds huge whereas 10% unemployed at the 6 month mark sounds understandable.  Looking at the trend over the last 5 years shows that a combined ‘assumed unemployed’ and ‘not available for employment’ is currently at 12%, up 1% from 5 years ago – so not much difference.  Whereas just looking at ‘assumed unemployed’ shows a jump from 6% to 9% (i.e. 50% up) which seems significant.

As bad news sells papers it’s the negative spin that abounds, but there’s loads of good news in there too.

My main problem with all the surveys though is that it feeds into a narrative that reduces a degree to a passport into employment – surely it’s so much more than that: it’s a chance to learn, to explore, to broaden horizons and to enjoy yourself before life & mortgage hits (or a perhaps respite from everyday life for the mature and/or part-time students).  It’s going to be really difficult to justify £27k on an undergraduate degree if the benefit is seen solely as the job the graduate gets – lets celebrate the best years of many people’s lives instead.

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