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Narrow employability metrics miss the wider impact of a university education

  • 14 September 2020
  • By Jane Turner

This blog was kindly contributed by Professor Jane Turner OBE DL, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Enterprise and Business Engagement at Teesside University.

Employability metrics judging the success of universities based on graduate earnings fundamentally fail to take into account regional, economic and social differences. This is both hugely detrimental and also rather intriguing as this does not appear to mirror the signature ‘levelling-up’ Government agenda.

The assumption that a high salary is the primary indicator of the value of university education does not reflect the much wider personal and social impact, especially for graduates in so-called ‘disadvantaged areas’, who are likely to earn lower salaries than they might by moving elsewhere. It also ignores the transformational opportunities that higher education provides for both young people and mature students.

As we see at Teesside University, the personal distance travelled is often enormous and, for many of our students, the opportunity to realise their ambitions on their doorstep makes higher education an appealing option. Our internal analysis of the recent Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) dataset indicates that in Durham, 10 per cent of graduates remain in the region five years after graduating; in Middlesbrough / Tees  Valley, the figure is 73 per cent. This is linked to the non-traditional nature of many of our students, where family commitments, for example, keep them in the region. LEO was also explored as part of HEPI’s report Getting on: graduate employment and its influence on UK higher education.

The opportunity to live, study and work in our region is crucial for reinforcing and regenerating communities, rather than fragmenting them, and it is key to our civic mission. However, given the economic landscape of our region and the embryonic status of many regional employers / small and medium-sized businesses, graduate salaries are not yet as high as other more prosperous regions; the narrow employability metrics hugely distract from and downplay the impact that a university education has on transforming people’s lives.

Graduates are drivers of our economy and we cannot, and should not, simply compare salary levels across the UK. In my opinion, the narrow data results in unfair and generalised perceptions. My own analysis, for example, indicates that the North East ranks 11th of the 12 UK regions for numbers of graduate-level jobs, annual opportunities and salaries. Economic, environmental and social factors all have a massive part to play here and the contextual narrative needs to be heard. Seeking to position universities with lower graduate earnings as low value is not only hugely dismissive of these significant personal and professional gains, but it is also contrary to the narrative driving the Government’s well-publicised levelling-up agenda.

Teesside University, along with other institutions who take their civic responsibilities seriously, works incredibly hard to improve life chances and raise the status of our region. This reinforces the calls made in HEPI’s Making Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain report. By continuing to increase the pool of graduates aligned to the regional higher-level skills needs, supported by a levelling-up agenda that is actually deeds not words, we will truly level up; and those opportunities to earn a higher salary will come as the economic prosperity of the region – galvanised by graduate talent, innovation, inward investment and ideas – further increases.

Let us also not ignore the fact that people have an active desire to remain in the region post-graduation. The fantastic quality of life, with good transport connections, beautiful scenery, friendly people and excellent housing, all encourage both local graduates and those who have moved here to study, to stay. HEPI’s Policy Note, Open for business? Students’ views on entering the labour market reinforces student priorities of being happy and fulfilled as part of the learning process and employability.

All this underlines the recent findings of the Social Mobility Commission, namely, that people from a higher socio-economic background are the most geographically mobile group, and again we need to recognise this, as well as the wider discussion in HEPI’s Policy Note on Social mobility and elite universities.

It is universally acknowledged that education is the route out of poverty and disadvantage. In Tees Valley, where higher education and further education work closely together through a long-standing partnership – we also see further education as a primary way of raising aspirations, confidence and skills for many young people in our region. We provide progression routes that enable many young people to move on to higher education, which for a large number of our students, is a truly transformational experience.

We are absolutely focused on graduate outcomes, ensuring our students can attain graduate-level jobs. Given that such a high percentage remain in the region, it would be a dereliction of responsibility if we did not. The suggestion that universities are simply focused on increasing student numbers for myopic commercial reasons is unpalatable and completely overlooks the huge energy dedicated to regional collaboration, partnership and civic engagement. A position further aggravated by employability metrics that judge graduate earnings in splendid isolation.  

Yes, there are other equally legitimate routes to ‘success’ and higher education is not the right path for all, but for a region such as the Tees Valley we play a fundamental role in raising aspirations and shifting life chances. Imagine what we could achieve in a ‘levelled-up’ region. Let us not undermine universities working so hard to make the difference.


  1. Sue Graham says:

    Yes this absolutely – wise words from Jane Turner. Surely in this year of all years it should be clear that starting salary is not the only measure of success and that universities rooted in their place like Teesside should be celebrated and lauded rather than denigrated by narrow metrics based on an outdated view of the value of HE.

  2. Alison Thorpe says:

    An insightful & thought provoking article., which I read with interest & wholeheartedly agreed with the authors point of view. We will not bridge the supposed North/South divide if we devalue the benefits of a University Education in our region due to the lower economic achievements possible here. A graduate education can only bolster & build on the status of the Tees Valley & every graduate is a valuable asset to our area, moving our region and socio-economic status ever upwards.

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