Skip to content
The UK's only independent think tank devoted to higher education.

Beyond Highly Skilled – what the other Graduate Outcomes Survey questions tell us about graduate success

  • 5 July 2023
  • By Chris Jones
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Chris Jones, School Employability Manager for Architecture, Design and the Built Environment at Nottingham Trent University. This article builds on some of the ideas behind Dr Doug Cole and Jon Down’s recent article ‘Beyond Employability’ and explores a more holistic view of student success through the lens of the reflection and wellbeing questions contained in the Graduate Outcomes Survey.
  • Register for next week’s HEPI webinar with Unite Students on what applicants expect of their higher education here.

The results of the annual Graduate Outcomes Survey are upon us again, and across the sector we scramble to analyse our performance in terms of highly skilled employment outcomes and how this might affect our internal performance measures and external league table standings.

But it is worth looking beyond the narrow high skilled employment metric and reconsider the value of some of the less scrutinised questions in the GOS survey.  What do they tell us about graduates’ journeys, and how they might inform our understanding of what graduate success looks like?  And could this in turn influence how we talk to our students about employability?

How Does It Feel?

The Graduate Outcomes Survey does not simply ask students whatthey are doing, it also asks how they feelabout what they are doing, and about their life more generally.  As well as reflection questions about how meaningful graduates find their current activity, the extent to which it aligns with their future plans, and whether they are using what they learnt in their degree, respondents are also asked a series of subjective wellbeing questions addressing levels of anxiety, happiness and how far they are satisfied with their lives and feel the things in their lives are worthwhile.

The responses to these questions tend not to be widely used or commented on either within or beyond universities, although HESA provide insightful analysis of these responses on a national basis annually. Recently, David Kernohan of Wonkhe has included a helpful Quality of Work indicator in his analysis of the latest set of GOS results based on an average of the three reflection questions identified by HESA as an indicator of job quality which, as he says, isn’t currently used in any regulation or league tables, but arguably deserves a place there.

The idea of looking for broader definitions of graduate success isn’t a novel one, indeed as long ago as 2019, Neha Agarwal argued in a HESA blog that ‘one could certainly develop a more thorough definition of ‘graduate success’ by incorporating graduates’ personal wellbeing.’ However, as another year of GOS results rolls round, with institutional and policy level focus still firmly on employment outcomes and earnings, it seems timely to reflect again and expand the narrative on these wider questions and how they might help us expand our notions of employability and success.

My activity is meaningful

It is an important aspiration for all of us that we can find meaning in our lives, including our working lives.  Studies show that increasingly graduates prioritise the values and culture of the organisation they work for, and how it supports their work-life balance and ability to pursue their life goals. Indeed, a sense of meaningfulness will often be prioritised over earnings, and many graduates will actively choose to work in lower-paid sectors and jobs because of a vocational connection or commitment to or passion for that area of work.  One potential side-effect of the focus on high skilled and high-paid jobs is that students may be actively discouraged away from seeking jobs which they may find meaningful and rewarding in favour of graduate jobs which better suit a more instrumental success criteria.  Should we instead be asking how we can work to support students to understand and connect with their values and what is meaningful to them and plot their career path accordingly?

My current activity fits my future plans

Although the current survey point of 15 months after graduation gives a slightly longer-term perspective on graduates’ career destinations than the previous Destionation of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE)survey, it is still a relatively short-term measure given what will be increasingly lengthy and diverse careers.  We want students to see their first graduate job or activity as the start of the journey, not the destination, and encourage them to take the longer view on where they might go and how they might get there.  It’s a marathon not a sprint!  Equipping students with a lifelong learning mindset and empowering them with the ability to manage and develop their career will serve them more usefully in the long run than merely helping them step into a (suitably coded) high skilled graduate role on leaving university.

I am utilising what I learnt during my studies

Do we know what respondents mean when responding to this question?  Are they thinking specifically of their subject knowledge?  Are they considering the wider transferable skills and attributes developed over their course?  Are they reflecting on how they have grown and developed as a person during their time in higher education and what they have learnt about themselves?  Who knows.  But what we do know is that we should be encouraging students to think about their learning in the broadest and most holistic way possible, to encompass lifewide as well as lifelong learning, and to have the ability to understand their employability resides not just in their qualifications or the specific skills and knowledge gained from their degree, but in the sum total of their wider life experiences.  By helping students bring their wider learning and experience into the classroom, we can also support diversity and inclusion by acknowledging and valuing different perspectives and views.

Are you happy now?

Graduates are also asked 4 subjective wellbeing questions:

  • How satisfied are you with your life nowadays? 
  • To what extent do you think the things in your life are worthwhile?
  • How happy did you feel yesterday? 
  • How anxious did you feel yesterday? 

These are based on the ONS subjective wellbeing questions which are used in a variety of national surveys. Indeed, their use in the HE sector dates from the HEPI / Advance HE Student Academic Experience Survey in 2015. The key media headlines generated from these questions so far appears to be the unsurprising finding that graduates are happier at the weekend. But there are also interesting findings in terms of the differences in subjective wellbeing between graduates from different disciplines (with Medicine, Veterinary and Education graduates appearing to be the most happy and interestingly from my point of view, Architecture, Building and Planning graduates also scoring highly on this measure), as well as correlations between subjective wellbeing and earnings (interestingly only up to, but not above £23,500) and job quality.

The idea that the degree course you graduated from 15 months ago could have a direct bearing on how happy you felt yesterday is something that has raised eyebrows within the sector, and concerns have been raised about the potential triggering impact of including these questions unexpectedly in a survey fundamentally about employment on graduates who may be experiencing mental health issues. However, the inclusion of these questions, if nothing else, flags up the importance of mental health and wellbeing and its inter-relationship with employment. Certainly, issues of wellbeing are at the forefront of discussions around the student experience and how universities can ensure that students are effectively supported in a time of mental health crisis for young people. But there is also a wider question about the extent to which university education can help students develop resilience, a positive mindset, and the ability to effectively manage their mental health in the longer term.  We may not be able to control the external pressures and stresses of graduate life, but it would arguably be a considerable achievement to equip graduates with the means to manage these effectively, not just in the interests of their future employability but their overall life satisfaction.

Redefining success and employability

As we know, the metrics by which organisations are measured and judged tends to direct their behaviour.  An interesting thought experiment is to ask ourselves how we would do things differently if the ‘other’ GOS questions were the key metrics by which university performance was judged?  Would a more holistic definition of graduate success, including a focus on wellbeing and a meaningful life, change the way that we teach or support our students?  If it did, this would also be likely to benefit of student retention, progression, and satisfaction.  Explaining and unpicking some of these questions with students and helping them to explore the interrelationships between their career and a wider range of life outcomes and priorities may help students to make more richly informed decisions and achieve more meaningful outcomes.  Of course, on the ground, many careers and employability teams, professional services and academic departments already do a great job – resources allowing – of providing holistic support and development to students, allowing them to flourish both during and beyond their time at university. It may be a little over-simplistic to say ‘look after the students and the metrics will look after themselves’ but there is probably an element of truth in this.

In terms of the bottom line – would a focus on a broader range of support and outcomes result in students being any less successful in terms of high skilled and well-paid graduate employment?  I would argue that a resilient, positive graduate with a strong sense of their own values (and value) who has the tools and skills to pursue a meaningful life and career will almost by definition be highly employable and therefore likely to secure positive career outcomes – and hopefully happier, however we might define this.

Get our updates via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *