Graduates at a graduation ceremony

What sort of graduates do we need? Informing student choices and national policy

A classification scheme for graduate occupations developed in a research collaboration with UWE Bristol has become the standard tool to analyse graduate employment.

The tool has been used to:

  • help school leavers decide what subjects to study for their degrees
  • inform national policy on the provision of courses and on immigration
  • enable the university sector to understand the current state of the UK graduate labour market.

Research into graduate careers

How many graduates does the UK need, and in what subjects? To answer that question, we first need to know how the supply of graduates compares with demand, and what roles they take up. How has this been affected by the expansion of higher education?

These issues have been investigated in a stream of research since the late 1990s by Professor Kate Purcell, who was the Director of UWE Bristol’s Centre of Employment Studies Research until 2006, and Professor Peter Elias of the University of Warwick. Dr Nick Wilton, who also made key contributions, continues this work at UWE Bristol today.

The research included two large-scale projects that each surveyed thousands of graduates on what they went on to do after completing their degrees, followed up by detailed interviews with a subset.

One key research result was the development in 2004 of a new classification scheme for graduate occupations, known as SOC (HE). It moved beyond a simple binary ‘graduate versus non-graduate’ distinction. The need for this was highlighted by the changed landscape of jobs and the recruitment requirements of employers: qualification to degree level had become typical or required in many more types of roles than before.

The first test of the scheme was when the team used it to analyse the data they had gathered from graduates, helping them to draw their research conclusions. Since then, it has proved useful and influential in the wider world.

Informing decisions and policies in the real world

The SOC (HE) scheme went on to become the standard way of classifying graduate occupations.

The Higher Education Careers Service Unit and the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services work together to publish an annual report called ‘What do graduates do?’. It is a resource that summarises what sorts of jobs graduates in different subject areas take up, to help inform pupils’ choice of degree subject. Successive editions of the report from 2007-8 onwards have done this by categorising the jobs using the the SOC (HE) scheme.

The scheme has also helped inform policy deliberations on the provision of foundation degrees. The Higher Education Funding Council for England used it to assess what occupations were taken up by students in academic subjects it had identified as strategically important.

It has even been used to inform the UK Government on migration policy. In 2010, the Home Secretary commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) to advise on how to use the ‘Points-Based System’ (PBS) to manage migration into the UK. It made use of the scheme in advising on which occupations should be considered graduate level for the purposes of granting visas.

Universities UK has used the SOC (HE) typology to understand the state of the graduate labour market in seeking to inform and influence policy in the UK university sector, repeatedly citing the research of Purcell and Elias.

The Scottish Government has also used the scheme to analyse the employment outcomes of graduates from Scottish higher education institutions, to measure progress against policy performance objectives.

The classification scheme became established as a standard means of assessing the labour market for graduates, and has informed policy at the highest levels.

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