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Futuretrack: A study on the relationship between higher education and employment

Last November, the final results of a five-year longitudinal study conducted in the United Kingdom (UK) on the relationship between higher education, employment and students’ perceptions about their career options were released.

This study, entitled Futuretrack, has been conducted by researchers at the Warwick Institute for Employment Research, and was funded by the same institute, the Higher Careers Service Unit (HECSU) and supported by the University and Colleges Admission Service (UCAS). Futuretrack has collected and analysed qualitative and quantitative data, tracking the 2005-06 cohort of UCAS applicants for five years, starting from the initial application stage. This cohort of students has been surveyed four times in the five-year period of the study. The current report is based on the last wave of the survey, when most respondents had completed three or four year undergraduate courses in the preceding 18 or 30 months. The total number of valid respondents in the current wave was over 17 000.

Some of the main results, unsurprisingly, indicate that graduates seeking employment are facing a tough labour market due to the decline of the economy, which is reflected in higher graduate unemployment, a higher proportion of graduates in non-graduate jobs and a slower career progression than 10 years before. However, the results of the study also show that this is not a homogeneous phenomenon. Indeed, the employment experiences and prospects of graduates are influenced by several factors, such as the category of university attended, the age of the graduates, ethnic background and parental education levels. Regarding earnings, the study shows that although a higher education degree still confers a significant advantage in graduates’ earnings, these have been slowly declining in the past 10 years, an estimated 2 per cent decline per annum. The gender gap in earnings continues to be pervasive, as male graduates earn significantly more than their female counterparts.

The highest proportion of graduates in employment had studied medicine and dentistry, education, business and administrative studies and subjects allied to medicine, while graduates in arts, humanities, languages and interdisciplinary subjects were the ones least likely to have entered a graduate job.

The report also covers the experiences of international students. In this respect, the study found that international graduates were more likely than UK nationals to start masters or doctorate degrees. The results also indicated that European and third-country graduates experienced shorter periods of unemployment and were more likely to have secured a graduate job. This is partly explained by the type of subject studied, as many have chosen STEM subjects, and by their relative educational and socio-economic advantages.

The report also discusses the possibility that the experience of higher education may not only be beneficial to improve social mobility, but may actually widen the disadvantage gap between the least and the more well-off students: “The less positive labour market experience of graduates who did not take part in extracurricular activities, who remained in their parental home when they studied, and who did not develop the kinds of social networks that provided them with helpful careers advice, and the extent to which such activities are more likely amongst particular disadvantaged groups presents a challenge to the prevailing notion that higher education participation is a vehicle for social mobility and reducing the impact of prior disadvantage.  It instead suggests that prior disadvantage can be further entrenched by the very different HE experiences of those from more and less advantaged backgrounds.”