Distinction and Diversity in Higher Education

It’s not about the money, money, money – how LEO fails to give the full picture of what many graduates earn

Stacks of coins


On the surface, it seems like a good idea. Students should have all the information they need to make well-informed choices about their path into higher education. Which is why the Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, has requested that the OfS made the Longitudinal Education Outcomes (LEO) data available on Unistats. What could go wrong?

Well, as Minister of Universities and Science, Sam Gyimah, said in his evidence to the Education Select Committee, there are several reasons why you “need to take LEO data with a pinch of salt”.  

LEO doesn’t give us the full picture

One of the key issues with LEO is that it doesn’t give us wholly accurate data of how much graduates are earning. GuildHE has, for a long time, lobbied for the LEO dataset to include income from self-employment as well as PAYE data. This is now the case. And yes, it reflects the graduate outcomes of those who both have salaried jobs and self-employed data but there are still caveats, especially as salary and self-assessment data are treated differently in the methodology. Salary data is averaged over the tax year when calculating an ‘annual salary figure’ to mitigate gaps in employment, whereas self-assessment data is taken as an absolute amount.

GuildHE represents twenty creative institutions. Creative graduates, due to the time needed to build an experience base, and predominantly working freelance, are unlikely to earn above the tax threshold in the first year. This means that these students won’t be included in the analysis. It also doesn’t distinguish between graduates who are working full or part-time.

Your degree is not the key indicator of earnings

Human beings are complex. We are much more than our qualifications, and research has shown that there are many factors that affect your graduate outcomes. The biggest factor, according to Anna Vignoles, is your family background. Gender, race, and socio-economic background are also major contributors – and come into effect as early as one year after graduation.

Where does this leave providers who have a majority WP intake? At best, this could encourage more comprehensive careers support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. At worst, it may discourage providers from taking these students altogether.

Regional Differences

A key concern for GuildHE, echoed in the recent Select Committee, is the issue of place. The Industrial Strategy encourages universities and their graduates to be ‘builders of place’ in order to redress economic imbalances: Providers which support local economies by encouraging graduates to stay in their local areas, or recruit students from nearby who are likely to remain at home post study. Yet where you work has a huge impact on what you earn. We are concerned that these institutions who are fulfilling one government initiative are going to be punished through another.

What’s the alternative?

There are other ways of presenting earnings data. The Economist recently published an article examining this by developing a ‘statistical model that predicts wages based on the subjects people study, their exam results at school, age, family income, whether they went to private or state school and where the university was located.’ If salary data is to be presented on Unistats, perhaps this “added value” approach would be a more effective way of doing it instead of raw LEO data.

With growing concerns around ‘value for money’ and ‘student choice’, it’s really important that the information that is given is fair and accurate. Ministers should also remember that the Higher Education and Research Act says that the OfS has the duty ‘to promote quality, and greater choice and opportunities for students, in the provision of higher education by English higher education providers.’

Many GuildHE institutions provide high-quality education that do not necessarily lead into big salary professions, but they do go into incredibly worthwhile careers, such as teaching, healthcare, and agriculture. There is also not a strong connection between high-level skills and high salaries, and it is unfair to start judging institutions on graduate salaries when they have little control over industry pay scales.

Surely the sector should be celebrating this diversity, not penalising it.