What does the LEO data tell us about graduate outcomes?

10 August 2017

Graham Hieke, Senior Research and Policy Officer

The latest release of the longitudinal education outcomes (LEO) data provides an insight into the employment and earnings outcomes one, three and five years after graduation. Importantly for our professions, this release is the first to include information on the outcomes of graduates of nursing (JACS B7) subjects.

Compared to many other subjects, there was considerably less variation in terms of the earnings of graduates of nursing programmes (£23,900 – £35,500). Encouragingly, the data suggests they appear to be insulated from some of the lowest earnings reported across the different subjects; although this may be an artefact of the career choices of graduates, with many likely to work in the NHS. The variation of earnings within subjects allied to medicine was considerably greater (£10,000 – £46,000), speaking perhaps to the range of subjects included within this broad category and subsequent onwards career choices. However, LEO data takes no consideration of the nature of graduates’ employment. Graduates may end up working within different industries, or within different parts of the same sector where pay might vary. Consequently, the narrow earnings bands reported in LEO for nursing subjects may reflect NHS pay band structure, but could equally relate to pay from other sectors or industries.

One of the most significant findings, both at an overall level and within nursing was evidence of a gender pay gap. In a subject with comparatively more female graduates the gender pay gap within nursing subjects appeared instantly after graduation and was sustained over time. The release of the BBC salary data has pushed the issue of gender pay to the fore and these findings will do little to ease tensions. On a more positive note, analysis of LEO suggests levels of participation (e.g. POLAR3 Q1 classification) and prior achievement (e.g. Key Stage 5) had less of an impact on earnings than seen in other subjects.

For all that LEO tells us about graduate outcomes, there are some important caveats. First, the earnings data published in LEO is raw, has not been indexed to inflation and should not be viewed as an indicator of universities’ performance. As graduate earnings will be influenced by the overall health of the economy LEO is not a reliable predictor of future earnings. Second, the raw earnings data fails to account for the composition of each HEI’s intake which is likely to influence graduate outcomes. Similarly, data on ethnicity was excluded from this release, requiring future interrogation. Third, there was considerable variation in terms of the proportion of graduates whose activity was captured within LEO data. For instance, the earnings of those who are self-employed, or who leave the UK are not included within the data. Perhaps more significantly for professions such as nursing, with a higher number of female graduates, the activity of those who leave the labour market due to pregnancy and other care-related responsibilities are also excluded from LEO. Cohort size, or the absolute level of graduate activity captured within each subject may also account for some of the variations in earnings within subjects at an institutional level. Finally, LEO data is not currently available for non-university routes into the labour market and therefore it does not provide an estimate of the net benefit of a university education compared to non-university routes.

Making sense of the data on graduate outcomes is key, as multiple narratives emerge across the different subjects when considering graduate outcomes derived from LEO. Importantly, an over-reliance on earnings data as a measure to define success may be unwise and potentially unhelpful when attempting to estimate the impact of graduates. However, the evidence of a gender pay gap for graduates of nursing subjects is of great concern for our professions. Putting aside issues with data accuracy and coverage, there is clearly more work to be done to understand the underlying factors driving this. The inclusion of ethnicity data within LEO would go some way to helping us delve deeper into issues around equality, whilst NewDHLE has the potential to provide more context surrounding graduate outcomes. More broadly, questions must be asked within the NHS, higher education and beyond as to whether equal pay is being applied across the board.

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