HESA have just released the latest DLHE figures showing the destinations of graduates six months after obtaining their degrees. They have added significance this year as employment prospects will begin to determine the value of different institutions in the eyes of more applicants. This is what ministers are keen to see and to that end the statistics will feature in the Key Information Set, to be published for the first time in the autumn.

Not surprisingly, there has already been some negative media coverage. Headlines about unemployed graduates as well as underemployed graduates – those that can’t find work and those having to take non graduate jobs. Stories on the BBC and in broadsheets from the Guardian to the Telegraph have highlighted up to 1 in 5 graduates unemployed at six months and around 1 in 4 of those in work in jobs that might not require degree level qualifications. These findings come at a time when fees are rising to £9k a year and many commentators can’t resist seeing the data as proof that too many people go to university and that there aren’t the jobs to accommodate them all.

It’s a lazy and potentially damaging view. Taking a closer look at the data we can see an average of 90% of those graduates looking to do so are in work or further study after six months. This is more or less the same as the proportion of all people of working age with a degree in employment in the UK – at around 86-88%. This at a time when the employment rate for all people of working age is around the 70% level (note that the remainder in both of the latter figures are not all unemployed – the unemployment rate is much smaller as large numbers of people are voluntarily outside of the labour market because they might not want to work e.g. because they are raising families).

We are of course in a major recession and labour market conditions have been extremely fragile for nearly five years. But a number of institutions impressively outperform these conditions and the sector average by some way including the Arts University College Bournemouth and Harper Adams University College at 97% and 98% and the School of Pharmacy and the Institute of Education at 99% and 100% respectively. Their performance is particularly impressive given that these are all smaller specialist institutions (many of whom are soon to become universities following the Government’s recent changes to the criteria). On any measure, these institutions are performing extremely well and they deserve credit especially when operating in sectors such as the creative industries where employment is traditionally harder to secure and more fragile.

But it is also worth taking a closer look at the so called ‘worst’ performers – those institutions that might be described by some as offering poor value for money to applicants and cited as evidence that there are too many people at university (and perhaps even too many universities). At the bottom of the tables are Bolton University – 78.8%, London South Bank University – 78.1%, University of East London – 79.4%, University College Birmingham – 81.4% and Teesside University – 83.3%. And are these institutions evidence of an over-supply of graduates or a poor return because of institutional underperformance or lower quality? To those that believe either or those who occasionally voice doubt about the growth of higher education, it is instructive to look more closely at the data and at each of the institutions concerned. All are commonly described as ‘locally facing’ universities – recruiting high proportions of their students from their immediate localities – often mature or part time students or from other WP categories in large numbers from nearby. In turn most stay in or return to their communities after graduation to find work.

Now look at the percentages in employment for all people of working age in these places. Bolton – 66.9%, Birmingham – 57.3%, Teesside (Middlesborough) – 54.7% and many communities in South and East London with the lowest employment rates in the country such as Newham with 54.6%. Suddenly the performance of these local universities looks much stronger with most delivering an employment premium of 12-25% in weak local economies that significantly under-perform the UK or England averages. Institutions in stronger local economies can match but not exceed such performance – for example Cambridge University has an employment rate of 91.6% and the city of Cambridge 74.6% (a local premium of 15% in a labour market that does retain many of the university’s graduates).

So not only is there evidence that the employment returns to a graduate qualification remain strong – but also that this is significantly so even in more difficult economic conditions. Here the contribution and impact of such universities is absolutely critical and more directly tied into local labour markets than others. Typically these are low skilled, low employment economies experiencing major structural change over recent decades. The impact of local universities is significant – boosting human capital and supporting the growth of new businesses and sectors in these towns, cities and regions. We should celebrate all institutions – those with impressive performances in the 90-100% range and also those with lower percentages but equally impressive contributions in struggling local economies.

Andy Westwood – CEO