Skip to main content

Coherence and comparability

In this section, we discuss the coherence and comparability of the Graduate Outcomes data. Coherence here refers to the degree to which the Graduate Outcomes survey uses the same processes and harmonised methods which are used in other investigations of the same or similar domains; under the category of coherence we are discussing both, the uses of and deviations from national and international standard definitions in the Graduate Outcomes data and the relationship between Graduate Outcomes data and other datasets, which may be available on the post-university careers of graduates. Comparability refers to the degree to which data can be compared over time; under this heading, we are discussing the relationship of Graduate Outcomes with the DLHE survey, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the second and subsequent years of Graduate Outcomes. 

National and international data standards

Several of the domains covered in the Graduate Outcomes survey are domains to which established data standards apply. Work and employment, occupation, industry, and subjective wellbeing have all been the subject of considerable previous study, leading to the development of standardised conceptual frameworks and definitions to facilitate discussion and analysis. Where possible, HESA aims to conform to these accepted data standards to enable comparisons between HESA data and other datasets and analyses relating to the same concepts, but it is important to discuss any areas in which we adapt internationally recognised standards to suit our analytical needs. 

Where Graduate Outcomes data refers to work or employment, HESA aims to conform to standard definitions wherever practical. The UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) has developed a standard framework, based on the concepts of labour supply and demand, for labour market statistics, which includes definitions for important concepts such as employment. This approach to labour market statistics is broadly compatible with the approaches taken by international bodies, and the ONS definitions of key terms align closely with those used by the International Labour Organization (ILO).[1]

HESA for the most part follows the definitions of work and employment used by the ONS and the ILO. The ILO defines work as ‘an activity performed by persons of any age and sex to produce goods or to provide services for use by others or for own use’, while employment is a sub-category of work referring to those who are ‘engaged in any activity to produce goods or provide services for pay or profit’.[2] Thus graduates who identify their most important activity as being engaged in unpaid or voluntary work for an employer are classified by HESA as in work, but not in employment. Although caring for someone else meets the ILO definition of work, graduates whose main activity is caring for someone else on an unpaid basis are classified as neither in work nor employment, and are included for analysis in the group of graduates undertaking ‘any other activity’. With this discrepancy in mind, we are continuing to review how best to align our data with ILO definitions of work and employment.

On the basis of Graduate Outcomes data, it is possible to identify those graduates who fit the ILO definitions of work or employment.[3] Identifying those who are unemployed according to the ILO definition, however, is less straightforward. The ILO defines ‘persons in unemployment’ as ‘those of working age who were not in employment, carried out activities to seek employment during a specified recent period and were currently available to take up employment given a job opportunity’; the ONS further specifies that, in order to be classified as in unemployment, people must be available to start a job within the next two weeks.[4] While the list of possible activities offered to respondents includes ‘unemployed and looking for work’, graduates who select this option are not asked how soon they would be able to take up work, and it is therefore not possible to identify them as unemployed according to national or international standards. Users wishing to compare the percentage of graduates who are not in work or further study with the unemployment rate in the wider population – a figure derived using the ONS definition of unemployment – should therefore use caution, since the relevant concepts are not directly comparable.

Graduates who are engaged in work for an employer (whether paid or unpaid), self-employment, running their own business, or developing a portfolio, are assigned both a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code and a Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) code. SIC codes for Graduate Outcomes are assigned using the SIC 2007 framework, which is the current industrial classification system maintained by the ONS; SIC 2007 is based on NACE (originally an acronym for Nomenclature générale des activités économiques dans les Communautés européennes), the European Community classification of economic activities, but with the addition of a fifth digit where it has been found necessary.[5] While SOC, like SIC, is a UK-based classification system administered by the ONS, the two most recent versions of SOC have both been broadly aligned with the International Standard Classification of Occupations 2008 (ISCO-08) so as to allow for comparison between UK and international employment roles.[6]

SOC codes for the first year of Graduate Outcomes were initially assigned using SOC 2010 (DLHE), a fifth-digit expansion of the four-digit ONS SOC 2010 framework. SOC 2010 (DLHE) was developed for use with the DLHE survey in order to provide more detail about certain jobs often favoured by graduates, particularly those in areas where graduates were closely associated with a proliferation of new roles in rapidly-developing parts of the economy.[7] Although SOC 2010 (DLHE) is a bespoke framework, the first four digits of any SOC 2010 (DLHE) code map directly onto the appropriate four-digit SOC 2010 unit group, which enables comparisons with SOC data from other national datasets.

A new UK SOC coding framework, SOC 2020, was published in February 2020, shortly prior to publication of the year one data. After analysing the SOC 2020 coding frame and determining that it would be suitable for use in our processing, we decided to adopt the new framework for use in Graduate Outcomes from year two of the survey. In parallel with the coding of 2018/19 data, 2017/18 SOC data (originally coded using SOC 2010(DLHE)) was recoded to SOC 2020 to enable time series comparisons between year one and subsequent years of the Graduate Outcomes survey.

The use of nationally and internationally recognised standards to classify the industries and occupations in which graduates work enables comparison between HESA data on graduates in the workforce and other studies of employment which include data on industry and occupation. The move to SOC 2020 further facilitates such comparisons by ensuring that graduates are classified according to the system which most closely reflects the current state of the labour market. The training requirements for occupations can change over time, and occupations may therefore move between SOC major groups when the SOC framework is revised; thus some occupations, including higher level teaching assistants and veterinary nurses, have moved from major group 6 (‘Caring, leisure and other service occupations’) in SOC 2010 to major group 3 (‘Associate professional occupations’) in SOC 2020.

HESA published the recoded 2017/18 SOC data in an ad hoc statistical bulletin on 20 May 2021.[8] The recoded data revealed a small increase in the proportion of graduates in occupations classified as ‘high skilled’. Under the old classification, 75.9% of graduates working in the UK were in highly skilled occupations, compared with 76.4% under SOC 2020. In particular, over 2,000 survey respondents were in occupations such as those described above which the new coding framework places in the high skilled category as ‘Associate professional occupations’ (major group 3), which were previously placed by SOC 2010 in the medium skilled category as ‘Caring, leisure and other service occupations’ (major group 6). The proportion of graduates in occupations classified as low skilled remained the same after the coding change at 9.9%.

Nationally accepted data standards are also relevant to the Graduate Outcomes SWB data. Graduate Outcomes measures SWB using a set of four questions (the ONS4) which were originally designed for the ONS as a harmonised standard of personal wellbeing; the ONS4 were first added by the ONS to the 2011 Annual Population Survey, and they have since been included in a range of other social surveys, including the Labour Force Survey (LFS).[9] HESA follows the ONS guidance on use of the SWB questions; the four questions are used verbatim in the Graduate Outcomes survey, and respondents are asked to give their answers to each question on a scale of 0 to 10, as specified by the ONS. HESA has also adopted the ONS’ bracketing methodology in outputs based on the SWB data. The adoption of a widely used set of SWB measures in Graduate Outcomes enables comparisons between graduate wellbeing data and wellbeing data collected in other social surveys; although it will be important to take potentially confounding factors into account in any analysis, the SWB measures themselves will be comparable.

Next: Graduate Outcomes and other data on graduates

[1] Office for National Statistics. 2020. ‘Introduction’, in A guide to labour market statistics.

[2] International Conference of Labour Statisticians. 2013. Resolution I: Resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilization. ILO Department of Statistics (ILOSTAT).

[3] While graduates who report that their main activity is caring for someone else on an unpaid basis are not included in HESA’s tables of graduates in work, those graduates can still be identified as a belonging to a category which fits under the ILO definition of work.

[4] Definitions of unemployment are available on the ILO ‘Concepts and definitions’ webpage ( as well as the ONS publication, A guide to labour market statistics (

[5] Office for National Statistics. 2009. UK Standard Industrial Classification of Economic Activities 2007 (SIC 2007): Structure and explanatory notes.

[6] Office for National Statistics. Classifying the Standard Occupational Classification 2020 (SOC 2020) to the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-08).

[7] Elias, P. and R. Ellison. 2012. ‘Standard Occupational Classification (2010) for the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education: SOC 2010 (DLHE)’.

[8] HESA’s ad-hoc statistical bulletin Graduate Outcomes SOC 2020 update: UK, 2017/18 includes updated versions of relevant occupation tables previously published using the SOC 2010 classification, as well as comparisons of the results under the old and new SOC classifications. See: