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Data and statistical concepts

The Graduate Outcomes survey covers all graduates who obtain relevant higher education qualifications during the survey year. The list of graduates who are eligible to be surveyed is generated on the basis of data on qualifiers from the Student and Alternative provider student record along with data from the further education sector supplied by the Department for the Economy, Northern Ireland (DfENI) and the Office for Students (OfS). HE providers and Welsh and Northern Irish further education colleges are then responsible for supplying HESA with valid contact details for their graduates. While the OfS can provide HESA with contact details for graduates of English further education colleges, colleges whose contact details are provided by the OfS can subsequently amend the contact details for their graduates as required[1].

Graduates are divided into four cohorts, based on the time of year at which they obtained their qualification, and they are surveyed, either online or by telephone, approximately 15 months after the completion of their studies[2]. Graduates are asked to respond to the survey with reference to a seven-day census week at the beginning of the sampling period; graduates in cohort A, for example, finished their qualifications in August to October 2018, and were surveyed in December 2019 to February 2020, with reference to the first week of December 2019[3]. Approximately 21% of graduates were surveyed as part of cohort A (having qualified from August to October 2018); 5% were surveyed as part of cohort B (having qualified from November 2018 to January 2019); 4% were surveyed as part of cohort C (having qualified from February to April 2019); and the remaining 69% were surveyed as part of cohort D (having qualified from May to July 2019). All four cohorts are analysed together to produce a single annual dataset, reflecting the fact that most UK higher education operates on a relatively standardised academic year, and the majority of graduates therefore finish their qualifications in early summer (cohort D). The division of the survey year into four cohorts primarily aids data collection and ensures a consistent 15-month gap between course completion and census week.

Graduate activities are one of the main areas of interest in the survey. Graduates are given a list of potential activities and are asked to select all activities from that list which they were undertaking during census week. The following options are available:

  • Paid work for an employer[4]
  • Self-employment/freelancing
  • Running my own business
  • Developing a creative, artistic or professional portfolio
  • Voluntary/unpaid work for an employer
  • Engaged in a course of study, training or research
  • Taking time out to travel – this does not include short-term holidays
  • Caring for someone (unpaid)
  • Retired
  • Unemployed and looking for work
  • Doing something else.

From the list of activities which they select, graduates are additionally asked to identify the activity which they consider to have been their most important activity during census week. On the basis of the activities which they select, graduates are routed to subsequent survey questions; the order in which they are routed depends on which activity they identify as most important.

Graduate employment is a key area of interest for many users of HESA data on graduates; the most recent version of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), for example, makes use of DLHE data on the percentage of graduates from a given provider who are in full-time professional level employment or further study six months after finishing their qualification[5]. Responses to the graduate activity question in the Graduate Outcomes survey are therefore likely to be an important source of information about graduates in work or employment 15 months after course completion[6]. In HESA’s analysis of the data, we compile tables that look at graduates in work; for some of these tables we include both those working for an employer and those who are self-employed, running their own business and developing portfolios, while for others we include only those in a certain type of work (e.g., ‘work for an employer’). We provide a ‘work type marker’ filter for tables which cover all graduates in work, to allow users to distinguish between respondents in paid employment, those who are self-employed or running their own businesses, and those in voluntary work. We also provide a ‘work population marker’ to relevant tables which allows users to view data either based on all graduates who report one or more of these activities, or alternatively to focus on those graduates who state that one of these activities is their most important activity.

Graduates who are engaged in work for an employer (whether paid or unpaid), self-employment, or running their own business, are assigned both a Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) code and a Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) code. Graduates developing a portfolio are assigned a SOC code only. Accurate SIC and SOC coding makes it possible both to provide users with a clear picture of the industries and occupations in which higher education graduates are working and to allow users to compare the outcomes experienced by graduates working in different areas.

The SIC framework categorises businesses in terms of the type of economic activity in which they are engaged[7]. Easily comparable data on the industries in which graduates are working helps users to understand the economic contributions made by higher education graduates.

Whereas SIC data provides information about the sectors of the economy in which graduates are active, the SOC framework provides a system for categorising occupations according to the skill level and type of work entailed by the jobs which graduates do[8].

SOC codes allow jobs to be categorised, in order of increasing specificity, according to major groups, sub-major groups, minor groups, and unit groups; major groups are distinguished by the level of skill and experience required to perform the activities associated with a job, while occupations within each major group are organised according to the type of work performed. In line with the methodology adopted by the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Education, occupations are classified according to their SOC major group as ‘high skilled’ (groups 1-3), ‘medium skilled’ (groups 4-6), or ‘low skilled’ (groups 7-9) for purposes of analysis. These classifications by SOC major group are particularly valuable to users who wish to see a broad overview of the kinds of jobs done by graduates or to compare the employment outcomes of graduates with different characteristics.

In addition to asking graduates about their activities during census week, the survey asks graduates two sets of questions about how they feel. In the first set of these questions, the ‘graduate voice’ questions, graduates are asked to reflect upon their activities, and to consider the extent to which those activities fit with their future plans, are meaningful, and allow them to utilise what they learned during their studies. These questions were designed by HESA in response to feedback from sector representatives, who felt that there was a need for qualitative data linking graduates’ current experiences with their experiences in HE[9]. Graduates in work are asked these questions with reference to their work, graduates in further study are asked these questions with reference to their current study, and graduates doing something else or engaged in multiple activities are asked these questions with reference to their current activities[10]. Given current policy interest in employment quality, HESA is currently undertaking work on the development of a composite variable, based on the graduate voice questions, which will help users assess the quality of the jobs held by graduates in work; an initial report on the rationale behind the development of this variable and the proposed methodology was published in June 2021, and a programme of user engagement is currently planned in order to determine how the new measure might be used in statistical outputs[11].

The second set of questions deals with graduates’ subjective wellbeing (SWB). SWB is assessed in Graduate Outcomes using a set of four questions (the ONS4), which were developed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for use in the Annual Population Survey and have since been used in a large number of social surveys; prior to their use in Graduate Outcomes, the ONS4 were included in the final year of the LDLHE (Longitudinal Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education) survey[12]. In the ONS4, graduates are asked to think about the extent to which they:

  • are satisfied with their life
  • feel that the things they do are worthwhile
  • feel happy
  • feel anxious.

Like the ‘graduate voice’ questions, the section on SWB was added to the Graduate Outcomes survey as an alternative outcome measure, separate from employment and employability. Several possible alternative outcome measures were proposed during the first consultation phase, and the ONS4 SWB questions were added to the core Graduate Outcomes survey in response to feedback from HESA’s statutory customers[13].

Finally, the Graduate Outcomes survey includes a number of opt-in question banks, which may be asked after respondents have come to the end of the core survey. Providers are given the option to select a number of additional question banks which will be asked of their graduates. Some of the opt-in question banks are targeted at certain categories of graduates and will therefore not be asked of all graduates from a provider.

The following opt-in question banks are available, depending on the data needs of providers:

  • Finding your job
  • Net promoter entity
  • Graduate choice
  • Research students
  • Newly qualified teachers
  • Careers service.

The addition of these opt-in banks gives providers some scope to tailor the survey to their particular data needs; a provider with a particular desire for data on graduate satisfaction might want its graduates to answer the ‘net promoter’ question bank, while a provider interested in the effectiveness of its career services provision might want to ask its graduates how they found their current jobs.

Next: Assessment of gaps


[1] Graduate Outcomes Survey Results record 2018/19 - Coverage of the record. https://www.hesa.ac.uk/collection/c18072/coverage

[2] For further details on the sources of the Graduate Outcomes data, see the relevant section of the Graduate Outcomes Survey methodology: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/graduates/methodology/survey-coverage

[3] For further detail on cohort and census dates, see the Graduate Outcomes Definitions page on the HESA website: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/support/definitions/graduates

[4] From Cohort C of the 2018/19 survey, additional guidance was added instructing graduates who had been furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme to report themselves as undertaking paid work for an employer.

[5] Office for Students. TEF data. https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/teaching/tef-data/
For further detail, see the ‘Employment metrics’ section of the Year 4 TEF technical specification: https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/media/da96d15a-97e6-4732-a2f5-cb2473633932/ofs2018_45.pdf For TEF purposes, employment counts as ‘professional level’ if the occupation in question has a SOC code in major groups 1-3; see below for HESA’s approach to SOC coding (more information is covered in this section, and further information is available below, in the SIC and SOC coding section).

[6] For more detail on the definitions of work and employment used by HESA, see the National and international data standards section.
Future action for HESA to consider includes evaluation of the potential gap between HESA and harmonised national definitions, both through comparison with third-party linked data sources such as LEO/LFS and through evaluation of question wording in the light of this.

[7] Further detail about HESA’s use of the SIC coding framework can be found in the National and international data standards section..

[8] For further detail about HESA’s use of the nationally recognised SOC framework, see the National and international data standards section.

[9] For more detail about the development of the graduate reflection questions, see the Graduate Outcomes Survey methodology: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/graduates/methodology/review-topics

[10] Further discussion of the routing of these questions can be found in the Survey instrument error section.

[13] For further information on review of alternative outcomes measures, see the relevant section of the Graduate Outcomes Survey methodology: https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/graduates/methodology/review-topics