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Unemployment among students leaving new universities is no worse than that from old universities

Originally Published 26 November 1999

Unemployment among students leaving from new universities is no worse than that from old universities according to a new survey conducted by the Institute for Employment Research (IER) at the University of Warwick.

The research funded by the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (CSU) and the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) with additional resources from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) surveyed over 11,000 leavers from 33 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) approximately 3 and a half years after they qualified in 1995

The increasing diversity of the graduate labour market and the graduate population has meant that new graduates have had to 'carve-out' career routes rather than follow in the footsteps of their predecessors. The rapid expansion in Higher Education (HE) has led to concerns about graduate unemployment and underemployment. Most of this evidence has been based on an annual survey of graduates conducted 6 months after graduation, (the First Destination Survey) which arguably is too early to make a fair assessment of the longer term employment prospects of leavers from HE. Drawing on the rich information on the early career paths of a sample of graduates and Diplomates 3 and a half years after graduation, this report illustrates how the transition from HE to work varies by subject, gender, age, background and degree performance.

The overall results are positive. While a significant proportion of graduates experience unemployment and spend time in a non-graduate job, for most it is a transitional phase as they establish themselves in the graduate labour market. Three and a half years after graduation, only 2 per cent of graduates are unemployed and only 10 per cent are employed in a non-graduate job. These proportions were still declining and expected to fall even further.

Drawing on detailed information about graduates' experience of the transition from HE to the labour market over the 3 and a half year period since graduation, a wide range of indicators of graduate employability (unemployment, occupation, earnings) are examined and issues in relation to the timing of data collection are explored.

Key findings

  • Unemployment 6 months after graduation is indicative of future difficulties. Graduates unemployed 6 months after graduation typically spent more than one year unemployed over the first 3 and a half years, and have lower earnings in the future.
  • The experience of unemployment among leavers from new universities is no worse than that among leavers from old universities.
  • Graduate underemployment is generally a transitional problem; 3 and a half years after graduation, 90 per cent of employed graduates are in a 'graduate job'.
  • Male graduates who gained degrees in maths and computing or medicine and related out earn their female counterparts and graduates from other disciplines 3 and a half after graduation.
  • HE students studying non-vocational subjects often felt that they needed to 'collect' further skills before entering the labour market.
  • Pressure to do well in their degree is displacing graduates' efforts required to find a good job.

In this report five social science researchers from different subject and discipline backgrounds, each with an interest in the graduate labour market, have undertaken analysis of different aspects of the data collected to contribute to an assessment of the early career paths of 1995 graduates and Diplomates. The substantive chapters are summarised below.

Graduate employability and performance indicators: first destinations and beyond, by Abigail McKnight, is written from an economic perspective looking at ways in which graduate 'success' in the labour market, and its determinants, can be quantified. Particular emphasis is placed on the importance of early labour market outcomes in predicting future labour market difficulties. An analysis of graduate outcomes was also examined at the institution level. Performance of HEIs based on an indicator of graduate 'employability' (graduate unemployment) 6 months after graduation are regularly reported in the media. This piece complements other work she has done in this area.

Unemployment in the early careers of leavers from higher education, by Peter Elias, builds on his expertise by focusing on the issue of graduate unemployment; an issue which has received considerable press coverage over the last few years. His analysis examines how the experience of unemployment varies according to personal characteristics of HE leavers and in terms of the courses they pursued. Finally, he addresses the question of 'does it matter?' by looking at the relationship between the experience of unemployment and labour market outcomes 3 and a half years after graduation.

Claire Simm writes about Getting ahead? Additional qualifications, training, and work experience, using information from the survey and the interviews to look at participation in further periods of study following the respondent's 1995 course. A high proportion of graduates now pursue postgraduate courses and it is important to understand the motivation behind participation in further periods of study as well as the benefits from further qualifications. She looks at the types of course pursued, reasons behind course choice and shows interesting variations by subject area. Her findings have implications for those who are responsible for the content of HE courses.

Moving on and matching up: the 'fit' between undergraduate studies and graduate jobs, by Kate Purcell, takes a sociological approach looking at graduates' experience of employment and perceptions of the extent to which they have been able to access jobs for which their qualifications were required. She is concerned to assess how far the 'fit' between degree content and undergraduate programme experience are related to career outcomes. The chapter focuses on differing career trajectories, different types of employment and earnings achieved by graduates, particularly with reference to subject studied and gender.

Guidance and career planning, by Jane Pitcher, explores the degree to which careers guidance and information was sought by respondents during their time in higher education and subsequently. She examines perceptions of careers guidance information and implications of different approaches to career planning. The chapter draws significantly on the qualitative interviews and focus groups with graduates and Diplomates as well as survey data relating to careers guidance and sources of information.


  • "Most of the unemployment experienced by graduates straight after graduation is short term. 3½ years later only 2 per cent of graduates are unemployed and seeking work." - Peter Elias
  • "Worse than average experience of unemployment is correlated with being male, over 50 years old, of 'non-white' ethnic origin, not having parents in work at a younger age." - Peter Elias
  • "Unemployment experience among leavers from new universities was no worse than that among leavers from old universities." - Peter Elias
  • "Experience of unemployment 6 months after graduation is indicative of labour market difficulties. Graduates unemployed at this point were typically unemployed for more than 1 year out of the 3½ years covered by the survey and had lower earnings in the future." - Abigail McKnight
  • "Performance indicators based on unemployment rates are unstable when measured at different points in graduates' early careers. More informative indicators of graduate 'employability' should be based on the quality of graduates' jobs." - Abigail McKnight"
  • "Over a range of graduate outcomes 3½ years after graduation, (unemployment, occupation and earnings) many new universities were found to perform as well as old universities." - Abigail McKnight
  • "Many graduates and Diplomates find it necessary to undertake further periods of study to enhance their 'employability'. It is not surprising to find that those who choose a non-vocational subject find the greatest need to 'collect' further skills before entering the labour market" - Claire Simm
  • "While it is important to maintain the academic content of non-vocational courses it may be possible to supplement them with vocational (work orientated) options thereby reducing the need for HE leavers to undertake further investment in HE" - Claire Simm
  • "It is clear that, initially, many graduates on entering the labour market are failing to gain jobs for which their qualifications were required. However 3 and a half years on, most had entered the graduate labour market." - Kate Purcell
  • "Graduates bringing different 'packages of skills' - subject, degree class and prior experience - were shown to exhibit different career orientations and rates of integration into the labour market." - Kate Purcell
  • "We find strong evidence that graduate underemployment, while it may be a transitional problem for many graduates, does not appear to have become a permanent feature of graduates' working lives." - Kate Purcell
  • "The increased pressure faced by graduates to perform well in their degree displaces effort required to find a good job." - Jane Pitcher
  • "While the onus is on graduates to seek careers advice, early intervention on the part of the Careers Service is required to stimulate students into earlier career planning - particularly those who have chosen to study non-vocational courses." - Jane Pitcher

For further information please contact:

Abigail McKnight, University of Warwick IER (office)024 76523 288 (home) 0171 483 0921

Peter Elias University of Warwick IER (office) 024 76 523 286 (home) 024 76 673803

Peter Dunn, Press Officer University of Warwick Tel: 024 76 523708 email:

Kate Purcell (office)0117 344 3476 (home)01225 316 616

CSU Pat Raderecht Tel: 01844 279730


Further information about the above press release and all other media services at the University of Warwick can be obtained from:

Peter Dunn, Press Officer
Public Affairs Office
Senate House
University of Warwick
Coventry, CV4 7AL
West Midlands
Tel: 024 76 523708