HE Research Snippet 17 - Finally, Some Measures We Can All Agree On


Vague measures of reputation and employability have long been the dominant factors in university choice. But, their meanings are ambiguous. They are overlapping and multi-faceted...

Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight
Higher Education Research Team at YouthSight

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Vague measures of reputation and employability have long been the dominant factors in university choice. But, their meanings are ambiguous. They are overlapping and multi-faceted concepts.

They have different degrees of influence at different points. As long as employers ask about the undergraduate university, they’re difficult to separate. These measures are just not that useful to managers and leaders in universities who need strong insight to support decisions. The rise of more specific measures offers new opportunities, and profound challenges.

Graph1

Data from Higher Expectations 11/12 (base: 3,626), 12/13 (base: 3,321) & 13/14 (base: 2,857) in response to prompted question “How important were each of these factors in your decision about which university to choose” for those achieving 400or more UCAS points on entry. For full access to the Higher Expectations dataset contact James at YouthSight at james.macgregor@youthsight.com.

 

Employability and reputation are compound measures

In our long-running Higher Expectations survey, employability overall has always been the most prominent choice factor for prospective undergraduates. But, we can’t conclude that careers matter more than a university’s reputation. The problem with employability is that it’s indivisible from reputation. As long as employers form persistent judgments on individuals based on where they studied, and sift CVs just by looking at which university an applicant attended, employability and reputation will remain inseparable.

 

Commercial connectedness is becoming more important more quickly

This is why we also gather views on the importance of components of employability. Two of these components are links with industry and placements. Our Higher Expectations research has been generating insight on student choices for the past ten years. We can therefore explore how the more specific measure of industry links and placements compare with the more nebulous employability and reputation. It also allows us to look at how their relative influences have evolved over time. In this Snippet, we are focusing on those who attain 400 or more UCAS points.

 

Commercial connectedness might already matter more than reputation

 

As the above graph shows, we see substantial movements in these indicators over just three years. Employability remains paramount and relatively stable. In each of the last three years, over 50% of respondents have selected it as a very important choice factor. Reputation, in contrast, has declined in importance steeply since 2012 for the first time, but remains the second most important measure. Both placements and links overall on the other hand, have grown in importance in the same time period. When we calculate simple linear trends based on responses from 2011, 2012, and 2013, the results are striking. Even among students with above average grades, the specific measures will have matched reputation for 2014 entrants.

 

Students’ choices are enforcing public policy priorities

But these are just projections. The data for 2014 entrants are not yet available. Whether this symbolic point has been reached or not, it is clear that the sector is being pulled towards the ‘closer working between institutions, employers and students’ craved in the 2011 Higher Education White Paper. Fundamental changes in how students conceptualise value demand that universities do more to link to the outside world. Those universities perceived as less well-connected are becoming less attractive, regardless of whether they maintain their reputations. Such a change has profound implications for how universities position themselves, create and manage study, and communicate their value. If the crossing-point has been reached among 2014 entrants, the change might be happening profoundly quickly.

Graph2

Data from Higher Expectations 07/08 (base: 3,251), 08/09 (base: 3,319), 09/10 (base: 2,987), 10/11 (modelled number based on previous data points), 11/12 (base: 3,626), 12/13 (base: 3,321) & 13/14 (base: 2,857) in response to prompted question “How important were each of these factors in your decision about which university to choose” for those achieving 400or more UCAS points on entry. For full access to the Higher Expectations dataset contact James at YouthSight at james.macgregor@youthsight.com.

 

This is an acceleration of an old phenomenon

Just looking at data from the last three years masks the longer-term trends. Over the last seven years among those with above-average grades, both these specific measures have been considerably less prevalent influencers of decisions among potential undergraduates, as the graph above shows. In recent years, the gap has narrowed. Last year, reputation fell in prominence for the first time. Even then, following linear trends over these seven years suggests that these measures of commercial connectedness will match reputation in prevalence for 2017 entrants.

 

The pathway to the top is increasingly clear

The trend is clear. Quantifiable aspects of employability are becoming more important more quickly than reputation. We might even be about to cross a symbolic line where these specific measures are more influential than reputation. We will need to wait for the data from 2014 entrants to know, which will be available when Higher Expectations launches in April. Then will be the time to look in detail of what this means for universities. Whatever the pace of the change, are universities ready to meet these evolving demands in their communications and in what they subsequently offer students? Those that are can realistically aspire not just to improvement, but to be among the best.

This analysis has been based on our annual Higher Expectations study. Higher Expectations shows HEIs how they compete at the individual level. It gives complete and transparent benchmarking across the whole sector so you can see where you’re going right, wrong and how to focus and improve. This year’s results are available now, with some major improvements. For the first time, all aspects of the study are delivered in your own simple, flexible, and secure online dashboard and qualitative video reports.

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