International graduate outcome data collection cut

A former United Kingdom universities and science minister has expressed amazement that the United Kingdom is no longer telephoning international students from outside the European Union, who have returned home after graduating from British universities, to discover their employment or other status for data produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Baron Jo Johnson, a member of the UK’s House of Lords and younger brother of the British prime minister, was chairing a session at the Westminster Higher Education Forum online event on 8 February 2022, looking at job prospects for international students who had studied at UK universities.

He said if universities want to have international graduate outcome data, they should get it despite the costs involved in chasing up the vast majority of former international students who don’t respond to emails and online surveys.

Government asked for ‘efficiency savings’

However, it seems the decision to drop the phone calls was a response to calls from the Conservative government for efficiency savings from HESA. With the graduate outcome survey forming a significantly large component of the overall subscriptions that universities pay to HESA, the decision was made to stop calling non-EU international graduates in order to save money.

Nina Agarwal, head of research and insight at HESA, explained the reasoning in a blog on the HESA website on 11 November 2021, in which she said the decision was taken in July “to stop calling non-EU international graduates” after consultation with the Graduate Outcomes steering group.

“The key driver for this is the need to reduce costs on Graduate Outcomes following the government’s commitment to reduce burden in the higher education sector,” she wrote, with the departments for education and business “asking HESA to make a 10% efficiency saving by 2022-23”.

Move criticised

Several ‘platform’ speakers at the Westminster Forum online debate criticised the lack of consultation before the ‘cost-saving’ move to end overseas telephone calls to graduates outside the UK and European Union which has been part of the data collection exercise in recent years

Linda Cowan, a senior vice president with Kaplan International Pathways, which works with a number of universities recruiting large number of international students in the United States, Australia and the UK, told the conference all the universities they work with around the world are looking at how they can distinguish themselves for competitive advantage, and employability data was a key factor.

“To stay competitive, it is important we increase the number of graduates responding to the surveys which is very low at the moment and after the recent announcement from HESA will become even lower,” she said.

Cowan pointed to a joint report that Kaplan produced with the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in October 2021, which found that international students used information on employability skills and careers before making decisions for study abroad options regarding country and institution.

She was “sad” that those responsible for data collection would no longer call international students but instead would rely on email and text messaging to try to direct international graduates to the online survey.

Graduates don’t use university email

Professor Jane Falkingham, dean of the faculty of social sciences at the University of Southampton and director of the ESRC Centre for Population Change, said it was self-defeating to try to use university email addresses for data collection as students abandon using these as soon as they leave higher education.

“When we did our survey with the Office for National Statistics, we implicitly asked students for a non-university email address and often got two or three addresses and had a pretty good response rate. So, it is a data collection issue,” she said.

Noeleen Hammond Jones, co-chair of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services internationalisation task group and international careers manager at Lancaster University’s Management School, told the Westminster Forum discussion that employability was “a huge issue and destination data informs student decision-making about where they are going to study”.

She also pointed out to Lord Johnson and others at the Westminster Forum: “Using online surveys to get the information wouldn’t work in mainland China, where the platforms used to collect the data are not able to operate – and that’s where most of the UK’s international students come from.”

Jo Johnson amazed at problem

Lord Johnson said he was amazed at the problem and said: “I thought HESA was funded from subscriptions provided by the sector and had a fair amount of transparency and part of its job was to provide graduate outcome data.

“Why can’t you, the sector, fix the problem and talk to HESA about what you want from the subscription and provide necessary additional funds to enable HESA to collect the data you want?”

“The problem seems fairly easy to solve: those with the most international student fees should pay a bit more and increase the fee to HESA pro rata. What’s so complicated about that? Vice-chancellors should provide resources. This is an £18 billion [US$24.5 billion] to £20 billion [US$27 billion] annual revenue business we are talking about.”

A spokesman for HESA told University World News the key driver for removal of the telephone mode for contacting international graduates in the Graduate Outcomes survey was “the need to reduce cost”.

“The change means that we are continuing to survey international graduates, but that we are doing this via an online survey tool only and not additionally by telephone.

“We are in dialogue with a number of HE sector bodies regarding this decision. Together we will seek to establish mitigating actions to address any impact on the quality and coverage of data for this group of graduates.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.