Thursday, 3 March 2011

Letter in the Times Higher today

We have this letter in today's THES, regarding the need for contextualisation in the interpretation of data. For reasons of space, it was cut down, and so here's the full text for anyone interested.

Christine Buccella’s piece of the 24th February (‘The pursuit of hire education’) was a timely and lucid reminder to the sector that students have a wealth of information and resources available to them as they make their university choices – and that not all of it may be to the liking of individual institutions.

It was good to see data from the diverse sources available, particularly to HESA’s Destination of Leavers of Higher Education (DLHE) survey of graduates six months after leaving university, a much under-rated piece of work that the sector is sometimes guilty of taking for granted. But whilst showcasing the utility and breadth of the data coverage, Buccella also inadvertently showcases the pitfalls of failing to adequately explain or contextualise data. 

So , when she mentions, for example, that “six months after graduation, salaries for Southampton graduates averaged £23,160 compared with £21,220 for those from Manchester”, she fails to point out that Southampton and Manchester are two very different institutions, with different subject mixes, different student bodies and, crucially, different local labour markets; as many graduates choose to start their careers close to their institution of study (information which can also been gleaned from the DLHE) this data could well merely be highlighting the difference between average salaries in the south east of England and those in the north west – and not mentioning anything about the relative cost of living and hence disposable incomes. So, it is not actually clear what these figure actually tell us. Do they tell us that Southampton is a ‘better’ university than Manchester? No. Is that the impression that the author wishes to give?  I doubt it.
There are other examples in the points made; the statistic about landscape design graduates fails to mention that it is half of employed landscape design graduates that went on to get a job in architecture (mainly landscape architecture, in fact), but that fewer than 60% of all graduates in the discipline were in work six months after graduation because the labour market for these graduates suffered badly as a result of the recession and they have an unemployment rate over 13% six months after graduation. 

Good but complex information goes hand in hand with good guidance to help contextualise it. Online information resources for prospective students,  such as that provided by our own site,, ‘What Do Graduates Do?’, HESA’s information provision and Buccella’s own site are extremely helpful to those seeking to enter higher education, but it is vital that we are precise about data and clear about context  as it is easy to mislead students and advisors who may not be familiar with the caveats and clauses that are necessary to make sure the information is as useful as it can be.

Buccella is absolutely right to warn the sector that in a much more competitive, information-rich marketplace, one way that institutions will be judged, whether they like it or not, is on the financial returns they are judged to deliver for the investment a student puts in. Standing still is not an option.  The challenge is to provide young people with the best tools and information we can muster so that their choices are as informed as they can be.