Universities are vital to Australia’s sustained prosperity. However, the complexity of our current higher education policy landscape, combined with profound economic forces, have led to a number of myths and misconceptions about what happens to students after they graduate.
New analysis reveals five myths or misconceptions about Australian university graduate outcomes. The analysis uses data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Labour Force Survey, Quality Indicators of Learning and Teaching (QILT), and former Australian Graduate Survey (AGS).
Myth 1: Full-time graduate employment rates have been consistently declining for decades
Australian graduate employment rates are among the best in the world. One third of all Australian universities made the world’s top 200 list in Graduate Employability Rankings.
However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Full-time graduate employment rates have fluctuated significantly over the past 35 years. These fluctuations coincide with major shocks to the Australian economy, during recessions of the 1980s, 1990s and after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008/09.
Full-time graduate employment rates rise and fall in direct correlation with changes in Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP):
In their first four months following graduation, university graduates are particularly exposed to these economic factors. They are often entering a new career for the first time, with limited discipline experience, in an environment where businesses might be clamping down on increased costs. Full-time graduate employment rates rise a further 17.5% (to 88.4%) in just under three years after graduation.
The last 35 years have also seen massive change to labour markets and the Australian economy. The myth of a “consistent decline” runs counter to what has been an era of constant change. For example, in 1986, only 7.2% of 15-74 year olds held a bachelor degree qualification, compared to 28% for men and 35% for women in 2017 (ABS). During this time, the sophistication and diversity of the Australian graduate employment market have forever changed, and for the better.
Following the late 1980s recession and stock market crash known as “Black Tuesday”, graduate employment rates took ten years to recover to their original levels. Unlike the sharp turns of the stock market, losses and gains in graduate employment are a slow burn.
Myth 2: Graduate employment rates are not impacted by economic downturns
While it seems counter-intuitive, this is a prevalent myth. The logic stems from Myth 1: if graduate employment rates have been declining consistently, then this decline has nothing to do with cyclical economic downturns or recessions.
The errors of this myth can be logically dispelled. Analysis clearly reveals full-time graduate employment rates are correlated with Gross Domestic Product changes over a 35-year period. This correlation is particularly acute over the last three years. In other words, a good economy is a strong predictor of graduate success.
Myth 3: Most graduates are underemployed by choice
Graduate employment is influenced by numerous large scale economic factors. However, many graduates (29.1%) initially feel that they are working in jobs that doesn’t fully utilise their skills and education.
According to the national Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), most graduates say labour market factors are to blame for both underemployment and under-utilisation of their skills and education. Once again, it is the health of local job markets that influence whether a degree will be useful after graduation.
The vast majority (92%) of employers said they were satisfied with the foundation and technical skills of their graduate. Overall satisfaction among employers is high, at 84%. Interestingly, graduates tend to view their qualification as less important than their employer.
Myth 4: A university degree is a short term investment
One of the more recent myths is the assumption that a degree provides just short-term, immediate gains that are only as good as a graduate’s first job out of uni. In a world of multiple career changes, regular market disruptions and reinvented occupations, the career-for-life are over. The new challenge for university degrees is developing transferable skills and knowledge.
The myth is also immersed in a fine policy distinction between Australia’s vocational education and training (VET) system and higher education. For this, a simple distinction can be made. VET is focused on the here and now – for workplace-specific skills and knowledge that are responsive to industry needs. Universities are focused on the present and future to ensure that Australia’s future skills needs are met, national productivity improves, and a high-income economy is sustained.
A university education is a long-term investment for a life of critical thinking and self-awareness. Graduate employment outcomes just a few months after completion are a crude measure for the expansive benefits, lower unemployment, lower welfare dependency, personal satisfaction, health and quality of life university graduates are rewarded with throughout the course of their lives.
Myth 5: University education is really just about getting a job
The economic imperative of university education is underscored by the fact it is partially funded by the Australian public. However, taxpayer funding is only part of the story.
Education is Australia’s third largest export, with universities responsible for a very large part of A$21.8 billion in international education earnings.
Numbers aside, university-level research, training and partnerships can be attributed to many of Australia’s greatest innovations. These include polymer bank notes, Wi-Fi technology, ultrasound scanners, Gardasil and Cervarix cancer vaccines and countless other non-commercialised contributions.
While securing a stable job is essential, dismissing the qualitative experience of learning and its extraordinary benefits is reductive. It boils higher education down to a credentialling scheme, rather than an innovation ecosystem that drives a smart economy and flourishing society. There is nothing to regret about learning, nor is it ever too late to start.
Omer Yezdani does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.