Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
That has certainly been true in my career. At the time, moves to a new organisation or change of role within an organisation often didn’t seem to be part of any grand plan. I took opportunities as they arose and adapted as my life circumstances changed. But, with hindsight, my various moves appear to amount to a logical and well-planned strategy to become vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln.
This reflection only increases my frustration with the UK government’s current obsession with measuring the quality of a degree course by reference to the jobs its graduates are in and the average salaries being earned 15 months after leaving university.
Most graduates have hardly even started plotting dots 15 months into a career that might span 40 years or more, let alone worked out how the dots might one day connect. A degree is not a fast-track ticket to the executive suite for most. The career advantages it bestows manifest over years, sometimes decades. Indeed, a 2018 report by the Department for Education and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, based on longitudinal data, suggested that the “graduate premium” is actually weakest in the few years straight after graduation, but then increases. It’s a long game. We can’t declare winners before it has really begun.
Among other things, doing so risks exacerbating regional inequalities by directing the best graduates away from courses that, on paper, offer the lowest returns. This would not only run counter to the government’s levelling-up agenda, it is also potentially bad for students. While Lincoln, for instance, does not have the clusters of large, high-paying sectors that some big cities benefit from, we have a lower cost of living and a high quality of life for graduates who stay in the region.
Moreover, the University of Lincoln already attracts inward investment and big employers to the region and creates conditions for new and small businesses to emerge and grow by supplying the skills and the research and development that firms need. We have a track record of anticipating and leading emerging industries in areas where the region has a niche, such as agri-robotics and sustainable food manufacturing; 30 per cent of UK food passes through Lincolnshire at some point in its manufacturing cycle, so we are able to make a real difference. We have a key role to play in tackling key challenges for food security and renewable energy in the decades ahead, and the value of the skills provided for these sectors should not be measured by salary alone.
There are other subtleties, too. Consider the arts. It takes time for creatives to apply their learning from university and become what others might regard as successful. But it is recognised that London’s arts sector is disproportionately well supported by government and lottery funding. These regional imbalances are not reflected in a like-for-like measure of outcomes for arts graduates.
Ideally, in Lincoln and other comparable places, we want more talented people to stay in the region to work or to launch their own businesses. This will help reduce regional inequalities and eventually raise salaries in the region. But tying course reputation and funding to first jobs and salaries may ultimately incentivise universities to close some courses and encourage recent graduates to seek their fortunes in big cities to earn more money faster.
We also need to challenge big graduate employers to stop their Russell Group snobbery. At a graduation ceremony earlier this year, a Lincoln alumnus addressed the graduates. The first in his family to go to university, he graduated almost 20 years ago from Lincoln’s Law School. He was told by his top choice of employer that its graduate scheme was mainly for Russell Group graduates and to be considered he would have to enter a national negotiation competition. He did, and he won. Now he is a partner in that firm – a firm that could have missed out on his talent due to preconceived expectations.
But must all Lincoln law graduates go to work for big commercial law firms in London to be considered a success? After all, people in Lincolnshire need good lawyers, too.
This is why the question of how we measure graduate outcomes goes to the core of the levelling-up agenda and the role universities must have in spreading wealth and prosperity more evenly across the UK.
It is senseless and counterproductive to judge graduates on the first dot they make in their big career pictures. We need to trust that all the dots they make over the decades will join up meaningfully in the future. And our experience at Lincoln is that they do. They reveal very clearly how the knowledge and skills that people acquire as undergraduates goes on to help them make the world a better place – regardless of which part of it they live in.
Neal Juster is vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln.