Recession-hit graduates upbeat despite high unemployment rates and wage stagnation, reveals Manchester study

By Henry Vaughan

Graduates are remaining upbeat despite being hit hard by record debt, spells of unemployment and a tough job market in the worst recession ever, according to a new study.

The Futuretrack findings launched at a Manchester Conference today are from research tracking 2006 UCAS applicants, and the final stage of the study reports their experiences six years on, after they graduated into one of the worst recessions in history.

More than one in ten has been unemployed for a significant period of time, with black and Asian graduates and those with lower degrees particularly vulnerable, while 18 months after graduation, 40% of the Futuretrack graduates were working in non-graduate jobs.

Jane Artess, research director at the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU), said: “Students focus mainly on their studies while at university, particularly in their final year, so graduating into one of the worst recessions in history has hit them particularly hard.”

Despite the tough labour market graduates are surprisingly positive, with 60% of working graduates satisfied with their current job, rising to 70% when asked about their future career options.

Two thirds were optimistic about their long-term career prospects, while an overwhelming 96% would still get a degree if starting again.

Ms Artess added: “What’s gratifying is that even in the wake of the recession, the onset of higher fees and large debts, graduates remain positive in the face of adversity with great confidence that their degree has been worth it.”

However, between Stage 3 of the study (when respondents were finalists) and Stage 4 (between 18 and 30 months after graduation) graduates had become less likely to agree that their university experience had benefited their job hunt.

Those who felt their subject had been an advantage fell from 77% to 60%, those who thought their institution had benefited them fell from 67% to 50% and those that thought skills learnt at university helped fell from 78% to 70%.

“Graduates’ perceptions of the value of their degree in finding work changes remarkably after they have been in the labour market for some time, which helps us to understand the magnitude of the downturn on this group,” Ms Artess explained.

Unsurprisingly those who did work experience (79%) were more likely to say their job was appropriate for someone with their skill level and qualifications, and unpaid work undertaken during the course increased the chance of getting a graduate job by one and a half times.

Those who did no work experience at all (21%) were more likely to feel their job was not appropriate, and more likely to be in unpaid work or non-graduate jobs.

Anne-Marie Pier took part in the study and after graduating from the University of Brighton in 2009 with a Physiotherapy degree is now working in her chosen field.

She said: “Because I’d done my homework I knew what I was going into, but people who did less vocational courses got to the end and thought ‘What am I going to do now?’”

As part of her degree Ms Pier was required to do 1,000 hours of clinical placement, which she felt gave her the experience needed to find work after graduation as well as helping her build up contacts in the industry.

She added: “I was quite lucky working towards a particular job so it worked out quite nicely for me, but for some doing more general courses they finished and still didn’t know what they wanted to do.”

The average level of debt on graduation was £16,000, with 44% of those who gained their qualification at English universities amassing debts of more than £20,000.

But despite massive debt, around 60% agreed their degree had been good value for money and only a quarter disagreed.

While a degree continues to provide a significant earnings advantage, the benefit seems to have been declining over the past ten years, possibly by as much as 2% per year compared to average earnings.

Male graduates still earn more than females, with an average of £24,000-26,999 and £21,000-£23,999 respectively.

Professor Peter Elias, co-investigator at the University of Warwick said: “One of the more continuing and disturbing findings, which underlies all of the salary analyses, is the gender pay gap in graduate earnings that we found in a study ten years ago has persisted and shows no sign of diminishing.

“Male graduates with similar qualifications, experience and in similar jobs earn more than females at the outset of their careers.”

The £1.5million Futuretrack study, commissioned by the HECSU, and undertaken by the Institute for Employment Research at The University of Warwick, provides unprecedented evidence of student experiences and their transition into work after graduation.

Professor Kate Purcell who led Futuretrack at the Institute for Employment Research, University of Warwick, said: “Futuretrack is the most ambitious study of the graduate labour market to date – we have unprecedented levels of data that warrant continued investigation.

“In particular we have a great deal of evidence about the impact higher education has, and doesn’t have, on social mobility.”

Picture courtesy of LiamCH

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