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Are Universities Fudging Employment Figures?

Because there is no public overseer, there is no one to take genuinely impartial responsibility for making sure that employment figures are accurate. The result is that thousands of students a year could be relying on misrepresented information to make one of the most important decisions in their lives.

Image by Tome Harle

It's an exciting time for thousands of young people around the UK who, having secured their places at university, can now look forward to the huge step of starting their degrees in September.

Many of these students will have chosen their university by relying on guides, the most popular ones being published by the Guardian and the Sunday Times. These guides are designed to give prospective university students empirical university performance results, such as the quality of research, spread of degree results and the employability of graduates.

However, a recent investigation into internship schemes suggests these stats might not be as reliable as they seem - and no one seems to want to take responsibility for it.

Graduates from the University of Sussex 2013 cohort were offered the chance to undertake 10 week long, paid internships at various businesses across Sussex and London, starting on the 13th of January.

Information obtained from Sussex through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that 74 graduates - or 3.8% of the 2013 cohort - enrolled in the scheme, costing the university £222,000. Each business was given £3,000 per graduate - £2,869 for the interns' salaries, and £131 for administration costs.

This seems like a pretty good deal. The students get paid the living wage for ten weeks, the business gets some free labour - but what was in it for Sussex? £222k is a fairly large sum of money to fork out, not to mention the admin costs for arranging all these relationships.

As it turns out, the internships were offered at a very specific, and very convenient time - just as the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) were compiling stats for their annual 'destination of leavers' report, the data for which is collected six months after graduation. In 2014 the data was collected on the 13th of January - exactly the same day that the Sussex internships started. Looking at HESA's report, we can see what effect the scheme had on Sussex's ranking.

After the Guardian guides were published, Sussex proudly boasted that they had the fourth highest employability among multi-faculty universities, excluding small, specialist institutions such as art colleges. They were actually 16th, including smaller unis.

It was then clear to see what Sussex got out of the internship scheme. Had the graduates in question not been in employment at the time of the survey, the university would have dropped down to 90th place in the table - they wouldn't have sent out a spunky press release about that.

Did the interns at least feel like they got something out of the scheme? Ben Lucas, who did his placement at the University of Sussex itself, said:

"Was the placement worth my time - well, I got paid well for not really doing a lot. Did I learn anything? No. Does it look good on my CV? Yes. Will I get a good reference out of it? Yes.

"Of course they only offer the internship during the 10 weeks in which the employment data is gathered. It is a complete massaging of stats. But apparently Sussex is just doing what other unis have been doing for a while."

Once they'd agreed to the scheme, Ben felt abandoned by Sussex, making him think that all the university cared about was getting him in the door and ticked off on the HESA survey as 'in employment'.

A female Sussex graduate, who was also on the scheme, felt that the university pushed her into a placement that she didn't really want to do. Wishing to remain anonymous, she said:

"You can't pay a company to employ someone for less than three months, with no framework to ensure that the placement is worthwhile and fulfilling, and then pretend all your graduates got jobs straight away.

"By manipulating the figures they've not only tricked future applicants - they've turned their back on what it's really like to be a graduate."

Sussex were asked to respond to whether they thought it was fair that they were using their graduates in this way. A representative from the university said:

"Graduate interns on the scheme have gained a real benefit in terms of employability, as well as earning the Living Wage, and we are very happy with the results. The key issue for the University is the success of our graduates.

"Questions about how employability statistics are compiled are for HESA and not for the University of Sussex."

It's not surprising that Sussex were so deflecting, considering they denied the first request for information, forcing two appeals to overturn their decision. Unfortunately, HESA were just as keen to point the blame the other way. Simon Kemp, HESA press officer, said:

"It is not for HESA to comment on the perceived value of any employment held on the census date, since this is highly subjective.

"If you require further information I would suggest that you approach the University of Sussex for further clarification on the nature of the internship scheme."

20 other universities were also contacted, with only the University of Surrey willing to comment. A spokesperson from the university said:

"It is recognised that the destination of graduates after university has become an increasingly important part of applicant considerations as they assess the merits of different institutions.

"Graduate internships offer very useful experience and enhance the CV but it is important that there is transparency in schemes that are run around the time of the data collection."

One would expect more universities to jump at the chance to hit out at one of their competitors, but other than Surrey there was complete radio silence. Both the Guardian and The Sunday Times also ignored any request for comment.

The problem is that all the institutions involved are private organisations. HESA is funded by the subscriptions it gets from the universities, and the Guardian and the Times rely on both HESA and the universities to make their guides, which are worth a huge amount of money in publicity. So, it's no wonder that no one wants to upset anyone else.

In short, because there is no public overseer, there is no one to take genuinely impartial responsibility for making sure that employment figures are accurate. The result is that thousands of students a year could be relying on misrepresented information to make one of the most important decisions in their lives.

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