Reflections on the use of labour market data in Higher Education (HE)

This week, it will be 20 years since I started working at IFF Research, so I thought it was a good time for a quick spot of reminiscing, and to reflect on some of the work I’ve done and the impact it has had.

For a large chunk of this time I’ve been heavily involved in the development of the Employer Skills Survey (ESS) series (and its predecessors). As I’ve discussed before, and as my colleague Andrew highlighted only last week, ESS is one of the largest, if not the largest, employer skills surveys in the world, and is an envied source of insight that provides the gold standard for labour market information.

ESS has always had a significant impact on national level policy. It directly informs UK immigration policy through its use by the Migration Advisory Committee to help decide which occupations should be placed on Shortage Occupation List. And it is a key source used to measure the impact that various policies have on employers and their staff (e.g. the Apprenticeship levy and wider funding reform, T-levels). It is also widely used by Local Enterprise Partnerships to help develop regional skills strategies.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been doing more and more work within Higher Education (HE), and now head up IFF’s large and rapidly growing HE offer. We conduct some of the highest profile studies for the likes of DfE, HESA and OfS, and work with individual institutions such as University of Portsmouth, University of East London, University of London and Open University.

The landscape of higher education is constantly evolving, but over the last decade there has been a period of fundamental change – tuition fees, alternative providers, lifting of the student cap on student numbers, TEF, proliferation of league tables, Brexit etc., etc., etc.. One change that I have had first-hand experience of, since IFF first undertook the Longitudinal DLHE survey for HESA in 2005, is the increased scrutiny placed on demonstrating evidence of successful progression of graduates into the labour market.

However, despite the critical importance of graduate outcomes to the sector, it still surprises me how little is known about ESS and how little it is used in institutional planning and portfolio development. To some extent, this could be blamed on the fact that ESS has not always been publicised as much as it could or should have been, and other less reliable surveys with much smaller sample sizes often get more attention in the press (take CBI’s Education and Skills Survey, for example). However, there is also a lack of widespread understanding of other powerful data sources that would help providers better understand their local labour market. Working Futures is another example. Working Futures projects the future size and shape of the labour market by anticipating changing skills needs – powerful insight for providers looking to refine their provision to best meet employer needs.

In the Advance HE conference next week, my colleague Liz will be delivering the keynote speech investigating the process of aligning higher education and the labour market, and will provide a practical framework for doing so. I hope that, through IFF’s involvement in events like this, over the next few years we will get more opportunities to help people understand the value that we see in this sort of labour market data, and to see it have a greater impact on the HE sector.