NewDLHE – personal reflections on measuring success

Earlier this week I followed the Wonkhe and HESA conference on the future of the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey on twitter and on the excellent Wonkhe liveblog. Anyone who follows this blog will know that this isn’t my normal territory however I’ve had an increasing interest in HE data since being involved in the development of the New Subject Coding Scheme as part of the HEDIIP programme in 2014/15. And like it or not, how data is gathered and processed across the higher education sector is of increasingly important to all HE institutions.

I want to pick up on three points that got me thinking about my own career and wondering whether or not I would be regarded as a “successful graduate”.

You too could become an accountant!

One theme that panellists returned to repeatedly was that UK graduates are more likely to find employment in fields that are unrelated to their degree. Stephen Isherwood commented

“the UK labour market is completely different to many other countries. Companies are far more likely to employ graduates who did subjects not connected to their occupation, such as recruiting historians into accountancy.”

Proof that I started life as an archaeologist

Proof that I started life as an archaeologist

I have a Master’s degree in Archaeology, and only once sought careers advice while I was an undergraduate. I’ll never forget the careers advisor cheerfully telling me “You could always get a job as an accountant you know!” I never went back. And I never got a job as an accountant, I got a job as an archaeologist and I worked as an archaeologist for the next five years. Of course I did eventually leave archaeology and found my way into web development and then into learning technology. One of the things I’ve always really appreciated about working in learning technology is the wide range of academic backgrounds colleagues have, and the breadth of experience and different perspectives they bring to the domain. So although the careers advice I received was spectacularly unhelpful at the time I do believe it’s a very good thing that people carry the expertise they develop as undergraduates into a wide range of sectors. Domain knowledge is invaluable for academic careers but there’s no doubt that transferrable skills broaden employability prospects.

Measures of success

One presentation and subsequent discussion that particularly interested me was Liz Bromley of Goldsmiths on Capturing the full range of graduate success. Liz questioned what we regard as success and, using the example of Mercury and Turner Prize winning Goldsmiths’ alumni, asked if the six month DLHE would capture them as “successful graduates”. She also suggested that the data should capture what students are doing outside work to give a more rounded picture of what is regarded as “success” and noted

“Salary is immaterial. The highest value jobs do not necessarily pay the best salaries”.

These themes were picked up in the subsequent discussion, particularly with regard to how success can be measured in the creative industries, which may provide significant personal and creative growth and social and cultural capital, but which may also be insecure and lowpaid. The WonkHE liveblog expressed this as

“the challenging ‘cognitive dissonance’ of measuring employment in the creative industries which is both precarious and fulfilling.”

I would argue that this cognitive dissonance isn’t unique to the creative industries; it’s increasingly common in higher education too. I’ve worked in Higher Education for twenty-five years and for the majority of that time I’ve been employed on short term contracts, most lasting 12 months. A lot has been written recently about the stresses associated with working in academia, the casualisation of contacts and the erosion of employment rights; I’m not going to go over those points here, but it does make me wonder whether or not I could be regarded as a “successful graduate”. On the one hand, failing to secure a tenured post after working in academia for over two decades does not look very successful at all, however, barring two short periods of redundancy, during which I worked as a consultant, I have built a reasonable reputation and managed to stay almost permanently employed in a field that is notoriously insecure and changes rapidly. So, how do we measure “success” in a context such as this? I don’t have any answers, but I think this highlights that we need to think carefully about how we identify success and be absolutely explicit about how we evaluate it.

(I also think the issue of how we identify success potentially has implications for how we use learning analytics, particularly with regard to identifying struggling and “failing students”.)

Not in front of the children

Another theme that came up, which I have strong feelings about but which I tend to avoid writing about, is the impact of motherhood on career success.

Unfortunately this theme didn’t come across strongly on twitter. (Were people not tweeting about it? Did they think it was uninteresting, unimportant or didn’t relate to themselves? Impossible to know without being there.) Again it made me think of my own experience. There is no doubt that having children had a massive impact on my “success”. At the time I had my daughter I did a lot of travel and had a wide network of colleagues in the international standards community around the world. When I was no longer able to travel internationally owing to childcare responsibilities it had a significant impact on my professional network and my employment prospects; I discovered this the hard way when I was made redundant in 2013. I once raised this issue at a workshop for senior managers and was told dismissively by a professor of chemistry that she had forged a successful international career while raising her family. Her advice was to leave your children with family while you travel. That may work for some people of course, but it’s hardly a practical option for all. Another respected colleague simply advised me to hire a nanny. I’d never actually met anyone in real life with a nanny before! Anyway, the point of all this is that I had to find different ways of working and connecting to my peer network, and I did. I was fortunate that social networking took off round about this time enabling me to connect to a global network of open educational technologists through twitter and Skype. My limited ability to travel can still be frustrating but it doesn’t seem like such an insurmountable problem anymore. So once again I think it’s important to consider how we identify and reward success in this context.

I have a lot more thoughts about all of the above, but I’m going a bit off piste here so I had better stop now :}

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