A few days ago I received a call from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) who wished to conduct the Graduate Outcomes survey with me. While I’m usually not the one give away my private information over the phone, particularly at six o’clock in the evening, I was curious as to what questions they would ask in relation to my university experience and consequently proceeded with the slew of probing queries you might expect from an organisation that presents itself as the ‘biggest UK annual social survey’.

“The Graduate Outcomes survey is a national survey capturing information about the activities and perspectives of graduates 15 months after they finish their studies. All eligible graduates who complete a higher education course are asked to take part in the survey, in order to help current and future students gain an insight into career destinations and development. Your responses will also help your university or college to evaluate and improve their courses.”

Graduate Outcomes Survey Website – Privacy Information.

At first, I was asked all the questions you might expect from a body trying to check up on graduates 15 months after completing their course: ‘What activities were you doing last week?’, ‘Are you due to start a job or course of study/training/research within the next month?’ and if so, ‘will you be working full time or part time?’. These sorts of questions continue and are obvious as to how they might benefit universities in their goal of improving facilities and courses for students.  

“The survey asks about what you were doing in a particular week (the census week) about 15 months after you completed a HE course, and which activity was most important to you (e.g. working, studying, caring, traveling). Further questions ask for more details depending on what you specified as the most important activity.”

Graduate Outcomes Survey Website – Privacy Information.

While these questions we’re quite frankly a bit of a chore to answer, both for myself and presumably for the nice gentleman who was talking to me over the phone (and likely 30 other people that day), it was the last set of questions that had me utterly perplexed and ultimately in stitches by the end of the call.

“Some questions are designed to get the ‘graduate voice’ – giving you the chance to share your own assessment about the value of your course and the personal importance of what you’re doing now.”

Graduate Outcomes Survey Website – Privacy Information.

Caller:On a scale of zero (extremely dissatisfied) to ten (extremely satisfied) how meaningful is your life nowadays?

Me:Well, I’m a nihilist so I’m going to have to go with a four – and that’s me trying to be positive.

Caller:On a scale of zero (not at all worthwhile) to ten (extremely worthwhile), to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?

Me:I guess I have to go with a ten, otherwise I might as well pack in this idea of starting a magazine.

Caller:On a scale of zero (extremely unhappy) to ten (extremely happy), how happy did you feel yesterday?

Me:I was hungover yesterday… so a 5? That seems reasonable right?

Caller:On a scale of zero (not at all anxious) to ten (extremely anxious), how anxious did you feel yesterday?

Me:Well my girlfriend got stung by a hornet, it was huge! That was pretty anxiety inducing, so maybe the number six sums up my situation?

As you can see, I didn’t take things too seriously – I mean, how could you? One minute I’m editing some video footage, minding my own business and then in the next I have some stranger asking me how meaningful my life is for the purpose of a supposedly ‘serious’ survey. Now look, I get it… it’s supposed to at least try and gage how students are mentally doing and feel out if this might have some form of correlation to their university experience – a very noble goal indeed. But let’s get real here, its an absolute load of bollocks. In attempting to quantify the unquantifiable all you will end up with is a load of useless data, that’s only purpose serves to tick several legal boxes.

You can almost smell the stats being used as we speak: “90% of our graduates would go on to say that their life was meaningful!” – “A further 95% agreed that what they were doing after graduation was worthwhile!”

The survey really doesn’t appear, as they state, to ‘use the information for research and statistical purposes to help them [universities] improve the outcomes from their courses.’ But instead seeks to ‘help universities and colleges (HE providers) fulfil their legal requirement to report on the outcomes of higher education to the higher education funding and regulatory bodies.’

Ultimately, if the survey really sought to improve both prospective and current student’s happiness, anxiety, and to attain a job that is meaningful then asking more detailed questions, rather than trying to obtain useless numerical value, wouldn’t go amiss. But I guess that wouldn’t fit into an easily digestible pie chart, that could be pinned up at the next board meeting.

While Stuart Johnson, Director of the Careers Service at the University of Bristol, has argued that these sorts of questions can act as, ‘a trigger, and potentially a destabilising one at that’, I find this to be a load of nonsense and quite frankly misses the heart of the problem. Rather than HESA being afraid to ask pertinent questions surrounding wellbeing, they should dig deeper and establish meaningful questions that will give universities a broader and more detailed picture about what students have felt before and after graduation. Otherwise, what’s the point exactly? The overgeneralised and philosophical question – how meaningful is your life? – is simply a waste of everyone’s time. If these questions end up posing issues for certain individuals, then offer an opt-out and allow others to give proper feedback about their university experience that might provide the proper bodies to reflect and create meaningful change.

While I thoroughly enjoyed answering these redundant and rather ridiculous questions, it has left me thinking – who is this survey really for? If it is for the purpose of helping prospective and current students at university, then in my mind it has failed to gather the necessary information that might allow organisations within education to make effective changes. However, if it is simply functioning for the objective of jumping over legal requirements, bureaucratic box ticking, and gathering data on students that can be used for self-promotion, then all I have to say is don’t pick up, turn off, and drop out.  

If you would like to read the full list of questions that HESA asks, you can find them here: HESA Questions