How do students’ marks affect their graduate prospects? It’s a natural concern among those looking to recoup the high costs of tertiary education. But the question is surprisingly difficult to answer.
Central to the University of Sydney’s pitch to students is the promise of impressive graduate outcomes. In the University’s promotional material for parents, “Better employment prospects” is the first reason listed to justify a university education’s importance. Just last November, the University lauded its graduates being ranked as Australia’s most employable in the 2017 QS Graduate Employability Rankings.
Despite this, USyd releases no data on how students’ graduate outcomes differ depending on their academic performance. This is strange. USyd often likens itself to a business, but a business whose products’ effects depend hugely on whether they’re consumed ‘as recommended’ should take some steps to collect and release information about those effects.
When asked about the effect of marks on graduate outcomes, a University spokesperson said that the relevant data was collected, but not publicised, because employment outcomes result from “the complex interaction of a large number of factors” aside from marks, including the student’s degree and their geographic location.
It is true that other factors affect employment outcomes, but this observation does little to justify hiding information about the effect of marks. First, the interaction between marks and other characteristics of a student, such as their degree, is a reason for providing statistics that break down the role of marks among various groups of students. Without accurate, official information, students must rely on word-of-mouth speculation about graduate prospects, which is far less likely to consider those other variables.
Second, while other factors are certainly significant, marks do play an important role. A 2008 study based on a survey of University of Western Australia graduates found that a one point increase in WAM was associated with an average increase in graduate salary of 0.68 per cent. This implies that a high distinction-average student receives almost twice the salary bene t from a three-year bachelor’s degree than a pass-average student. Giving students information about how tertiary education will affect their career, rather than a generic student’s career, is key to university accountability. More practically, the information is relevant for students making decisions about whether to return to university after struggling with several subjects, or how to balance time working with time studying.
Publishing this information is especially important because the limited academic research on the topic highlights other areas of employment discrimination. The same Western Australian study found that graduate outcomes for students from non-English speaking backgrounds were much more sensitive to their marks: a one-point decrease in WAM was associated with a 1.7 per cent decrease in graduate salary for students from non-English speaking backgrounds, compared to a 0.5 per cent decrease for their English-background counterparts.
USU Board Director and Chinese international student Yifan Kong attributes this to the added barriers facing students from non-English speaking backgrounds. Kong says that perceived “cultural differences and language barriers” and, for international students, the difficulty of finding internships without permanent residency status, make these students’ graduate outcomes especially dependent on their academic performance.
The results also offer a bleak perspective on the gender wage gap: taking a recent estimate that the gender wage gap among graduates is 9.4 per cent, a female student would need to earn 14 marks more than her male counterpart to reach the same expected graduate salary. She would need to beat her male colleague by even more to account for the gender wage gap expanding as she moves to more senior positions throughout her career.
For students wanting to pay off their degree, or understand issues of discrimination, it’s clear that understanding the role of WAM is important. How important is a question the University should be willing to answer.