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Executive summary


1. This report investigates the relationship between the extent to which a subject is vocational and the employment outcomes of its graduates. It seeks to develop understanding of how subject choice can lead to different employment outcomes.

2. This report sets out the framework for an experimental measure of the extent to which degree subjects are vocational. We are keen to receive any feedback, comments or suggestions around this experimental measure and its potential uses. These should be submitted using the contact details above, or by attending an engagement event which we intend to run in the near future. Those interested in attending or contributing to such an event should contact us.


3. It is well known that some higher education courses, such as first degrees in medicine or nursing, are highly vocational and teach specific skills and knowledge in preparation for a specific occupation. It is often assumed that subjects are either vocational or otherwise, but in fact all subjects have some vocational element, and the variation in how vocational subjects are is of importance to student choices.

4. In this report a measure of the extent to which subjects are vocational is created using data on the employment destinations of more than 600,000 early-career graduates. An occupation-subject concentration ratio (OSCR) is constructed by considering what proportion of employed first degree graduates are employed in the three most common highly skilled occupations associated with a given subject. Subjects for which this proportion is greater are interpreted as being more vocational.

5. The report then investigates whether there is an advantage to studying more vocational subjects. This is done by analysing the relationship between the OSCR and two employment outcomes six months after graduation: the likelihood of being in highly skilled employment, and earnings.

Key points

6. The mean OSCR is 0.365, which indicates that on average more than a third of graduates from a given subject area are employed in just three highly skilled occupations.

7. About 10 per cent of subjects have an OSCR of over 0.9 and so are considered to be highly vocational. These subjects are all in the broad subject groups of medicine and dentistry, veterinary sciences and subjects allied to medicine. A further 10 per cent of subjects have an OSCR greater than 0.5, including information technology, landscape design and civil engineering.

8. There is substantial variation across and within broad subject groups. For example, in the broad subject group of ‘Business and management’, marketing has an above average OSCR of 0.427 while business studies has a much lower OSCR of 0.199.

9. No relationship is found between how vocational a subject is and how many people study it. Nor is it found that how vocational a subject is varies across the type of higher education institution.

10. Analysing the relationship between how vocational a subject is and employment outcomes shows that graduates in more vocational subjects are more likely to be employed in highly skilled roles. This holds even when controlling for individual and institutional characteristics, and when graduates in medicine and dentistry, veterinary sciences and subjects allied to medicine are excluded.

11. It is also found that more vocational subjects are associated with higher early career earnings. Again this result holds when other factors are controlled for.

12. We do not intend to suggest that subjects should become more or less vocational. Less vocational subjects offer graduates a broad range of options, while more vocational subjects restrict these options in a graduate’s early career. We believe this information can help potential students when making the choice of which degree subject to study.

Action required

13. This document is for information only.


NB These files were updated on 9 February 2018 to correct errors in paragraph 36, the note to Figure 2a, and Annex C paragraph 1.

Date: 9 February 2018

Ref: 2018/01

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded further education colleges, Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions
Heads of alternative providers of higher education

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Student opportunity, Planning, Policy development

Enquiries should be directed to:

Annalise Ruck, tel 0117 931 7409, email, or Analysis for Policy Team, email