The survey, produced by High Fliers Research, organisers of the Oxbridge Careers Survey, shows that less than a quarter of students think they will be starting graduate employment, with a further 14 per cent saying they expect to be looking for a job. This suggests that about a third of finalists are likely to take graduate work eventually.
The project is the first nationwide student survey to examine the effectiveness of recruitment promotions and the impact of the "milk round" at leading universities throughout Britain. Based on direct interviews carried out in February and March with finalists at 15 leading universities, it provides a detailed picture of students' views of the recruitment process. This ranges from initial research into careers to the role of newspapers, directories and guides.
The milk round is already declining in importance asemployers move away from once-a-year hirings, and the findings of this research could prompt further changes to the graduate recruitment market.
Martin Birchall, survey director, says the findings indicate that students feel there is no urgency to securing a job. They are more focused on short- term goals, such as completing the week's essay.
Those who are not aiming to find a graduate position within months of leaving university are considering a range of options. Twenty-five per cent of the 7,000 students questioned - or 20 per cent of all the students graduating from the 15 universities covered - said they wanted to attend postgraduate courses, 16 per cent aimed to take time off or to travel and 7 per cent would seek non-graduate work, such as a temporary job. When contacted in March, only three months from graduation, about 15 per cent had no definite plans.
This low level of interest in employment is confirmed in a further result - that just over 40 per cent of students had made one or more applications to employers during their final year. Moreover, many students had sent in speculative applications, with little genuine confidence in finding a suitable job through the milk round process.
The survey was developed with the help of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the organisation that represents employers who recruit UK graduates. Roly Cockman, AGR executive secretary, says some of the findings were "a little surprising".
In particular, he says he is concerned about the relatively small amount of effort a number of graduates appear to be putting into something that can shape their destiny, and the limited number actively seeking employment.
If these results apply to all universities, it seems his organisation has over-estimated in assuming that about half of graduates will apply for positions, he adds.
Mr Cockman is also interested to know the motives of those who said they would be applying for places on post-graduate courses. While students on medical, dental and other vocational courses were deliberately left out of the survey on the grounds that their inclusion would skew the results, it was still possible that some finalists would be seeking specific training, in areas such as the law or journalism.
Students opting for post-graduate education knowing exactly what they want to do is all very well, but it is not a good idea to take that route merely as a way of keeping out of the market, he adds. This is because they will eventually find themselves competing with fresh graduates for jobs without necessarily having more to offer and because many employers specifically look for first-degree candidates.
They should instead be concentrating on gaining extra personal skills while undergraduates since they are the factors that made them more marketable, he says.
However unpredictable the survey results may be overall, they are subject to local variations. In particular, students at Aston, Bath and Strathclyde universities were found to be generally more motivated about careers, while those at Leeds, Manchester and Belfast appeared to be the least motivated and had the lowest expectations about finding work.
While several factors are probably at work, the differences are attributed to the former group having a high proportion of finalists who had been on placements for the business studies or technical degrees, closer-knit campus communities and high-profile careers services. The latter group, meanwhile, is characterised by more dispersed student communities and their city rather than campus locations. In Belfast, another factor is the generally depressed job market.
The research also clearly shows that the level of employer activity at a university has little or no influence on the amount of interest in finding jobs. Oxford, Cambridge, Durham and Bristol have the largest number of employer events, advertising and promotion, yet the figures for finalists expecting to start a graduate job are average. Likewise, the numbers of students applying to employers and taking part in the milk round are also average.
A further finding of the survey is that even those finalists who were actively looking for work only devoted a minimal amount of time to it. The total time spent by a typical final-year student who was actively preparing for and researching a graduate job was between 30 and 40 hours.
About a third of the time was spent collecting information, another third went on meeting employers and the rest was used for completing application forms and CVs.
Mr Birchall says this may not seem like a particularly low figure, but it is worth considering that an average three-year degree course will amount to about 2,700 hours of lectures, tutorials and private study. "In this context, to spend only 30 to 40 hours planning the start of a career that could last 40 years does seem rather unbalanced," he adds.
For further information on the UK Graduate Careers Survey 1995, please contact Martin Birchall, survey director, at High Fliers Research on 0171 267-4773.