Monday, January 30, 2006

Now it's the turn of social sciences

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The THES is reporting (don't know how long this link will stay for), that university social sciences are facing a staffing crisis, according to a report to be published by the ESRC in February. Many senior social sciences are due to retire soon, and many staff in practise-based discipline came straight from the workplace, and lack research and especially statistical skills that are learnt during a PhD.

More on this when the report is out.

It's now out - see this post for details

Friday, January 27, 2006

Science Teachers

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The DfES report on science teaching in secondary schools has had a lot of coverage this week. Here's a link, but beware - it's 288 pages long.

19% of school science teachers are trained in physics and 25% are trained in chemistry. Over a quarter of 11-16 schools do not have any teachers from a physics background, and one in eight have no chemists. By far the commonest subject for science teachers is biology - which has increasing numbers of graduates. There is clearly a mechanism at work here that disfavours budding physicists and chemists.

One very interesting possible explanation for the low numbers of prospective teachers is given right at the end, in Appendix 4.2, page 268. There, the average salaries of various science teachers against the average graduate salaries in each government office region is examined. Except in London, the South East and the Eastern region (all of which are distorted by the London graduate labour market), teachers earn a higher average salary than graduates. But non-teaching biologists earn lower than teaching biologists in almost all regions, rendering teaching a financially attractive option. Chemists and physicists, however, get a higher average salary than biologists, and so in most regions they can earn more by not teaching.

There are other issues around gender (it is no coincidence that biology is also the only science subject with more woman graduates than men), and they all seem to tie together. But one thing seems clear - unless something is done, the teaching of physics and chemistry will continue to be undertaken by teachers with no more than A-level qualifications in the subject.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Could Fees Harm Basic Courses?

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A report in the Guardian today suggests that basic courses in the sciences, engineering and languages could have real problems recruiting students with the introduction of top-up fees.

The research has been conducted by the Institute of Education at the University of London, on behalf of the DfES, although it does not yet appear to be available (and this report comes billed as written by 'agencies', which rings certain alarms). But without the survey to hand, the piece seems a bit woolly.

We're told that the survey involved 'in-depth interviews with staff at 15 institutions'. How many? Which institutions?

But some of the concerns are more substantial. Firstly, there is a worry that some four-year courses, which include engineering, for example, may become less popular with the increased debt that will ensue. That's a good point, although it does neglect the fact that many engineering courses are associated with very positive employment outcomes, and that may act as an attractor.

Secondly, there seems to be a fear that some courses will see a drift of Scottish students to English universities who have anticipated problems and offered bursaries. Now, it's never been seen as a problem that bright Scottish students might want to go to Oxford or Cambridge, so this seems an odd time to start worrying about it.

Thirdly, and another excellent point, is that fees will probably kill dead the idea of students studying for leisure purposes. No real adult debate has ever taken place over what the Government thinks university is for, but this seems to nail that debate flat.

Once the survey comes out, we'll be able to get a better picture of what's actually being said in it, and it will be good to see how much is new and innovative.

Monday, January 23, 2006

National Student Survey hits the rocks

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The National Student Survey (NSS) looks to be in trouble as, following the examples of Oxford, Cambridge and Warwick last year, a whole tranche of university student unions have concluded that they don't fancy taking part this year.

There is a worry amongst that students are getting surveyed an awful lot these days, but at the same time, some universities may not be wholly unhappy at the idea that their students might not be going public with their views on administration and teaching this year.

Certainly, it seems the survey needs to be re-examined, but it remains to be seen whether a National Student Survey will ever be fully subscribed.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Students not so keen on the capital

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A Capital One survey of 1000 new graduates published this week found that only one in five wanted a job based in London. The cost of living in the capital is cited as the main factor.

Now, the usual disclaimers about a biased survey from a small sample apply, but the difference is that this time the survey is actually backed by other findings elsewhere.

Analysis of this year's Destination of Leavers of Higher Education Survey finds that only 18.7% of employed graduates were working in London six months after graduating. Whilst London is a lure to many graduates, the myth that everyone wants to (or has to) work there is just that - a myth. As previous research from Graduate Prospects shows, there are opportunities for graduates around the country, and young graduates do move in search of them - and not always to London.

So although this survey may have statistical holes, it does back up something that has already been shown elsewhere. Many, if not most graduates don't want to have to work in London, no matter if that's where the highest salaries are to be found. Money isn't everything.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Public sector employment up

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The Office of National Statistics have released their quarterly update on public sector employment. In the year ending September 2005, UK public sector employment rose by 72,000, which is a substantial rise but a reduction in the rate of increase. 5,826,000 people now work in the public sector in the UK. The main areas on the increase were health and social work, up 45,000 and education, up 25,000. Civil Service employment was down 3,000. Construction and HM Forces also saw a reduction in employment.

Outside the capital, the public sector is much the most significant graduate employer, so changes in public sector employment are always important to the UK graduate labour market. As of June 2005, one in five workers in the UK was employed by the public sector.

Also this weblog, Summa cum laude, written by Iain MacLaren, the Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning at NUI Galway, is well worth reading for an update on Irish HE, as well as an examination of events of significance to the international HE community.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Graduate job market 'on the rise'

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This time around, a positive story about graduate jobs.

The Graduate Market survey of employers by High Fliers (I'd link to their web site, but it has been under construction for months) found an 11% rise in job vacancies, a whole swathe of employers looking to take more new graduates on this year, and average salaries of £23,000. Sounds great!

Alas, it is another very selective and misleading survey. High Fliers have interviewed a small range of very large 'blue chip', London-based companies, mainly in the financial sector, and which will account for less than 10% of total vacancies available. This is great news if you want to be an accountant, but if you want to be a scientist, or work in the media, or don't want to work in London, or fall into any one of a number of categories that make up the bulk of the graduate population, then this report does not mean a great deal to you.

What this kind of survey does do is gives graduates an unrealistic expectation of their potential starting salaries. These are the top-paying jobs that are likely to be available, by and large, in 2006. If you don't want to do these jobs, don't expect to get paid as much as this. And don't feel like a failure if you don't take one of these jobs. They're not the kind of job that anyone will thrive in. They're not even the kind of job that a lot of people who do take them will thrive in. They are often very stressful, long hour jobs, and other employers that pay less can provide other benefits that many consider worth the lower salary.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

IT graduates unhappy with UK courses

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46 per cent of recent IT graduates feel that their courses didn't provide them with relevant skills, according to a story which is doing the rounds.

This does not look at all good, and some of the complaints sound very concerning: those surveyed did not feel they were properly trained in Java or .NET, and 41 per cent said that they ought not to have gone to university at all.

Of course, this is another example of a survey that does not do what the writers suggest it does.

Let's take a look at the sample. 500 graduates, all of whom are users of That's out of a graduating cohort last year of 16,220. Or, if you'd prefer, 3% of last year's IT graduates. They're all, also, signed up to a job-seekers board (an American one as well!), which means that what we have here is an immediate case of a biased sample. People who are seeking work are very likely either not to be working, or in jobs that make them unsatisfied. They are therefore far more likely to be unhappy with their degree, since they aren't doing the work that they wanted to be doing. That doesn't make them representative of anything other than unhappy IT graduates - indeed, with that in mind, I'm surprised only 46% were unhappy with their degree.

Then, let's take a look at the organisation who conducted the poll, FDM. They're, surprise, surprise, an IT training organisation, with an academy where consultants are trained in....hmmm....Java and .NET.

In other words, we have a vested interest conducting a survey on a biased, small sample of IT graduates and then bartering that up into an indictment of the UK university system. Whilst there is some valid information in there (if important commercial skills are not being properly taught, that is an issue), it is lost in the general statistical meaninglessness of the story, and exacerbated by an accusatory tone that is not justified by the data.

This should not obscure some issues with IT graduates. They do still have an unacceptably high unemployment rate on graduating (over 10%), and it's clear that many do have a lot of trouble finding work. But let's have some proper evidence.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

UK graduate earnings

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Last time, I looked at basic salary figures. So how do UK graduate salaries stack up overall against non-graduate wages?

The OECD this year calculated the returns of an average graduate from tertiary education in the UK to be 62% over the salary they would have earnt without their degree - so for those with upper secondary qualifications - with only the US and Hungary (we overtook Finland this year) higher. It's even bigger if you're a woman. Here it is, from 'Education At A Glance' - you want table A9.1a, and here are the instructions for those data tables.

Using different stats, the DfES calculated this graduate premium at around 43% in early 2005. This is a slight drop on earlier figures, and the Class of '99 research also suggests that the premium is coming down, but slowly.

So next time a newspaper article tells us it's not worth getting a degree, bear this in mind.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Some basic stats on graduate salaries

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Since there's a lot of confusion about what graduates in the UK (or indeed anyone) actually earn, let's take a look at what's out there.

Let's kick off with the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE), the Government's own salary survey.

There was a bit of a hiccup this year when they had to reissue part of the data, but that's by the by. According to the ASHE, the mean, annual, gross salary in the UK in 2005 was £23,400.

OK, so there is the average UK wage, which does include all part-time workers and so on.

Now, let's look at the 2005 Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education Survey by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, which polled all leavers of first degrees in 2004. They found the average starting salary for graduates 6 months after graduating (in other words, at the start of 2005) was £17,029

Ok, so that's much lower than the national average. But then does anyone really expect 21 year olds to earn above the national average?

Let's move on to Professor Peter Elias and Professor Kate Purcell again. From the Class of 99 research I mentioned earlier in the week, they found that the mean salary of graduates from 1999 had reached £23,754 in 2003/4 - in other words, 3 and a half years after graduating, a typical graduate was already earning above the current national average wage. (The information's on page 105, if you want to look it up).

But the question remains difficult to answer. If anyone asks me 'what's the average salary for a graduate?', I can point at some rather old research from Graduate Prospects based on the old Labour Force Survey, showing the average weekly graduate salary was £605 between 2001 and 2002, but beyond that, there's not a lot about the whole population, or even large groups of it. Graduate Prospects' Labour Market FAQs can help with some of these questions, but if anyone tells you how much a graduate earns, I'd ask them some very searching questions about their data. And if it sounds good, let me know, because we can always use good salary data.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Are Fees Deterring Students?

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Obviously, tuition fees are controversial. And one of the main questions is: "Are students from non-traditional backgrounds deterred from study by the prospect of debt"

Thus we have this piece in the Guardian.

This quotes from a survey of 1000 careers advisers conducted by the marketing agency, Heist, which states that 30% of advisers had received no information from universities about the bursaries they had on offer, and also quotes from their own survey of advisers at 30 FE colleges, for whom 40% felt that the new system would lead to a drop in applications.

Hang on.

So, the Heist survey says nothing about the number of people expected to go to university (more on this later), and less than half of the Guardian's own survey sample said the same thing? Is there any substance to this story?

And here is where the problems are. The Heist survey is currently unpublished, although, conveniently, the Guardian has read it. In October, Heist had issued this proposal for a follow-up survey to the one quoted in this article. In it they say that 'three quarters of respondents predicted a decrease in the numbers entering higher education in 2005'.
This claim is not qualified, as it is in the Guardian article, which admits that, "A drop in numbers is widely expected because of a large increase in applications last year", and by itself is hardly a deeply damaging claim if demographics is a significant factor.

So, let's look at the Guardian's survey. Fewer than half their respondents from 30 colleges felt that the new system was deterring applicants (even I think that seems rather low!). And that's all we know about it.

Thus we get a news story based on two unpublished surveys, one at least 3 months old, asking different people unknown questions and coming up with no firm conclusions - or at least, nothing yet published.

The irony is that there is evidence, from Professor Peter Elias and Professor Kate Purcell's Class of '99 research, that the widening participation agenda is not working as planned, and any good information about the impact of tuition fees will help every
one concerned improve the current provision. I look forward to the full Heist and Guardian research reports to help with that.