Friday, June 09, 2006

How will UK universities survive global competition?

One thing that came out whilst I was away was the Council for Industry and Higher Education report on the International Competitiveness of UK universities, authored by Richard Brown and Philip Ternouth, and originally brought up in this post.

Much of the coverage has been dominated by Brown's eye-catching pronounciations about outsourcing research, but such recommendations make up only a very small part of the overall report.

Much of the work consisted of interviews with senior management - often chief executives - of multinationals involved in research and about what these large, wealthy, powerful and global organisations want from their employees. And it seems that the UK fares rather well.

The report is very positive about the quality of the research done at UK universities, the quality of our graduates, and the flexibility and acumen of our top academics. With the authors warning that big companies have the resources to go to the very best institutions in the world for research partners, it seems many UK universities are world class business collaborators in a range of fields - and it's often not the ones routinely cited as 'the best'.

But Brown and Ternouth have a number of recommendations and, indeed, warnings. They note that where the UK sometimes falls down is on value for money, especially compared with technically able institutions in India - this is the genesis of the 'outsourcing' stories. They suggest we need to attract more able overseas students, as big business is very fond of those who have the drive to move to another country to get the best education. And in particular, our base of science research is dangerously eroded. In addition, the Government has already pared central funding down to a minimum, and must not make any more funding cuts.

Finally, the authors complain that UK HE has been 'on the back foot' for too long.

'…what is best about UK higher education needs to be recognised and defended; it also needs to be lauded.'

Amen to that.

The report appears to be being taken seriously by the Treasury - let's hope they act on it and particularly accept that if they want a world-class HE system, it might be a good idea to fund it properly.

We can also hope that commentators who constantly bang on about what a terrible state HE in the UK is in might read this and start to accept that not everything is broken.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Work for social science PhDs

My little break whilst the outside world impinged is now over.

The ESRC have just published a report on the employment of social science PhDs.

It's an interesting document, building on research such as What Do PhDs Do?, to take a look at the practicalities of employment for doctorates in these subjects - there are estimated to be 20,500 PhD holders in the social sciences in the UK.

The main point is that although the majority work in academia (about 74%, although the researchers do believe they are under-reporting non-academics), business would like to recruit more of them. The common view amongst public (and employers) is that a doctorate is an ivory tower qualification that does not fit anyone for the 'real world', whatever that may be. This report gives the lie to that received opinion.

But it does warn that those employers who do recruit social science PhDs particularly prize project management and leadership skills that are rarely formally developed as part of doctoral training. The same went for other important skills, such as research management, teamworking and entrepreneurial abilities.

Most non-academic employers, in the words of the report,

...did not perceive that they had recruited such employees, and where they did recognise that they had done so, responded that they did not require applicants for those positions to have PhDs, and very often were unable to identify which amongst their employees had such qualifications...

This is rather familiar to those who have studied PhD employment, but more encouraging was the identification of three potential employment niches for social science PhDs - small, specialist research agencies and consultancies (who looked for all round research skills, project management, and interpersonal skills), employers looking for specific technical and analytical skills, such as organisational clinical psychologists or experts in certain HR techniques, and large organisations looking for economists or development experts.

Perhaps most significantly, both PhD holders and employers felt that social science PhDs were under-developed in terms of quantitative and numeracy skills. Food for thought for those academics who deride the quantitative in favour of the qualitative?

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