Thursday, December 20, 2007

Graduate employment in 2007

Well, since it got practically no press coverage, time to talk a little about 'What Do Graduates Do?'

This is the annual review of the outcomes for last year's graduates, six months after they leave university, and does a valuable service in telling us things like how the graduate employment market looked, distribution of people completing degrees, and whether people are getting jobs - or going onto further study - or not.

2006 graduates actually entered a pretty good job market, with 6% unemployed - a low proportion, in historic terms, and the lowest since 2001 (an anomalous year as it transpired), and about two thirds getting jobs at degree level (the classifications for what actually constitutes a graduate job are currently being re-examined as the labour market is not static).

Since these classifications were only really firmed up in the last few years, there is not a great body of historical evidence for graduate-level job participation, but what we do have suggests that last year was pretty good on that front as well.

There are plenty more details at the site, so take a look if you're interested.

As for the coming year? Well, I am not a big fan of futurology, but I don't expect things to be as favourable for graduates from 2007 or 2008. The graduate employment market is one of the first to be affected by even a small downturn in the economy, and a range of issues, such as the banking problems over the last few months, to concerns over funding cuts for physics and astronomy research (more about that at Exquisite Life), suggests that things may be tougher. But unless we get a full recession in the UK economy, they will not get to serious levels - I would be surprised to see early graduate unemployment climb much above 7%.

If we do get a recession, though, this figure could double - as it did in the early 90s. That doesn't seem to be happening at the moment, though.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

PISA again

Now the data is out properly, more of the press are writing about how we've 'plummeted' in the UK.

Just to recap very quickly, in 2000, PISA measured 43 countries. 31 were tabulated for the science report (27 in the UK-specific report.)

In 2006, PISA assessed 57. They all appear in the data. (And the UK comes third in terms of percentage of kids with the highest level of science skill, which is nice - behind New Zealand and Finland).

How can we 'plummet' when the tables are completely different?

I'll make that point again.

The 2006 data on science attainment contains at least 26 extra countries.

There are some interesting points about science education in the UK-specific report (warning - pdf). Firstly, the UK has a lower than average proportion of 15 year olds with immigrant backgrounds(8.6%, opposed to an OECD average of 9.3%), but that they are more interested in science than are their native peers.

Also, the OECD notes that socio-economic differences account for a higher degree of differences between school performances than the OECD average - 8.6% of the difference between schools is directly related to the backgrounds of the student body as opposed 7.2% on average across the OECD. This is a concern.

We have lower than average students at the bottom end of science knowledge and higher than average at the top, but the OECD feels we could certainly improve - and I think that's an uncontroversial statement.

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edited substantially at 17:30 on 4/12/07 to take account of new published information. Too quick with the first version!

Friday, November 30, 2007

Our Kids Are Terrible At Science All Of A Sudden

There is fun to be had today with news that our children have 'plummeted' down an OECD league table of science comprehension.

This has been sparked by this press release.

The Programme for International Student Assessment, (PISA) project started in 2000, and attempts to compare the attainment of students across a range of subjects. This story concerns the science assessment.

And this is where it gets interesting. Because the data isn't out yet, and nor is the methodology. The Indie seems to have written its story based on the press release which contains partial data and which was prompted by the early leaking of results by a Spanish newspaper (Spain has fared very badly in the comparison).

What we do know, because the OECD have said so, is that the methodology has changed between 2003 and 2006, and so the data is no longer comparable. And the UK wasn't properly included last time as our data was not actually good enough quality to compare properly (see page 293 - 23rd page of this pdf).

Anyway, here is a rather nice link to a site that lets you play with the 2003 data. Each country gets a score going up to 600 (the lowest ranked country, Kyrgyrstan, scores 322 this time around).

In 2003, we scored 519. Not bad (although, as we have established, the data isn't great).

In 2006, our score has fallen, yes. All the way down to 515.

This means that within limits of error, by an international measure, our 15 year olds are ranked somewhere between 12 and 18 in the world for science comprehension. Not awful, but could do better - that said, there are quite a few countries who have similar scores to us. In 2003, unless something odd has happened, a score of 519 placed the UK 12th.

The reason we're being told the UK has fallen is because in 2000, we placed 4th. However, the number of countries involved was significantly smaller, and several of those included subsequently have found themselves higher. In fact, we have been overtaken by three countries from 2000 - Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

So, in brief:

A survey for whom we have no methodological details finds that some small countries that were not examined six years ago are a bit better at teaching their young people science than we are. Also, Canada, New Zealand and Australia have improved their science education, and the UK compares extremely well internationally - although we could probably stand to improve ourselves.

So, not really a national disaster for science education.

Sometimes you really need to read the source material - and not a press release - to get the sense of what is really going on. That might have stopped Michael Gove saying this:

" we plummeted down the international science league table. External audits are confirming what we have warned about.

The government has failed to equip our children properly for the future by using tried and tested teaching methods. It has failed to keep us internationally competitive by making sure our exams are properly rigorous."

Which is valid if all you have to go on are some press releases, but not if you have read the reports.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Philosophy Graduates: employable

Jessica Shepherd wrote about the employability of philosophy graduates in the Guardian on 20th November.

Yes, philosophy graduates are a little more likely than the average graduate to be out of work six months after graduating, but their employment prospects seem to have improved over the last few years.

Several commentators have been academics or aspired to academia. It's important to point out that, although over 2000 first degrees in philosophy were awarded in 2006, only 95 people got doctorates in the subject (half of whom didn't reply to the DLHE survey), and of those, fewer than half went into academia on graduating (41%, thanks for asking, although from a small sample).

So whilst it is worth looking at philosophy as an academic subject, the facts are that very few philosophy graduates get into academia in the end.

It it therefore important to highlight for students and employers alike that philosophy is a flexible and useful subject fit for a whole range of occupations, since almost all philosophy graduates in a given year will have to go out and get a job outside of an academic environment. Fortunately, Jessica's article seems to have started getting the word out.

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edited 15:07 to remove irrelevant boasting

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

HESA release graduate employment figures

Today saw the first findings of HESA's much-anticipated longitudinal study of graduates from the 2002/3 leaving cohort.

Before I go on to comment on Press reaction, here are some pieces: Polly Curtis in the Guardian, Graeme Paton in the Telegraph, Nicola Woolcock in the Times. And here's the BBC on the research. Note the different tone.

Let's compare the figures from the initial destinations survey in 2002/3, which looked at graduates six months after they left university, with these new figures.

But first, a very important point. These new figures examine graduates at all levels. Not just first degrees.

The level of full-time, paid work has gone up from 57% to 74%.

Part time employment has dropped from 8% to 6%.

The level of those who are both working and studying (these are usually doing training courses as part of work - accountancy exams are an example) has remained the same at 9% - some hardy souls are working full time and studying.

The proportion in further study has fallen from 11% to 5%. Not surprising - those who took teaching courses or Masters study on first graduating will have finished long before - but many of those who took PhDs will still be writing up.

The unemployment rate fell from 5% to 2%, which is, to be honest, a surprisingly large fall.

This seems quite good news.

What isn't so great is the news that 80%, as opposed to 71%, of employed graduates were in jobs classified as 'graduate' occupations. Bearing in mind that three years have passed, I would have hoped more would move into graduate level work. Elias and Purcell's work on graduate careers suggested that the level of non-graduate employment for a first degree cohort stabilised at about 10% somewhere between 3 and 4 years after graduating. Maybe things have changed.
Of course, 'non-graduate' does not mean 'bad' or even 'badly paid'. Some graduates choose to take non-graduate jobs for many reasons. But this small increase is still disappointing. Of course, having no previous work to use as a comparison, either in the UK or outside it, we don't know whether this is a good performance or a bad one.

Overall, 14% of graduates were not satisfied with their career - this is, remember, just three and a half years into what is hopefully going to be a long career for many of them. Three and a half years after I graduated, I was pretty hacked off. Now, I am quite serene, experience and perspective having made me realise the value of what I have learnt.

Salaries sat at a median of £23,000, a little below the current median for the UK - not too bad when you consider most of the cohort are in their mid-20s, but probably less than many expected. A degree is a qualification for the long-term, though. It has never been a guarantee of riches.

What is interesting about the press coverage, with the exception of the BBC, is how extremely negative it is. The Times and the Telegraph fail to mention unemployment at all - both focussing on salaries and levels of non-graduate employment. The Guardian concentrates on the pay gap between men and women, generalising about what is an extremely complex (although real) topic. All three papers mention further study as if it were a less desirable outcome than working, with the Telegraph producing a statistic not covered by the press release about graduates doing further study because they couldn't get a suitable job that screams 'out of context'.
(Here's the questionnaire - the Telegraph's factoid comes from Q24, a multiple choice question where a respondent can tick numerous boxes).

It is depressing, although not unexpected, that the press should be so keen to be so negative about a very significant piece of work, and it hinders attempts to have a sensible public discussion of the implications.

Fortunately, politicians have been much more measured. Bill Rammell quoted some stats, whilst David Willetts, to my mind, summed up the real value of this work,

These statistics demonstrate just how varied experiences of higher education can be. These sorts of employability statistics are just some of the facts that students need to know when choosing what courses they want to study, along with how the course will be structured, how many contact hours they'll get and who will be teaching them. Students have a right to know what sort of experience they will be getting at university and beyond

The real significance of this work is that it is a very systematic and painstaking study of a section of graduate careers that we know very little about. We don't know enough about graduate careers to use this data to score political points, and instead should use it as a basis for future comparisons. There's a lot of very interesting insight yet to come from this research, and I'm looking forward to it.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

The IPOD Generation

I am an idle researcher. Apologies to my reader for not getting around to the Sainsbury Review analysis promised earlier (yet). Blimey, it's a bit of a monster job, but I will limp through it, eventually.

Let's, instead, have a small roundup.

First, Reform's exciting report on the "IPOD generation" - 18-34 year olds who are Insecure, Pressurised, Overtaxed and Debt-Ridden, and how convenient that these characteristics form an easily recognised acronym! Now, having spent most of my life in that age group and only (relatively) recently left it, I don't necessarily disagree with many of the findings of the report. But as far as graduates go, the authors have used incorrect figures for graduate earnings (using the annual NatWest survey which takes a biased sample, and has methodological flaws) to pretend that graduate salaries fell between 2005 and 2006. They did not, and the only way that they could make this statement was to choose the only survey out of several that showed it.

They also play a slightly dicey rhetorical trick by placing rising student numbers next to figures for rising youth unemployment - leading readers to obvious conclusions - without admitting that in the time period they are covering, early graduate unemployment (ie six months after graduation) has fallen - from 7.6% in 1997 to 6.0% in 2006.

In short, this report and the news coverage around it needs to be read very carefully because it could mislead people.

Also in the news is this piece from Stephen Machin and Sandra McNally of the LSE. It is really a digest from this piece (warning, pdf) they wrote earlier in the year for the OECD, and it is a review of the evidence of the effects of tertiary education on economic and social objectives. Machin and McNally show that the evidence available points to the need to increase higher education participation in the UK, that we are not over-supplied with graduates as a whole and that returns to study to higher education are real, significant and not being eroded to any great extent.

It hasn't had a lot of coverage. Shame.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Grade Inflation Or Claim Inflation

This piece has appeared in the Guardian today, and it is a very interesting study for anyone who likes to compare headlines with content.

The article by Polly Curtis presents the case that an "authoritative new study" presents "evidence of grade inflation" at Russell Group universities which will lead to "accusations of dumbing down" that haven't been levelled at these universities before.

This is all very exciting. Let's look at what's actually happened.

Mantz Yorke, who has been studying this area for some time and knows his stuff, has written a book (which was out in April). In it he presents some data on degrees awarded which shows that the number of 2:1s and Firsts awarded went up between 1994/5 and 2001/2.

So, the data is old.

In the article, Yorke is quoted as saying,
"My evidence suggests that people who attack colleges and new universities for softening or dumbing down are perhaps a little premature"
Which is not quite the same as accusing the Russell Group of grade inflation.

Later in the article, Curtis herself says,
As Yorke himself points out, rising grades do not necessarily indicate 'grade inflation'.
Before going on to explain why. In addition the allegation that this is all rather new will come as news to Tony Mooney, author of this piece from 2003 in the Guardian on, er, Mantz Yorke's research into grade inflation (using, er, the same data as in his book of this year), in which Yorke concludes,
...there is, on present data, little evidence that the percentage of good degrees has been inflated across any of the whole universities whose data have been analysed.

So, let's summarise. An eyecatching piece in the main paper and currently occupying a key spot on the much-visited Guardian website concerns a book that's been out for 6 months, analysing data that's now over 6 years old, that doesn't support the headline or opening paragraphs of the article and rehashes a 4 year old piece from the same newspaper anyway.

And yet, the effect will be, for casual readers, to give the impression that our degree system is deteriorating. It smacks of a journalist playing the age-old game of 'Let's You And Him Fight' justified by the publication, next week, of a review of qualification classifications.
There is a need for a proper, grown-up debate on degrees and their value, but this is not the opening sally into that arena, unfortunately. This isn't a case of educational grade inflation, just a case of journalistic claim inflation.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Careers Advice Is All Rubbish, Say All

Two important pieces of work out in the last few days, and they both have one thing in common - they criticise careers advice to science students.

The first is the leviathan Sainsbury Review of Government Science and Innovation Policy, as not reported particularly by a Press more concerned that they aren't going to get to play elections this autumn than with the long term viability of the UK as a science and technology innovator.

The second is the a much more specialist report from the Council for Science and Technology, which is reviewing how the situation for young researchers at university has improved since the Roberts Review finally told the world, in 2002, how badly our brightest young people were being treated.
Depressingly, the answer to 'how have things improved' is 'hardly at all'.

Anyway, both reports are authoritative, consult widely, and criticise careers advice and guidance without apparently speaking to anyone involved in producing or disseminating it in HE.

Indeed, neither report really even tries to summarise what is available. This is especially disappointing for the CST's report, because one thing that has definitely improved since Roberts is the standard and availability of careers information and guidance to young researchers. Many universities have dedicated, well-briefed advisers specifically for PhD graduates and postdocs. This is not reflected in the report.

The Sainsbury Review, meanwhile, calls for summaries of graduate populations to be published when most of the relevant data already exists and is available to the general public.

Careers advice is an easy - and fashionable - target. It is a shame that it does not appear that advisers, researchers, or bodies who deal with either at HE level did not get consulted (the Sainsbury Review did, at least, appear to consider Connexions before sticking the boot into HE)

More to come on these reports - hopefully a little more positive.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Education at a Glance 2007

The OECD has produced the annual ‘Education At A Glance’ international comparison report and, as is now traditional, it does an excellent job of trashing a lot of persistent myths about the UK higher education system

- We send too many people to university
No, actually, we don’t. We lag behind a number of countries in terms of university participation, including Australia and New Zealand. Our rate of increase in university participation has slowed down considerably, and a whole suite of countries are expanding more rapidly than us. We’ll get overtaken by all sorts of nations at the current rate.

- We don’t have many science graduates
Actually, we seem to – 1.9% of the employed population aged 25-34 have a science degree or higher compared to an OECD average of 1.3%. 18% of degree holders got science qualifications compared to an OECD average of 11% - only Ireland is higher. (To be fair, we have plenty of biologists, but not many chemists, for example).

- It’s not worth going to university.
I can forgive press misinterpretation of some issues in higher education, but this is the one where I feel they’re guilty of damaging misrepresentation of the issues.
The OECD rather starkly demonstrates just how beneficial going to university is – an earnings advantage, for graduates aged 30 to 44 years, of 61%. It goes up to 77% for a 2:1 or higher. Part of this is because, as the report admits, employment prospects for those who have no upper secondary qualifications are especially poor. The national economy is changing so that those with poor or no skills will soon have very little opportunity.

With that in mind, those who discourage young people to try to improve their own educational level ought to be very careful and should make themselves au fait with the actual situation. This is not data that is amenable to being manipulated by our Government, and indeed there is a fair amount in here to concern it.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

That Drop-Out Report In "Brief"

Breathless stories about this report from the National Audit Office assessing dropout rates from UK universities, have led people to believe, yet again, that there's something badly wrong with our HE system in the UK.

Yet again, this view is largely the result of people not actually reading what they see fit to comment on.

Briefly, the report looks at the number of non-completers from university between 1999 and 2005, and deduces a probable non-continuation rate of something around 20 per cent for students, with certain factors, such as background, being indicators of likelihood of leaving university.

Cue predictable laments about the decline of the HE system.


The dropout rate is not really a dropout rate - as the authors themselves say:

There are particular difficulties with data about part-time students due to the inherent flexibilites in patterns of study
Or, in other words it's an overestimate because some part-timers take longer to complete than expected.

The next problem for the doom-mongers is on page 17 - a graph taken from the OECD's Education At A Glance, showing, er, that the UK's dropout rate is actually rather low - worse only than Korea, Greece, Ireland and Japan. Ireland's case is especially interesting - as a country whose HE system has grown very rapidly, and now sees greater participation amongst young people than the UK, the lower dropout rate deals a real blow to the popular theory that trying to send 50 per cent of 18-30 years olds into HE is the cause of this 'high' dropout rate.

The most interesting part of this is the historical context, though. Some reports have made a couple of interesting assumptions - firstly that this dropout rate is high - which it may be, but it's lower than almost everyone else.
The second assumption is that it has gone up. This is actually not supportable. The report starts with 1999 because that's when this data first started being collected in a systematic way. And the dropout rate has actually fallen (albeit in a marginal and probably insignificant way) since then. Before that, well, I am not at all sure that systematic, country-wide university non-completion data is really available. And I have looked.

This begs a number of questions. Firstly, and most importantly, what drop-out rate is acceptable? The report itself notes that you can't get, and shouldn't want, a 100 per cent completion rate because many dropouts are actually quite rational. A student learning a series of particular modules that they needed for a career plan. Someone getting a job that they wanted. Children. Someone just deciding that now is not the best time to go to university after all. Japan has the lowest dropout rate at just under 10 per cent, whilst the US runs at nearly 50 per cent. Perhaps we're actually doing rather well. Perhaps our dropout rate is too low? (I don't personally believe that, by the way, but it's worth considering).

And the second is - were things really better back in the day? I can't find any evidence that they were, and I reserve the right to be very sceptical about anyone who says otherwise without any evidence. And that's something that's happening a great deal at the moment.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

How To Get Your Graduate Survey Covered In The Press

Blimey, has it really been that long since I last posted? I am a very bad and lazy blogger (who has been flat out on assessing the postgraduate labour market and having comedy run-ins with a national newspaper, thanks for asking.)

This week has seen a kind of distillation of how the media reports stories on graduate employment, graduate salaries and graduates in general.

Two major surveys came out - the Association of Graduate Recruiters Survey, and the Higher Education Statistics Agency Destinations Of Leavers of Higher Education Survey.

These are all hideously long names, so like everyone else in the field, I'm going to refer to them as the AGR survey and the DHLE survey.

I've covered the AGR survey at length before, so suffice to say, it's not a bad survey as such, it's just not representative of the graduate labour market - just that bit of it that pertains to big, private sector employers, mainly in London and largely associated with the finance industry. It mainly asks what employers aim to pay new graduate recruits this year. It found that the number of vacancies were up, but that the average starting salaries that their employers expected to pay in London might be down this year. It usually covers in the region of 20,000 graduates.

The DHLE meanwhile, is a census survey of everyone who graduated from university in 2006. It asks graduates what they were doing six months after they get their degree. It's a hugely important survey which is the basis of a lot of performance indicators for universities, and a great deal of careers information and so we get a response rate of around 80%. More than 200,000 first degree graduates (it also covers graduates at other levels, but let's set those aside for a moment) replied to the survey.
It found that everything was pretty much as normal. Graduate unemployment levels remain around 6% (it was 6.2% last year - it may have budged by 0.1%, but I don't have the detailed figures yet). Graduate salaries haven't fallen. Graduate underemployment seems, if anything, to have gone down - although, again, I'd prefer to do the calculations myself before I'm sure. As an aside - it's not collected by Government - HESA are an independent charity - and gets played with by all kinds of awkward independent researchers keen to find where things are going wrong. So it's not a cover-up exercise.

So, two surveys, one non-representative, but with a slightly alarmist (although not terribly significant) message, and one which is representative and tells students and graduates that actually, graduate jobs are in reasonable supply and graduate salaries aren't actually falling really.

Guess which one gets all the press coverage, and which one gets largely ignored?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Whilst we were looking the other way

At Sir Harry Kroto's excellent lament of the way the UK has treated science, some other stuff happened.

Chris Patten, now chancellor at Oxford, looks at how successive governments have underfunded HE.

But more interestingly, The Higher Education Policy Institute have taken a look at some of the implications of the Leitch Review.

The authors, the always-interesting Tom Sastry and Bahram Bekhradnia, analyse some of the suggestions in the Leitch Review. They suggest, amongst other things, that the initiatives may lead, ultimately, to fewer people continuing with education as the population of young people declines after 2010, and that in order to meet targets in the Review, we will have to see a dramatic increase in the number of mature students studying at university.

They argue that the level of employer intervention that the Review suggests to help increase funding is both cautious and sustainable - only 5000 places out of 1.39 million - but that it is important that the Government does not overestimate the size of the market for employer-led HE, and that it doesn't then use this an excuse to distort or reduce funding.

There is also some interesting reflection of what an influx of learners entering HE through the route of new vocational level 3 qualifications will mean for universities. Well worth a read.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Arts Students Idle. Apparently.

Back, back, back after a combination of physical decrepitude and work has prevented my from boring my reader for the last few weeks.

So, what's happening? Oh, yes, we're going to get a new Prime Minister, but it remains to be seen what effect that has on graduate employment. Let us, instead, turn to some research you might have read about recently.

High Fliers released their annual graduate recruitment survey earlier this month, an interesting piece of research that takes a look at how finalists expect their futures to look. It's a 25 page report, but typically, the press concentrated on one page - the last one.

That was one where a quick précis of stats found that arts graduates were less likely to have had an internship, or have gone to employer presentations or recruitment fairs than other graduates. The headlines were enormous fun.

BBC: Arts students 'plan careers less'

The FT: Students faulted in job-hunt research

The Telegraph: Arts graduates leave job hunting too late
(including the ace inference that "Arts and humanities graduates are missing lucrative careers and earning £10,000 a year less because they leave job hunting too late, a survey says today." - which the survey, of course, does not say at all.)

Of course, all these stories really say is 'Press Keen To Make Headlines From Press Release."

The fact that arts students were less likely to take internships, or go to employer presentations than other students makes the exceedingly dodgy assumption that they have the same number of relevant internships or employer presentations to attend. What this survey could equally be saying is 'Employers Not Engaging With Arts Students', but that engages with a rather less easy target than people taking degrees in the arts.

The survey itself is interesting, if limited. The sample size is 17,170 - quite a good sample, but when you look at the universities covered - all pre-92, students disproportionately likely to be based in London - you start to see how the data is skewed. (Also, unlike last year, we don't have a subject breakdown. Last year's was very heavily biased towards business and social science qualifications.)

As a result, expected starting salaries are over £20,000 - the average graduate starting salary is actually below £18,000 - and nearly half the graduate polled wanted to work in London - one in six graduates nationally actually start there so, again, this sample isn't actually representing the range of student experience.

The media sector is the most popular area of application. Given starting salary aspirations, this implies many finalists are very optimistic about the employment market. One in eight wants to be an investment banker as well, and that translated to over 2000 of the sample. Well, a lot of them are going to be disappointed (12% also expect to be earning £100,000 a year by the age of 30. Good luck with that.)

This shows a very interesting set of findings. Not to put too fine a point on it, somehow, these finalists have got a very optimistic view of the employment market. Many of them are going to be disappointed (interestingly, some universities, particularly in the north, show a great deal more realism amongst their graduates).

It is not hard to understand why many graduates feel let down when they come out university when they expect to earn salaries of £23,000 on graduation and to be working in the media in London. Many of the graduates in this survey will not actually manage this. But why do they think this? Who ought to be telling them what the graduate employment market really is like?

And why have the media ignored this and gone for an easy target using inferences that simply can't be made from this data?

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Department Of Stuff We All Knew Already

That whole UCAS thing really boiled my blood, so it's nice to mock the media for something else for a change.

The Guardian have rocked the entire education establishment to its foundations by breaking the terrible news that the 50% participation target probably won't be met by 2010.

I half expected this news to be alongside another headline informing us gravely that man had set foot on the moon, or perhaps that King Harold had suffered an uncomfortable reverse at Hastings.

After all, it's only a year since HEFCE came to the very same conclusion and actually announced it, so well done the Guardian on trying to fabricate another story.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

UCAS Discrimates Against Middle-Class. No, Working Class. Er, Someone Anyway

The 'announcement' that UCAS are going to 'start' collecting socioeconomic data on applicants seems to have riled a whole lot of armchair critics.

Everyone seems sure this is a sinister plot to discriminate against somebody, probably middle-class students, maybe working-class students, or perhaps ethnic minorities, aliens or the dead.

Two quibbles are easy - this is not news - it's been known to be in the pipeline for a while. Also, we have data on about half of graduates, which is largely collected at admissions stage - believe me, I'm looking at it now.

But the main issues are the wholesale missing of points by the media covering this (and the commentators talking about it). It really is an object example of how badly and lazily higher education is covered by the Press.

The facts are this: it would appear from previous research that the widening participation agenda might not have worked as planned. The idea was that widening participation would bring in a great many students from non-traditional (lower social classes and ethnic minorities in other words). In practise, what evidence that exists suggests that, whilst participation from non-traditional backgrounds has gone up a bit, middle-class university participation has rocketed. In other words, the system may well have merely made it easier for mediocre well-off kids to get into university.

And there's more. The outcome data I have in front of me are clear. On the sample I have (about half of graduates), those from lower socio-economic classes are less likely to go onto further study, and significantly more likely to be unemployed than their middle-class peers. But I can't be sure, because it's only half a sample. Now, with personal contacts so important in the UK, perhaps it's not surprising that those with a lower level of social capital (as we funky labour marketeers say) struggle more in the job market. But I'd like to be certain that there really is a problem before I bang on about it. I'm not a journalist, after all - I take this stuff seriously.

But the only way I can do that is with the data, and the only way we can see if the universities are doing their job fairly is to get that data when people enter university.

And that is why this initiative has been set up. It is so we can see if universities are properly serving the population by representing and treating them fairly.

If they are not, well, then we have a problem.

Admission tutors can discriminate in plenty of ways already if they so choose. Your postcode, for example, can be used as a proxy for social class. It is in a number of interesting pieces of social research, and if you use this ace website, you can get all sorts of good info on inhabitants by postcode. Admission tutors, by and large, know what they are doing - see this excellent piece by Mary Beard for details.

All in all, some newspapers have behaved very poorly here. In the haste to manufacture a controversy, they don't seem to have asked the people who took or implemented the decision, they fail to have grasped who uses the information and why, and they have done their best to make an initiative designed to advance social justice look as grubby as possible. I am not impressed.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

This is not a new post really

Back to this post about the CIPD survey - and how graduates wish they had done another degree. Apparently.

The report is here (danger: PDF), and it would appear that many of the misgivings are justified. The samples are small, don't appear representative, and are asking graduates who are very new to their careers. It is also unclear what questions have been asked. You get a very different result if you ask people, 'Do you want to leave your job', than you do if you ask them 'Have you ever thought about working somewhere else', but they usually get reported the same. A similar principle could well apply.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Men Miss Top Jobs?

This story from the Times raises a question about research in HE.

The basics are that analysis of the grades obtained by graduates from Russell Group universities show quite strongly that more 1sts and 2:1s are handed out in subjects that are largely done by women compared to those largely done by men (although it's hard to tell from the print edition, which is full of typos and mislabels an entire table).

This falls into the category of 'things the sector is sure it knew already', and that therefore seems to be a statement of the obvious. But the thing is that I hadn't actually seen in demonstrated so starkly before. That makes the research potentially useful - although it is badly undermined by choosing only the Russell Group. And that's the point of a lot of HE research that is missed by critics. There are an awful lot of things about the sector that 'everyone knows'. But, in fact, many of them have never been proven, and sometimes it turns out that they were never true in the first place.

The report (which we can't get at currently, because it's a commercial thing done by Real World) goes a bit too far, though, by claiming that it's leading to a clear disadvantage in the job market. I would suggest that's it's a bit more complex than that - there aren't many graduate shortages in the mainly female areas of arts and social sciences, but there certainly are in areas of engineering, dominated by men. And I suspect that the lower grades in sciences are partly because there are a lot of situations where there is an objectively right and wrong answer.

There are some pretty sensible quotes, with Darius Norell of RealWorld pointing out that grades don't measure the skills you need for employability, and Carl Gilleard of the AGR advising recruiters to look beyond the 2:1.

The point that's being missed, though, is that those employers who confine themselves solely to the Russell Group for their employees are not filtering by degree grade anyway. No - they're using A-level results, I'm afraid.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's A Desert Out There

The recent report by the new University and College Union on the decline of certain subjects at university level in the UK does raise some concerns. But at the same time, it does miss a couple of crucial points. Do we really need a physics department at every university? Employment figures for physics graduates suggest that physicists had an initial unemployment rate of 8.7%, against 6.2% for graduates as a whole. Only 6.1% of those who did get work went into science.

Is is any wonder that young people don't want to do physics if there are not jobs for them? Do we expect people to train in a difficult discipline and then just to hang around in a kind of stasis until employers get themselves sorted out so that they can offer jobs? Do we expect universities to train people in disciplines they don't want to do, for jobs that aren't there, because it fits our image of what universities should be doing?

Maybe physics is going through a bad spell and will improve - it does happen. But in the meantime, it is dangerous to suggest that universities should just reverse physics department closures and everything will magically right itself. On current evidence, all that would do is create a lot more unemployed physicists.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Department of "I Told You So"

Well, as predicted this time last year, when I wasn't hideously ravaged by gastric flu, university admissions figures have gone up again.

A lot of people were very keen to use last year's modest fall in applications as proof that fees didn't work. It was too early to make that judgement, and more considered voices always argued that we'd have to see what happened this year. The current figures suggest that the doomsayers were premature with their verdicts. So saying, it's also a bit early to be shooting your mouth off about being right all along, Mr. Blair. There's still time for the final application numbers to come out only a little up on last year.

But, a nice bit of good news for HE. Doesn't seem to have had the coverage of last year's figures, of course, but that's good news for you.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sir Gareth Roberts

Sir Gareth, who amongst his many achievements, was the author of the hugely influential Roberts Review into the supply of science and engineering skills in higher education in the UK, died on Tuesday.

He will be sadly missed.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Value of a degree

Universities UK releases its' highly-anticipated report (well, highly-anticipated by me) on the current rates of return to degrees in the UK today.
The figure the analysts from PWC and London Economics have come up with is £160,000 as the average amount a degree graduate can earn over a lifetime compared to an equivalent with 2 A-levels who didn't go to university. As with a lot of these things, though, there is a large range - a medic can expect over £340k more than someone without a degree, whilst an arts graduate gets about £34,500.

The interesting bits will be in the detail, though. The report will also explain how benefits will increase as you get older - hardly surprising, but a good explanation for why newspapers 'universities are a waste of time' articles only ever interview people who've just graduated. (I wrote a hugely scathing piece about this terrible Sunday Times article, and then decided not to post it as I fear that the researchers may have got some stats from, er, me.)
This £160,000 figure chimes in with other recent surveys - some reports are still quoting the widely-discredited £400,000 figure the Government used a few years back to justify top-up fees, but nobody within or without the system has believed this for years, and even the TDA, a Government agency, has been using a figure of £120-150k as a benchmark in literature for a while now.
It will be interesting to see how the Press report it. I predict a lot of 'It's barely worth doing an arts degree' stories.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

New Year New Guesswork

Back from an extended New Year's break (New Zealand, thanks for asking. Very nice.) with a bit of uncharacteristic futurology.

Pfizer, the pharma giant who have a UK base in Sandwich, and who very kindly sponsored my PhD without seeing too much of anything in return, bless them, have just announced they're going to cut 10,000 jobs worldwide.

Now, this is significant for graduate employment (and graduate unemployment) in the UK this year, particularly if you're a chemistry graduate as it looks like they might not be doing too much of a recruit this year. This will make the already-tough market for chemists just a bit tougher - and if Pfizer are taking a bit of a hit, then others might well be as well.

A lot of this is rooted in the bad management and short-termism that led to cuts in R&D budgets in the 90s, when double-digit growth was the norm in the industry. Pfizer became top dog in the 90s because, in the early part of the decade, at a time when other companies were paring back their development in favour of mergers and acquisitions, they maintained a strong R&D role. For a while, they were a real anomaly, having not bought anyone. But they went down the same route and without that strong product pipeline, are paying the penalty. Let's hope it's just a blip and doesn't signal worse times for the UK pharma industry - a sector of colossal importance to UK science.

Update 24/01/07 - Pfizer say there will be 250 jobs lost in the UK, at the moment.

Update 7/02/07 - AstraZeneca have followed suit with announcements of job losses.
Update 8/02/07 - AZ will cut 3000 jobs world-wide, with considerable concern that the UK will be heavily hit.

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