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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