Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Thrift Review

As reported many hundreds of years ago the Thrift Review is now out.

It tries to address the issues that mean that many promising young graduates do not see research careers as attractive. Whilst the report concentrates on academia, Thrift also recognises that some of these issues are not unique to academic careers but also apply to research careers in the private and third sectors.

The UK lags behind many other countries, and behind the OECD average for the number of researchers per thousand population. Other competitor economies have expanded their researcher base far quicker than the UK over the last 20 years. This lack of movement may render the UK’s research base vulnerable in future if we continue to fall behind. Demographic challenges - well covered in the report - make us even more vulnerable. There is a very interesting section on widening participation that is unfortunately hampered by a lack of clear evidence, but which ought to prompt urgent further investigation.

But let us get on to the more substantial part of the report. Section 2.3.1 is titled ‘The Postdoctoral Experience’, and this is where the insecurity and lack of clear structure and transparency that surrounds postdoctoral researchers is examined. Thrift quotes Janet Metcalfe of Vitae, who summarises the issue in one characteristically pithy phrase:
“...there is still a need for honesty and openness about the likelihood of ‘success’ for individuals in academic research.”
He also notes, correctly, that there is a serious issue of morale as many postdoctoral researchers feel insecure, unconsulted and undervalued. There is a sober admission that the apparent move away from fixed term contracts to open-ended ones by many universities has merely led to the routine use of redundancy. But again any concrete suggestions about what could be done and what implications this has are limited and disappointing.

Unfortunately, the Review produces the traditional summary for any Review of this kind, and one that almost could be written before we start: things are broadly good, we could improve, there are lots of initiatives that need bringing together, more research needs to be done.

Whilst this may be largely true, such a predictable conclusion is disappointing given some of the rather serious problems that exist with careers for young researchers. Particularly disappointing given the remit of the Review, is the lack of recommendations directly addressing the lack of attractiveness of research careers to young researchers.

The Review has a sense of a lost opportunity. It does a good job of drawing together existing work – although there is not a lot of it, and it has been done by a rather narrow group of people and is consequently well known by those involved in the area.

It notes that there are a series of issues but it seems to be suggesting that much of it is under control (some is, but not the most serious), and that more research is needed elsewhere (it is, but Rome burns in the meantime). This author appreciates the constraints of a thoughtful academic working without much of the information he might like and under a narrow remit, but feels that this Review could have been bolder and could have produced a less predictable conclusion. But Thrift does shine some lights on areas that have, even in an under-researched field, received less attention, and for this he ought to be commended.

It remains to be seen what effect this Review will actually have. I remain guardedly optimistic but feel that whilst the conditions that have led to serious issues of morale amongst many postdoctoral researchers persist, then we will continue to see a drop in the proportion of researchers in the population, and the UK research base will continue to be eroded. This author hopes he is wrong.

A reader from DIUS (yes!) would like to point out to anyone who would like to discuss the issues in the report that there is a blog available to leave your thoughts. I urge everyone to do so.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

How to mislead by selectively telling the truth

The headline: Downturn causes students unease over degree choice.

The data: 8% of a sample of 357 final year students "wish they'd chosen a different degree given the current economic climate". 4% of a sample of 1,041 students of all years.

If this headline were honest, it would be 'Downturn causes small minority of students unease over degree choice. More than 90% still happy.'

Don't mess with statistics.

Researcher Brain Drain

There's a report coming out soon looking at a downturn in the number of young researchers entering academia. The Independent provides an interview with the author, Nigel Thrift of Warwick University.

This report will make interesting reading when it emerges, but judging by the interview it may continue to indulge the wishful blindness that the HE sector indulges in when it considers postdoctoral careers. The simple fact is that the HE sector treats its researchers poorly, is not honest about their career prospects and is reluctant to give them job security. The work of Vitae is trying to alleviate this, but if you tell the best-educated young people that they will have to work several short-term, temporary contracts in order to get a 20% chance of a permanent post - and that 80% of them will be looking for a new career in their 30s if they persist - then it is unsurprising that many will be reluctant to take that on. Instead, they'll leave university now under their own steam and take their chances rather than have that choice forced on them several years and several stressful contracts down the line.

In fact, I suspect that an economic downturn will mean more researchers staying on because of a reduction in opportunities outside university. Hopefully the sector will start to treat the researchers it needs to keep afloat a little better.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Graduate Meltdown!

Well, you'd think so, wouldn't you? All kinds of doomy predictions about hordes of unemployed graduates (not borne out by stats so far) are being brought out.

But let's take a look at what is actually happening. In 2007, when the economy was still booming, 6% of new graduates from 2005/6 were unemployed six months after graduating, as you can see on the chart to the right. That was actually a pretty reasonable year, so it makes a good guide to how things looked when the economy was going well.

Even at this point, only 8.1% of those graduates who were working were actually in jobs in business and finance, and many of them were not in banks or funding institutions - they were employed as accountants and auditors in companies, or as management consultants.

This is not a great situation for graduate employment, by any stretch. But nor is it meltdown. It isn't fun if you wanted to be a London-based banker. But only a small minority of graduates did in the first place, and it is irresponsible to worry people with a big life change ahead of them by presenting the plight of a small minority of graduates as typical of all of them.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Great HE Myths

Aha, that's what daylight looks like! As I crawl out from under a huge project, I urge any readers to take a look at this great piece by John Sutherland, looking at myths about higher education.

The argument in 'Tryth 3' is slighly facile with a kind of blithe assumption it's easy to earn £100k a year if you feel like it, and I'm not convinced by his apparent equivocation on plagiarism (although I think it's an interesting point).

But overall, the article makes a very good case that much of the things people 'know' about HE are, essentially myths.
Standards have not self-evidently fallen. Some subjects are not self-evidently 'easier'. A degree has value and is not pointless.

More of this kind of article, please, and less deliberately misleading, agenda-driven headlines to articles that don't match the contents.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Unfashionable Opinions Ahoy

Our MPs are great.

It's hard to imagine a more unfashionable opinion, but it becomes much easier to justify when you read today's report from the Innovations, Universities and Skills committee which looks at the work of DIUS and the Research Councils, and concentrates on the debacle of the STFC's science funding.

The report makes some excellent statements, but essentially, it berates the Government for forgetting the Haldane Principle, which is "
named after Richard Burdon Haldane, the 1st Viscount of Haldane, who chaired a committee in 1918 which produced a report (known as the Haldane Report) that recommended that non-departmental-specific research should be managed by scientists through 'Research Councils'"

I will quote the conclusion to the section on the STFC in full

STFC's problems have their roots in the size of the CSR07 settlement and the legacy of bringing CCLRC and PPARC together, but they have been exacerbated by a poorly conceived delivery plan, lamentable communication and poor leadership, as well as major senior management misjudgements. Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive. This raises serious questions about the role and performance of the Chief Executive, especially his ability to retain the confidence of the scientific community as well as to carry through the necessary changes outlined here.

Let's hope that some lessons are learnt from this and UK science suffers no lasting damage. That the IUS Committee have been so forceful gives me hope.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

ONS Independence Day (Guaranteed Rickroll Free)

Here at the sober coal face of graduate employment research, we do not do seasonal levity.

Today sees the launch of the UK Statistics Authority, the body charged with the implementation of the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007 (well, someone might want to read it. We're all about sourcing here.)

Or, in other words, the body who now oversee the Office of National Statistics, who are no longer under direct ministerial control. The whole stats function for the UK now reports to Parliament.

Here's the statement.

The ONS website looks much the same, though.

While we're here, let's quickly examine the report from Friday participation rates which has excited a little press comment.

It's the same one that happens every year in which the Government admits they're not going to get 50% of young people into university any time soon, and the Press and Opposition pretend that they're surprised and haven't spent a lot of time and effort trying to make sure that the target isn't met. All good slapstick fun.

Anyway, in 2006/7, we actually sent fewer young people between 18/30 to university as a proportion of the total population - 40% - than in the previous year. That will no doubt please some people, but isn't actually great news for the long-term health of the economy, as the Leitch Report made clear.

This is slightly worrying, and we cannot compete globally with a workforce that is becoming less well educated.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Some nurses might not get jobs straight away, say Lib Dems

A hugely enjoyable story on the BBC today about nursing.

The Lib Dems appear to have discovered HESA's student destination information and have used it to find out that some people who study nursing don't actually become nurses straight away.

In 2005/06, 770 nursing and midwifery graduates did not have a NHS post compared with just over 400 in 2002/03, latest figures show.

As the article points out somewhat further down the page,

The figures were based on more than 11,000 graduates in 2005/06 up from around 9,000 in 2002/03

No, let's be properly accurate about this. In 2005/6, there were 11,225 nursing and midwifery graduates from the UK, of which 8,820 actually replied to the survey.

770 graduates not entering NHS nursing is 8.7% (I'm reporting rounded figures as I am a responsible data user).

In 2002/3, there were 8,640 (not 'around 9,000', as the article claims) nursing graduates from the UK, of whom 6,920 responded to the survey. 440 graduates not entering the NHS is 6.4% - so there's definitely a proportionate increase.

So let's take a look at what the nurses not doing nursing are actually doing.

Well, 1.9% were unemployed. That's not a lot, but it's more than 4 years ago, when 0.7% were unemployed six months after graduating.

Of those who weren't unemployed and were working, what were they doing? Well, actually, the most common job was management, which suggests that these nurses were not settling for second best. Other popular roles included positions in housing and welfare and in drug support. There wasn't a great deal of employment in things like supermarkets and call centres - you can be sure the Lib Dems would have mentioned it if there was.

It is not accurate, as the Lib Dems have done, to imply that all of those nurses who are not working in the NHS six months after graduating have been forced into that position.

There is also a regional pattern to both unemployment and non-NHS employment. Some regions see graduates rather more likely to be unemployed and not employed as NHS nurses. Unemployment rates by domicile range from 0.3% for nurses from Northern Ireland, to 3.7% for those from London. Nurses are more likely than most graduates to be female, to be mature, and to study and work in their home region. There are areas, as in teaching, where there are more positions available than others.

What's interesting about this story is the way the Lib Dems seem to be trying to suggest that they've uncovered some buried scandal. The BBC actually say, "Figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats", as if they had to interrogate a mandarin.
Well, only as much as it would have taken 10 minutes with a publicly available dataset to produce the data, as I just did. Or they could have got most of it from here. This wasn't a hard piece of work to produce.

What does it actually tell us? Well, undeniably, proportionally more nurses than 4 years ago are not in the NHS six months after graduation (although, more actual nurses are). However, we are training a lot more. And should they all being going into the NHS?

Some of these nurses do want to go into the NHS and can't - we know that, it causes them distress and is something that should be tackled.

Some want to go into the NHS, there may be positions available but not where they want to work, or in the kind of nursing job they want to do. That's a murkier issue.

And some train as nurses and don't go into the NHS because they change their minds during their courses, or because they get another offer they prefer. That doesn't mean that they don't ever come back, or that their course was a waste of time.

The Lib Dems have not done anything to distinguish between these three cases and treated them all as equally bad. That's not helpful, and it's not useful. They would have been much better identifying those graduates for whom nursing courses have definitely not brought about the outcome they wanted and working out why. But that would have been hard and taken longer. 10 minutes with a spreadsheet has got them a BBC headline. Well done Norman Lamb.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

STEM education open forum

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has opened a new consultation for those interested in STEM education to share ideas and to contribute to the agenda.

It's also got a lot of useful links to allow readers to see what's going on in science education. It's obviously dominated by pre-HE information at the moment, but is designed to be for all levels. It's an interesting step - let's see how it works.

And let's start by guaranteeing the future of Jodrell Bank.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tracking the Future with Futuretrack

Has it really been that long? Back from a hell of sciatica and NDAs just as spring approaches.

Jessica Shepherd has written a piece in the Guardian about the Futuretrack research being run by the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick, as funded by HECSU.

Obviously, I have an interest, so let's get that out of the way.

Futuretrack is a hugely significant project. It is designed to examine the way that students make their decisions about their courses and careers, the factors that influence them and the way that they change as students progress. It's managed to get over 130,000 students to reply, which is huge for a qualitative survey and will have given rise to a staggeringly large dataset packed with fascinating information.

The first report is now out and Jessica's article draws on that to examine the motivations behind course choices. Many students - 38% of this large cohort - still do study their subject for the love of it, and it's easier to motivate yourself for a course you're interested in.

There is a wealth more information to come from this research, so keep an eye out.