Thursday, September 17, 2009

Only three quarters of graduates have full time jobs.

HESA recently launched their findings from the most recent longitudinal study of graduates, looking at the outcomes of graduates from 2004/5.

The press coverage of Longitudinal DLHE was especially interesting, as much of it was actually plain wrong.

This piece, from the Times, is typical.

There are some contentious statements. “According to figures suggesting that a bachelor’s qualification alone is no longer a passport to a well paid job” is sufficiently a cliché that the same words (substituting ‘degree’ for ‘bachelor’s’) come up as appearing in the Times at regular intervals since 2004. It also suggests that at some point a degree was a “passport to a well paid job”. Setting aside that this phrase is essentially meaningless, I take it to mean that the writer feels that at some point, getting a degree guaranteed the holder a “good” job. Well, it never has and it never will.

That’s not the worst of it. The Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian all reported that ‘a quarter of all graduates were not in full time jobs’. This is actually not true. What actually happened is that the data contains a series of categories, including people who were in full-time employment, people who were in part time employment, people who were combining work and study, people who were in further study, and so on.

Now, some of (in fact many of) those people who were combining work and study were also working full time. But the papers all didn’t realize that – or didn’t mention it. Maybe it’s because it was on the first line of the press release?

They also, shall we say, selectively reported the data in such a way as to create a negative impression. Would you say people studying for a PhD represented positive or negative outcomes for universities? The headlines about ‘full time employment’ suggest it’s negative.

That’s even before you get to the question of whether people working part time actually want to work part time or not. Some might. Some might not. For those who want a full time job, it is not good. For some who might be combining work with family life (don't forget that 'part time' means 'less than 30 hours a week' - or, in other words, anyone working less than 5 days a week), it's not.

My wife works part time. She's a graduate. It's not because of educational failure, it's because we have an 11 month old machine for throwing books on the floor that is dressed as a little girl. Lots of graduates could actually have families - last year, a quarter of graduates were over 25 on graduation, and 15% were over 30.

Buried in the press stories was the fact that in a recession, three and a half years after graduating, 2.6% of the 2004/5 graduating cohort were unemployed.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fabulous Triumphant Return

Uncommon Elements returns in September.

The pressure of new fatherhood, and my own work requirements have meant I had to go on unplanned hiatus, but with higher education becoming more prominent, it's time, not just to resurrect this blog, but to try to publicise it a little.

It'll be much the same, only, hopefully, a little more frequent.

Stick around.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Jeff Randall Gets It Wrong

If someone like Randall can't even get simple HE policy right, then what chance for other commentators.

In today's Telegraph, Randall has an entertaining knockabout pop at education policy, and comes out with the depressingly common fallacy:

Yet Labour clings to its ludicrous target of driving 50 per cent of British school-leavers into university

Setting aside whether an HE participation target is 'ludicrous' or not, as any fule kno, that's not the policy.

Once again with feeling,

The policy is not to 'drive 50% of school leavers into university'.

It's for 50% of 18 to 30 year olds to have had some experience of higher education.

Jeff Randall is an experienced and influential journalist, and here he is reciting a popular, simple factual error that any graduate could have researched in a couple of minutes.

Yes, the standard of critiques of education standards remains depressingly low.

Monday, January 12, 2009


The National Internship Scheme is the name of the proposal for companies to offer three month internships to graduates having trouble in the labour market this summer.

As yet, details are a bit scanty. The companies named actually already offer internships. Does this mean that they'll be paid to do what they were going to do already, or will they add more interns?

Is three months long enough for graduates to gain useful skills (I think so, but will the employment market)?

What about other, established internship schemes? Will they be getting money? Who will administer these schemes, and how will students get onto them? Will it be limited to certain institutions (either purposely or effectively)?

And when the recession is over, will the companies then start to claim they can't offer internships without public money? This is the question that bothers me.

That said, I'm glad that John Denham and his departmnet are actually thinking about the situation that students will find themselves in and trying to do something about it. Let's hope they've got this right and the graduates benefit.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

And finally (for today)

Stuff on internships for later.

Just a note about the Telegraph's coverage of the internship idea: 400,000 people get HE qualifications of some kind or other in a given year. About 270,000 people will get first degrees, and I'm sure the Telegraph didn't mean to imply anything else.

...and there's more

You wait months for a decent set of posts here and then a shed-load come all at once.

One point made by one of the arts and social scientist graduates interviewed for the Guardian is worth bringing up.

An unexpected, but entirely logical consequence of recession is that students will be finding it increasingly difficult to find the term-time employment they need to fund their studies. That's something that needs to be very seriously considered by policy-makers and institutions and I suspect it was never really taken into account when fees were set. It does suggest to me that the chance of the cap on fees being raised in the near future is pretty small.

What I think it will mean is that not only will loan repayments fall as fewer graduates earn the money required to pay them back, but more students will also drop out because they can't afford to pay their way. What's to be done about that?

Generation Crunch (Slight Return)

The supplementary article has some good points and a lot of opinion which may or may not be correct, but there is one quote which is, to put it mildly, contentious.

The expansion of higher education, driven by the government's target to put 50% of young people into it, has happened too quickly for the labour market.

Oh, has it? Unfortunately for this exciting assertion, the facts and research into the field say otherwise, as documented ad nauseam by this blog. There is a more subtle point, though, which is iterated by Professor Peter Dolton.

"When you have rising graduate unemployment, the effects are felt worst by graduates of non-vocational subjects and graduates from less prestigious universities. That's going to get even worse in recession."

That's true. The big rise in university numbers has come through non-vocational qualifications which will be hit hard by the coming recruitment downturn. The kind of jobs which will be less in evidence will be many of those that require a degree, but with no particular discipline preference. These were perfect for the likes of the large number of psychologists and similar subjects who are leaving university. It will be much harder for them, and we need to help them.

But Dolton is then attributed as saying this:
According to Dolton, the government's target of getting 50% of adults into higher education was based on influential research looking at adult earnings over an entire career.

I sincerely hope he didn't say that, because it's rubbish. I suspect he didn't say that at all. Maybe the Government's conviction about earnings (and hence their evidence for the introduction of tuition fees and the level at which they should be set) was influenced by this research, but anecdotally the 50% target was not set in that way (I'm not going into what I know and how I know it, but really, it doesn't seem to have been that rigorous), and the imperative for getting more people into HE comes from a series of reports about the future structure of the labour market, the most recent of which is Leitch - emphatically not a piece of work dealing with the financial impact of degrees on future earnings.

Unless Dolton is arguing that we need a lower proportion of the population with degrees than comparable economies (and I doubt he is), I think he's actually giving evidence about something else. His later quotes suggest that. Dolton and Vignoles do a lot of research on rates of return and know their stuff (certainly better than I do), and I think it is now clear that the rate of returns on degrees were oversold in the 90s, but that does not mean that fewer people should be going to university as that is a different argument.

It is left to Richard Reeves to make the point. A degree is still going to be important in this labour market, because the simple fact is that the more skills you have, the better off you will be when it comes to looking for work.

These articles do serve one purpose - they warn that the job market is difficult and if it prompts students to start applying now, all the better. But if it puts people off applying for jobs when they are actually there then you have to question what good these pieces did.

It would not have been difficult to point out that the industries most seriously affected are a fraction of the total employment market.

It would not have been difficult to point out that most people stress that there are still jobs available, but that it might not be as easy to access them.

It would not have been hard to find people who graduated in the last recession (HELLO! I'M HERE!) to tell how they fared during the recession (badly - that's why I'm worried now) and afterwards (not so badly).

The problem is that, as I pointed out below, there are actually two separate but related problems which have been conflated as one. The first is the likely shortage of jobs next summer. This is serious and all that we can do is try to keep as aware of what is (or isn't) happening.

The second is the profound lack of confidence that students have in the employment market, and that isn't directly related to the number of jobs that are available, it's related to the number of jobs that they think are available. We can, and we have to, work on that - not by pretending all is well in Happy Sunshine Land, but by telling students about those opportunities that still exist and assuring them that their years of effort have not been for nothing. That's just got a bit harder.

Generation Crunch (Part One)

It's always fun when journalists think they've coined a phrase.

These pieces in the Guardian were inevitable at some point.

The articles produce a mix of emotions. There's little in there that's not true. But it takes many of the classic features of a scare story; the handful of case studies meant to represent the whole (note: not a one has a science, maths or technology-related degree); the stats used in their simplest sense without qualifiers; the quotes from experts which amount to opinion and might not chime with reality. And the whole thing put together will do little to help students looking for work this year. It will frighten them.

There is no doubt that this year will be grim for new graduates - nobody is saying anything differently. But will it actually be worse than 2002/3, when recruitment of IT graduates fell sharply and suddenly one of the most popular degrees in the country had unemployment rates over 10% - at the same time that Enron went under and took the huge graduate recruiter Arthur Andersen with it? It could - and actually, it probably will - but we are not sure because things do have to be a lot worse than last year and as yet they do not appear to be. That's all we can say on the issue. We have to deal with what we actually know as - especially in this climate - conjecture can be proven wrong almost immediately.

Let's tackle some of the points raised in the article.

The internship scheme is an admission by the Government that there is an issue. An actual official scheme to help graduates in recession is something new. It may not work if, after the internship has finished, we're still in downturn. But it does show that people are not sitting idly by and letting this year's cohort (not 'a generation', by the way) rot. I have reservations that I'll come to in another post, because this one is going to be mammoth.

David Blanchflower talks about the unemployment figures for young people. They are definitely scary. What he does not mention at any point is what proportion of those unemployed were graduates. Nor does the article. We cannot infer anything from those figures other than the fact that a lot of young people have lost their jobs.

We do know that we want to keep bouts of unemployment for graduates short (6 months maximum), because long-term unemployment has serious effects on careers. Blanchflower is correct there as well, and we have to give serious thought to helping graduates who are out of work for a while and how we do that.

Now, the good bit:
Evidence of the extent of the downturn in graduate recruitment uncovered by the Guardian includes:

• Major companies have narrowed their search for graduates to five elite universities as they cut recruitment numbers.

Who, and how many? We know that some finance companies are doing this - but the lack of figures given here is a worry. Is it 5? Is it 500?
• The organisers of the annual graduate recruitment "milk round" say jobs in finance and retail are drying up. Even where companies are recruiting, vacancies will not necessarily last until summer as the economic slump worsens.

Nothing controversial here. We've been telling people this for months.
• The management consultancy KPMG, seen as a recruitment barometer, says its 600 graduate entry jobs are nearly all taken months ahead of schedule as students scramble for the top jobs.

Graduates are planning ahead. That's good - although not good if you're not one of them. To be honest, I'd hope that most savvy graduates would have made some plans by now. 600 jobs is quite a lot, by the way.
• Manchester University careers service, the largest outside London, has seen the number of recruitment adverts taken out with its careers service tail off drastically.

Elizabeth's comment on the previous article tells you all you need to know about how happy she is that a key fact - that they still have more ads than they did in 2002/3 - has been omitted.
• Careers service managers have been inundated with desperate students who don't know what to do when they graduate because their plans are in tatters.

I would like to see footfall figures for careers services over the last 3 months - they'll make very interesting reading. Imperial College have had a lot of enquiries from graduates who wanted to go into finance industry jobs and now think that they can't. That's a worry as many of those jobs are likely to still exist and an Imperial College degree will be a pretty good passport to many of them.
• The slump in graduate jobs threatens unemployment for people with lower or no qualifications as graduates turn their sights on non-graduate vacancies.

This is very true, and actually contradicts one of the key messages from the Guardian piece. Because they're implying that it wasn't worth it for a lot of these students to go to university because they won't get jobs. Except now it seems (as will be the case), that they're still better off than people who didn't go to university because they'll be getting their jobs instead.

(Continued in part 2. Good grief, two parts)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

There is a whole generation of graduates and young professionals whose chances of finding a foot on the ladder have rarely looked more bleak

I haven't really followed Dan Robert's business blog on the Guardian, but I might if this is an example of the treats on offer. I'm not linking to the piece, as it's rubbish, but that doesn't mean I can't tackle the contents.

We have, and will, be seeing much more of this kind of assertion in future, and I think it's time to give it the respect it's due.

There is a whole generation of graduates and young professionals whose chances of finding a foot on the ladder have rarely looked more bleak.

Employment ladder, that is.

Well, you really can't say that at the moment, I'm afraid.

As documented by Paul Redmond (and as the head of careers at Liverpool University he ought to know), many employers, even in the finance industry, are still aiming to recruit for fear that when the recovery comes around they'll have nobody in place to capitalise.

Elizabeth Wilkinson is showing that job ads for her service are down, yes, but not as seriously as they were in that dim and distant memory - er, 2003.

So things are grim, but not unrelievedly so (note that all three companies covered there are graduate recruiters).

So whilst recognising that this year is likely to be substantially tougher for new graduates than the recent past, we also have to be careful not to get hyperbolic as poor Dan has done. Because there's another problem.

It seems that reports like this are genuinely affecting the perceptions of graduates and young people. And so we hear of people who are not bothering to look for jobs because there can't possibly be any available.
At the moment we could be in the baffling position of having a cohort of graduates who don't bother to apply for jobs which are actually there because they believe "experts" who tell them that they are not.

Let's be honest. Things are rough, much rougher than they have been for a few years. But if by 'rarely looked more bleak' you mean 'nearly as bad as they were earlier in the decade, when they were nowhere near as bad as 10 years before that', then yes, your point stands. Otherwise, well, no.

That's before we start to address the point that the sectors most affected employ only a small proportion of graduates every year, but are accorded significance out of proportion. If you add together all graduates from 2006/7 who went to work in all areas of manufacturing, retail, hotel and leisure (because that's having a hard time too) and the finance industry it comes to 19.3% of the total number of graduates from 2008. And it goes up to 30% if you include everyone who is in a business support sector - they're not likely to be so affected but let's include them anyway.

For graduate unemployment rates to hit the levels of the early 90's recession, we need the number of graduates out of work to increase nearly three-fold. Now, if the entire retail industry and finance industry en masse decided not to hire any graduates at all this year, that would do it, but unless that happens, let's just say 'it might be the toughest labour market for graduates for a decade'.

In order for the unemployment rate to get above the levels in 2002/3, about 15,500 graduates from 2008/9 need to be out of work when they graduate. Last year, it was 11,800, so that's a little more likely.