I’m doing everything to avoid marking lab reports this week so here are some more thoughts!
This document produced by the HEA and published close to the end of 2013 has passed somewhat under the radar. Actually, the HEA – an organisation of which I have been a little critical in the past – has produced some interesting data in recent months. I put that down to the excellent work of their Head of Statistics who happens to be an alumnus of the School of Biotechnology in DCU!
There’s really nothing like data when you want to discuss policy and the graduate destinations document provides lots of it.
First the good news: there does seem to be a sign of improvement in the jobs market. In 2012, 42% of graduates gained employment in Ireland (up to nine months after graduating), compared to a five-year low of 37% (2009) but still less than the 45% who did so just as the crash occurred in 2008. The number of graduates who have gone on to further study has actually declined from a five-year high of 44% in 2009 to 37% in 2012, the difference probably explained by increased emigration; 10% of graduates obtained employment abroad in 2012 compared to a five-year low of 5% in 2008.
At Masters and PhD level, things are a little better: 61% of this cohort obtained employment in Ireland in 2012 and 11% are now working overseas. (Actually, it’s a pity that PhDs and Masters have been lumped together – they’re by no means the same thing.) The figure of 61% is up from a five-year low of 53% in 2009. There is no doubt that there is an increasing benefit to having a fourth level qualification but whether one actually needs a fourth level education to do the jobs that are available is another issue altogether.
The breakdown of data according to discipline is very interesting. Here are the employment rates (in Ireland) for Level 8 graduates:
Computer Science : 66%
Health and Welfare : 63%
Agriculture and Veterinary: 55%
Social science, Business and Law: 41%
Science and Maths: 36%
Arts and Humanities : 29%
The fact that Computer Science is top of the list is consistent with the hype surrounding the IT industry but, that said, a figure of 66% does seem quite low. However, it is quite likely that many of the 17% of Computer Science graduates who go on to further education actually want to do so and aren’t going back to college because they have to.
The numbers for Science and Maths are extremely low and 42% of graduates in these areas actually go on to further training at Masters and PhD level. The reality is that to work at any level in science or maths, one probably needs to do further study, something that should be made clear to students. Many times I have stood at a stand in the RDS explaining this point to students and they are more than a little bit surprised that choosing Science on your CAO form may mean signing up for anything up to eight years of study and further training. After that, your career path is uncertain. Furthermore, of those who go on to study at Masters or PhD level, only 52% gain employment in Ireland.
The whole issue of science and mathematics and its role in our modern society needs to be discussed in a much more informed way. At the moment, the thinking goes that we live in a technological society and therefore there is a need for lots of people who are trained in these disciplines. On this basis, young people are being encouraged to choose science and maths because that is where the opportunities supposedly lie. But this entire discourse needs to become much more precise and much better informed by data. We need to articulate what level of science and maths is really needed in the business and industrial worlds. Articles like this one in the Economist are commonplace but they are based on drawing simple correlations between student performance in standardised tests and economic indicators like growth rates. I’m unconvinced by them because they do not explain the mechanism by which proficiency at standardised mathematics tests translates to economic success. I’m not convinced either (but willing to be) by all the arguments about maths fostering thinking and problem-solving skills that translate to other areas. (Actually I believe that maths acts as a good ‘marker’ for a range of characteristics that might help one to succeed in the workplace. I might blog about that at a later date)
Another problem is that ‘science’ is a very broad term; it ranges from botany to theoretical physics and I suspect that we are training an awful lot of young people in areas of science that have very poor job prospects. I believe – based on a hunch more than anything – that we have far too many people graduating with degrees in the biological sciences and it would be very interesting to see a breakdown of the science employment numbers into biological, chemical and physical sciences.
The numbers for engineering are also disappointingly low. Again though, ‘engineering’ is a broad term and I suspect that certain sub-disciplines of engineering are faring a lot better than others. It is interesting that a whopping 17% of engineering graduates have found employment overseas, reflecting the extent to which engineering qualifications ‘travel’. It also says something about the quality of our engineering schools.
The Arts and Humanities fare worst of all with employment rates of only 29%. This is not surprising as many degrees within this group provide an education in the purest of senses. While 11% of these graduates find employment overseas, 45% go on to do further study. Of these, only 50% will gain employment in Ireland. My own feeling is that degree programmes in Arts and Humanities (and in Science and Maths) need to do more to make their students employable. It is not enough to trot out the usual arguments about ‘thinking skills’, ‘problem solving’ and ‘creativity’. Employers don’t buy them and, in fairness, they should know. And, the numbers don’t lie; many degree programmes just don’t get you off to a good start in your working life.
As part of the HEA survey, students were also asked about the relevance of their degree to their first job. The percentages of Level 8 students who felt their degree was relevant are shown below. The figure in brackets is the equivalent figure for Masters and PhD graduates.
Health and Welfare: 92% (89%)
Computer Science: 89% (95%)
Engineering: 80% (82%)
Agriculture and Veterinary: 79% (47%)
Education: 73% (82%)
Social Science, Business and Law: 66% (77%)
Science and Maths : 61% (83%)
Arts and Humanities : 31% (55%)
These numbers are largely encouraging and show that most students feel that their fourth level qualifications have been especially worthwhile. (The Ag and Vet numbers are the exception, somewhat strangely) Again, the figures for Arts and Humanities are low but not surprisingly so. Are they a problem? I suppose that depends on your own particular philosophy of education. Furthermore, I can imagine many academics arguing that young graduates in the Arts and Humanities maybe do not appreciate the skills they have acquired and their relevance to their work.
It is clear from the numbers that the job prospects for young graduates – at least those in certain disciplines – are bleak indeed and even those who are extremely highly qualified are having difficulties on the job market. But there are signs of ‘green shoots’ and there is hope. Clearly, though, there is a message here and that is that our education system must align itself more closely with the employment market. There is absolutely no reason why this cannot be done while retaining the ethos of a more traditional education. It doesn’t have to mean that universities dance to industry’s tune. All the classic features of a third level education can be retained while making small changes to what we teach – and how we teach it. Why shouldn’t a person with a degree in philosophy have advanced skills in the use of Excel to complement their analytical skills? It is possible to do this but one has to guard against degrees becoming ‘a bit of this and a bit of that’. Most good learning is done by immersion and if you make programmes too diffuse, students will end up learning nothing. The UCD Horizons approach provides a good template as to how this can be done but, then again, the basic idea behind Horizons seems to be to allow the student to actually enjoy learning and there is a lot to be said for that!
One of the problems I see is the fact that since the third level system went modular and semesterised, there has been a large reduction in the amount of material covered in undergraduate degrees. Certainly, the amount of material taught on the program on which I do all of my teaching has declined substantially since the 1990s. It is part of the whole culture of devaluing knowledge in favour of ‘critical thinking’, ‘learning skills’ and ‘independent learning’. But the modern graduate probably needs to know more, not less. ‘Thinking’ and ‘learning skills’ are clearly not enough to get you a start in the job market. They will be an asset no doubt as you progress in your career, but it is clear that employers want students to have skills that are more demonstrable. Maybe we have to make students work harder to make sure that they acquire those skills.
Now, back to those lab reports…………….