Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Surfeit Of Grads

BA in Hat Studies (First Class Hons)

Following comments on Monday's uni post, we've taken a closer look at the graduate employment stats. Is it true that increasing numbers of grads are unable to find full-time employment in graduate jobs? And what exactly gets counted as a "graduate job"?

The latest official stats are contained in the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) report Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education Longitudinal Survey, 2004/05. Their survey was conducted during 2008/09 among students who completed a higher education course in 2004/05. It aimed to find out what they were doing 3.5 years after graduation.

Overall, the survey found that 76% of grads were in full-time employment of some kind. Which means of course that 24% were not.

And how many of those in full-time employment were in graduate-type jobs?

It turns out that of those who had gained full-time undergraduate degrees, and were in employment 3.5 years later, just 36.5% were in traditional grad jobs - ie the professions like law, medicine, architecture, teaching, etc etc. Which implies that of those who originally graduated, only 27% (equals 36.5% of 75%) had found full-time employment in traditional graduate jobs.

Now, that's a fairly alarming conclusion. As the Major would say, it shows we're turning out - and paying for - far too many grads.

But HESA itself doesn't say that. HESA - and indeed the entire Higher Education industry - says that the world has moved on a long way since we measured a graduate job by whether it is in the traditional professions. These days, there are all kinds of other jobs - like company manager, or software programmer, or derivatives salesman - that require a degree.

So HESA uses a new classification of grad jobs which goes by the snappy title of SOC(HE). It includes three additional job categories beyond the traditional professions: "modern professions" such as IT and journalism; "new graduate occupations" such as management accountancy and therapy; and "niche graduate occupations" such as nursing and graphic design, where a degree is not essential but might conceivably come in handy.

And when you count graduate jobs on that basis, you come up with some much healthier looking results. In fact, the proportion of full-time undergrad degree holders now in full-time graduate type jobs more than doubles, from 36.5% to 76.8%. And right across all the categories of HE qualification the picture now looks approximately respectable (click on image to enlarge):


Except there are one or two slight problemettes with HESA's numbers.

First, their data is entirely survey based. And of the 400,000 or so students who graduated in 2004/05, HESA only got data from about 10%. Moreover, since the response rate from their initial sample was so low, they had to top it up with a subsequent sample drawn from graduates for whom they happened to have an email address. All respondents were self-selecting, and we should probably assume grads who'd become Thai beach bums did not bother to reply. The survey is almost certainly biased towards post-uni success.

Second, it isn't at all clear that HESA's new categories of graduate jobs actually require a degree to do them. Jobs like nursing, physiotherapy, and retail management all used to manage perfectly well without requiring degree level qualifications.

Which brings us back to the issue of educational qualifications as a signalling device: the idea that the economic value of a degree lies not in its content, but in its ability to signal to potential employers that you are bright and hard-working. While at one time you might not have needed a degree to become a Tesco store manager, runs the argument, these days you won't even get the chance to apply unless you have said degree.

But while an ambitious 18 year old might consider that a good reason to do a degree, from the perspective of taxpayers, spending £12bn pa on a personal signalling system isn't at all attractive.

Moreover, there's also a real question mark over whether a degree in one of the "new subjects" from a "new university" is actually worth anything either in terms of content, or as a signalling device.

Take a couple of Britain's new industries - computer games and video animation. You'd think that these would be precisely the kind of sunrise industries that our non-traditional degrees would equip people for. And indeed, there are many specialist degree courses in both animation and computer games.

Yet in the last couple of days Tyler has heard independently from senior participants in both industries that even first class honours grads from such courses are next to useless. They may have the piece of paper, but in general they lack the drive, imagination, and... er... yes, intelligence, to be attractive recruits.

Which is why such employers rarely even mention degree qualifications among their requirements when they advertise jobs (eg see the current vacancies at leading UK games producer Lionhead Studios).

So do we have a surfeit of grads?

The long and the short of it is there are no definitive stats - it's certainly not something the government wants to own up to.

But a couple of years back, the OECD published this interesting international comparison of "overqualification" in employment. It was done in the context of a migrant labour study, but if you just focus on overqualification among native-born workers, you will see that the UK's are the most overqualified, bar Spain, Austrailia, and Ireland:

So if 15% of Britain's native employees are already overqualified for the jobs they do, and if the new degrees from the new unis are not valued by our new employers, and if our kids are clocking up humongous amounts of debt on degrees that will never pay back, and if it's all costing us taxpayers £12bn pa, you may be wondering WTF we're doing?

To which I can only reply, I don't know.

1 comment:

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