Friday, 1 February 2008
Posted by Dave
The Royal Society has kicked out a report (PDF here) which takes a look at higher education in Britain. The general way this is being summarised by the media is that there's a large increase in the amount of high qualifications such as a 79% increase in the issue of doctorates this decade versus the previous decade. Yet in terms of hard science the numbers have barely changed and as a percentage of the current student body they've significantly dropped.
"Our detailed analysis of the statistics confirms a decline in numbers of UK students taking core science and engineering subjects at postgraduate levels. In order to avoid serious shortages of these vital skills, we urge both individual universities and central Government to encourage study in core STEM subjects at all levels, for example by the introduction of bursaries or reduced fees for students undertaking these courses and by promoting wider awareness of the career options that such courses open up."
The media are using emotive language like the British brain drain, the fact this shows Britain wont be competitive in technology and science with other nations. And of course it's the fault of people who want easy degrees is how some are spinning it. Yet the report is pretty light on why this actually is, beyond saying that any PhD should be eight years of study and definately not six.
Well, I think I can tell you. It's because you do an MBA or a PhD in some fluffy subject etc and it sets you up for a career. The problem with hard science in this country is that it's been pushed into a status that makes it strictly a calling rather than something that anyone would want to do as a reasonable career.
You only need to pick up the UK science periodicals and take a skip through the job section. You may well get a surprise. Job adverts regularly say things like, PhD in random hard core science required, years of practical experience required, six month contract depending on project funding, £15,000 p/a.
The idea that's being put forward by the Royal Society and the press is that Britain is shafted due to not having enough hard science and engineering graduates. Well, if that was true jobs in these areas would pay top dollar. In fact certain kinds of engineering do but pure science rarely does. That means there's essentially enough people to satisfy demand, or the market rate would rise.
The key issue is that there's little of that kind of work being done in the UK and the market is responding to that. Still, the conclusion that bursaries should be reduced in under serviced courses is a reasonable one - after all one may as well try and catch the people who don't know what they want to study anyway. Promoting career options that courses open is also a pretty solid idea, particularly in engineering I think where there's plenty of jobs, great career prospects, interesting project-based work and nice big salaries.
Perhaps part the problem is that this all seems very nice to someone looking at university choices but in the kind of easy-option culture that is the hallmark of the noughties, students are as likely to want to avoid anything that seems like hard work and hard science is proper brain-bendingly hard work.
Ultimately though, it frustrates me seeing these reports on British further education without any actual analysis of the underlying industry. I came to this country as an engineer. I found little work in that beyond temporary service-type roles and ended up going into consumer journalism instead and ended up being the most highly qualified person in the building.
Before jumping up and down whinging about the courses people are taking, let's hear from industry about who is finding it difficult to find graduates in their field rather than screaming brain drain and slamming universities for churning out nonsense PhDs.