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Friday 1 February 2008

The British Brain Drain? [Lurks]

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.


  1. Well, in August this year I'll have spent twenty years working in UK Higher Education, starting as a yts at Glasgow University spending 9 and a half years there. Then ten years at Caledonian Univeristy and now at Cardonald College.

    I've witnessed first hand a depressing change in how education is handled between Glasgow and Caledonian, fair enough Caley was a glorified college when I arrived. But now it's churning through students, with a pickup programme for students who fail so they can finish with a degree of somesorts.

    Both institutions have dropped quite hardcore subjects in recent years, aiming more to get bums on seats because of the nature of their funding. Glasgow has now dropped it's entry requirements to get more bums on seats at the direct expense of Caley/Strathclyde.

    Universities dropping maths and engineering topics just staggers me, meanwhile every member of teaching staff you speak to moans endlessly about the quality of kid in first year. First year can quite easily be wasted re-teaching the kids what they should alreday know.

    The academics are dispirited, the students just looking for an easy ride. It's wholly depressing. Glasgow will always maintain a high standard, it's just so big and cross funded with a good research ethic. But you're right Mat, while goverment funding is based purely on how many certificates are handed out it can't be good for the education system.

    We all know it's being dumbed down, a dumb populace is easier to bamboozle and lie to.

    HE isn't the only problem though, it's a "clean job" mentality. How many apprentices in non academic jobs are being taken on? Joiners/Sparks/Plasterers all on the decline while immigration can fill that gap, so the kids move into shitty service industry jobs instead of forging a proper role out for themselves.

    I'm sick of seeing big burly young men filling bags at the supermarket or swiping your card in a petrol station, is that really the limit of todays kids ambitions? It's appalling that an entire generation of children will be coaxed into this so easy service industry work.

    Jeez it's a friday, nicely depressing topic lurks!


  2. What always amazed me, when I was at sports interactive [where we hired 20+ folks every summer]was the very high results folks seemed to get on their GCSE's and A levels. To me at least, *Everyone* seems to get an A or two in their GCSE's and a gigantic majority got at least one A in their A levels. It got to the point that if you did not have an A or B in your A levels you were not considered, to filter out total wallies!

    We employeed some really stupid people, who were there for their football and games knowledge who were off to university to do courses which sounded hard [a lot of these folks dropped out after 1st year, but the uni's dont care!]. My fav was the lad who was off to Oxford to do History and Politics [or a course to that effect] as he knew people high up there and he got an A's in Religion, PE and Home Economics! He could have been in the dime bar add's on telly he was that bright!

    I think part of the UK's problem is that the exams have been made easier to make the education system in general look better!