Bachelor degrees the science employment risk

The Higher Education Supplement this morning ran an op-ed version of my critique of Ian Chubb’s promotion of science courses. About 60 words were cut from the original. Editors often have to shrink articles to the available space, but in this case an important source was omitted. The employment outcomes in the last few paragraphs are from the 2006 census, not the Beyond Graduation survey as the op-ed appears to say. An amended version of the op-ed is under the fold.

Those paragraphs were the only part of the article that I had not reported before. In the past, I have said that science graduates as a whole have about average rates of graduate employment in professional and managerial jobs. However, closer analysis tells a more interesting story. People with postgraduate science qualifications have above rates of professional and managerial employment. But people with bachelor-level qualifications have lower rates of such employment – males 5 percentage points below the male average, and women a massive 13 percentage points below the female average. That’s a pretty bad outcome, and one worth further investigation when the 2011 census is released later this year.

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The Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, is an energetic promoter of science and associated disciplines as courses and careers.

In January, Chubb assured summer school mathematics students that demand for their skills outstripped supply, and insisted that we must lift the number of mathematics students. In February, he lamented flat enrolment numbers in some science disciplines in the 2000s, and argued that we must foster student interest to help solve a range of problems, from food security to climate change. Last month, he claimed that to keep pace with US plans for science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates, Australia needed a two-thirds increase in graduate numbers.

As it happens, demand for undergraduate science courses has grown strongly in recent years. Applications were up by more than 40 per cent between 2008 and last year, more than for any other broad field of study.

With a demand-driven funding system, this student interest is flowing through to enrolments. In a few years, these extra students will put Chubb’s science workforce optimism to an empirical test.

Unfortunately for the graduates of this science boom, employment statistics suggest that the Chief Scientist overstates our need for their knowledge and skills. As the Graduate Destination Survey shows, employers do not rush to employ new science graduates. When 2010 graduates were surveyed four months after completing their courses, those with main fields of study in mathematics, life sciences, chemistry or physical sciences had below-average rates of full-time employment.It is not that 2011 was an unusually tough year; similar employment underperformance can be seen in surveys going back decades.

However, employment opportunities do improve over time for science graduates, as for other graduates. Last year’s Beyond Graduation Survey, released last week, showed that three years after completion 90 per cent of science graduates seeking full-time work had found it. Not bad, but that is lower than for graduates of all other broad fields of study except the creative arts.

The Beyond Graduation Survey also asked its respondents whether or not their degree was important for their job. Among graduates in health and education disciplines, more than 90 per cent said their degree was required or very important, but for science graduates that figure was just 57 per cent. This lack of science relevant employment is consistent with the evidence of skills shortage lists. Some science-related occupations appear, but mostly for school science teachers. Here the problem is more of pay and conditions than numbers of graduates. The main skills shortages are in engineering and health-related occupations.

A shortage of science-specific jobs does not mean science graduates cannot find highly skilled work. Beyond Graduation reports that many science graduates are in professional or managerial occupations. The 2006 Census shows that this is also true of science graduates in general. However, for people with bachelor-level qualifications, a science degree increases the risk of not finding a highly skilled job, though with major gender differences. For employed men with science degrees, 71 per cent had professional or managerial employment, compared with 76 per cent of other male graduates. For women, only 60 per cent of science graduates had professional or managerial employment, compared with 73 per cent of other female graduates.

Many science graduates go on to postgraduate education and employment data shows this pays off. Both sexes do better than average in the labour market, with 90 per cent of men and 84 per cent of women with postgraduate science qualifications in professional or managerial employment. This compares with an average of 84 per cent of male and 83 per cent of female postgraduates across non-science fields.

While studying science is not a major employment quality risk except for women with bachelor degrees, it takes postgraduate study and diversion to non-science occupations to achieve reliable highly skilled employment. Health and engineering courses draw on similar interests and aptitudes to science, while offering more secure pathways to such employment.

Andrew Norton is the higher education program director at Grattan Institute.

  1. Too bad about the lost text! I wonder if the outcomes are skewed by the inclusion of life sciences in the analysis. I would guess that women study life sciences more than men and I would also guess that the unmet demand (and hence salaries) for life sciences graduates is pretty low compared to the unmet demand for the ‘harder’ branches of sciences. It would be interesting to see whether the same outcomes hold if one considers only maths, physics and chemistry grads. I think it’s likely that degree relevance-to-job may be no higher for these grads but that bachelors’ salaries would be considerably higher (although in this case higher salaries might just be reflecting IQ rather than the value of the degree). Chubb is no doubt doing his job, but I suspect in private he would take the position that while more smart people studying maths and physics rather than law or finance might be a good thing, we don’t need any more environmental science students.

  2. Rajat – I’m planning to wait until the 2011 census data is released before analysing outcomes in much more depth, but thinking along the same lines as you I did have a quick look at gender patterns in science enrolments. As you suggest, there is a strong skew to the biological sciences among female students, which may be limiting their employment options.

  3. “Unfortunately for the graduates of this science boom, employment statistics suggest that the Chief Scientist overstates our need for their knowledge and skills.”

    Sorry to be pedantic, but you’ve only shown evidence that Chubb overstates the -demand- for their knowledge and skills :)

  4. The difference in employment outcomes I think shows that fields like health/medical, education and to some extent engineering have very defined pathways into specific jobs.

    Most science graduates are not going into research, most jobs for science graduates are only loosely related to what they studied. Not many jobs with obvious physicis and maths titles outside the university sector.

    The employment outcomes are likely because science faculties don’t prepare students for the job market much.

  5. “Not many jobs with obvious physicis and maths titles outside the university sector.”

    Banking and commerce?

  6. Certaintly agrees with my anecdotal experience. I have a bunch of friends with science degrees, with a variety of intelligence and bachelor to phd’s.
    They have all had big problems finding steady employment. Those in the academic labour market love their jobs but can only get short contracts. And in private industry, my friend is essentially waiting for people to retire or die, as they won’t move out of the good jobs because its difficult to shift at level.
    It’s good for people to know about this before they get into a science degree. Most of my friends would have done so anyway because they love the subject. But you wouldn’t want people doing it because they think its a better career option.

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