Science education has longed been touted as the path to a high paying, fulfilling career. It is the best way to increase the productivity and innovation of an economy. It has been promoted to teenagers and potential students wondering what to study at university as both a good thing for them and for society. But for so many recent graduates that has turned out to be not true.
The Australian government’s latest report on graduate employment shows that biological sciences graduates have only a 59% employment rate in the four months after they finish their studies. That’s compared to 73% of all recent graduates who got a job within the first four months of graduating.
Part of the problem is bundling science education in with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Andrew Norton, the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute has said that “TEM is not a bad bit of advice, but STEM is poor advice” for those who want to find employment after graduating.
Why is that?
Graduate employment goes hand in hand with the wider labour market. A downturn effects everyone regardless of their level of education. The level of employment still, after more than a decade, hasn’t returned to levels seen before the financial crisis. A degree still helps, of course, with just over 5% of the working population out work compared to 3% for people with a degree or higher qualification. That doesn’t explain why it is particularly bad for science graduates.
A report from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development showed that in 2017, when the national rate of unemployment was still at that current 5% level, 6% of STEM graduates were unemployed.
There is also a misalignment between what employers want and what universities are teaching their students. Hands-on, practical experience is prized highly in the private sector. For universities with limited funding it may be hard to provide this type of experience to students studying sciences. Imagine a class of 50 students.
Each needs time on a complex piece of kit to develop the experience a pharmaceutical company is looking for. It’s not only that they can’t afford fifty machines each costing $50,000 for all these students to get to grips with. They will need trained lab technicians that can teach them. You don’t just let an undergraduate student play around with such an expensive and complex machine. Giving students the training they need takes more time, more money and more staff than universities can offer. STEM graduates, especially the science ones, must work hard to gain these skills themselves.
Take, for instance, first-hand experience working with complex and expensive lab machinery. Not all universities, even the elite ones, can afford to have more than one or two of these available for students. A way to get around that is through placements and internships. These are, of course, fiercely competitive and not easy to get into. They also reward those who can afford to work for little to no money over those who have to be able to support themselves with their work.
The way students are taught is also causing an issue. In a report from the New Economics Foundation, employers complained about how institutions taught their students. Schools were ‘spoon feeding’ students material, using outdated technology, that led to graduates not being able to solve problems as they come up. It is the classic difference between book learning and street smarts.
The temptation is to pursue higher education, to go for a masters or doctorate in the hopes that that will set a person out from the crowd. While that could be true, more education, especially in those institutes that doesn’t have machinery available, won’t solve the underlying problem of a graduate having the skills an employer needs.
These problems need to be addressed on an institutional level. Students need to be given the tools to work with others. They also need access to more materials, such as time with complex machinery employers will need them to use. Finally, institutions must become, to a certain extent, deinstitutionalised. Programs and curricula must be developed quicker, incorporating new technologies, while also encouraging more lateral, out of the box thinking from the students. Technology, like that offered by VirtuPharma, which gives students personalised training on different instruments and machines, will help. It will help solve the gap between expectations.
In essence, students need to be encouraged to take a hands-on approach to science, to think of it as a practical skill, rather than something that is only read about.