Being ‘job ready’ is not the purpose of university science degrees

Science graduates struggle to find jobs straight after graduation. from www.shutterstock.com

Recent data – highlighted in the Grattan report Mapping Australian Higher Education 2016 – raised alarm bells about the employability of science graduates.

The report author, Andrew Norton, argues that science degrees are “risky” because more students are going into science while graduate employment rates are low.

In 2015, 51% of science graduates seeking full-time employment did not find work four months after graduating. This is 17 percentage points below the average for all respondents to the survey. In the same year, the highest number of students were enrolled in science degrees (112,500) – and more graduated than ever before (15,600 domestic graduates).

What many would consider good news – as problem-solving science graduates are viewed as vital to Australia’s future – was diminished by the employment outcomes data. Information and technology (IT) students reported better employment rates than science graduates with two-thirds in full-time work.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham reacted by questioning universities’ responsibility to enrol students based on employment opportunities. He said:

In science, as in all fields of study, it must be the responsibility of universities to be mindful of the numbers of students they enrol relative to the employment opportunities for such graduates.

If short-term employment – being “job ready” – is the goal of a science degree, then the Grattan’s report should provoke worry and concern. It shows science degrees are clearly failing.

But is this the purpose of university science degrees? How should we respond? Are universities to blame?

Job ready is not purpose of university degrees

Science degrees do not have a set career roadmap. Unlike professional degrees (such as physiotherapy or accounting), science degrees are generalist programs that offer a broad range of flexibility in what is studied.

Being able to think like a scientist is the unifying principle of broad science degree programs. This scientific way of thinking with transferable skill sets is what Australian science graduates value, regardless of where they work.

Being “job ready” is not an outcome of a science degree. As the chief scientist Alan Finkel recently argued.

Next time somebody throws the “job ready” phrase at you, invariably in the negative context, retaliate that your role is to train graduates who are “job capable”.

Finkel’s view is longer-term, career-oriented with a focus on skills and capabilities that enable employment but do not guarantee it. The longer-term data is worth highlighting.

The Grattan report showed 2011 unemployment for science graduates aged 30 or older was 3%. Like all graduates, they shared in the higher lifetime earnings than non-graduates. Over the long term, job prospects for science graduates improve, according to the report.

Reward in the risks of science degrees

If the goal is longer-term employment stability – being “job capable”, as argued by Finkel and many others – then science degrees are faring well.

Pursuing a science degree should be about following your passions and developing your talents. This opens up a variety of career opportunities for students because careers that started in science lead to unexpected places.

Trying to mitigate short-term (four months) risk for longer-term career stability and a fulfilling life is a risk worth taking for students passionate about science.

A shift in focus in higher education

The focus is shifting in higher education from learning for the sake of learning toward learning to become my future self that earns money to live.

And science higher education leaders are well aware that students (and parents) view science higher education as part of their career pathways.

Efforts are under way to connect future work with science degrees. The hope is to make career opportunities more visible in science degree programs.

The Australian Council of Deans of Science (ACDS) funds a National Science Teaching and Learning Centre to drive degree program reform based on a set of outcomes for science degrees.

These outcomes emphasise learning to think like a scientist. They are underpinned by skills typically cited as desirable by employers, such as:

  • collaboration and teamwork
  • oral and written communication
  • ethical reasoning
  • quantitative skills to apply mathematical and statistical thinking.

These outcomes are all about enabling “job capable” graduates and they focus attention on whole of science degree program learning outcomes.

This is essential for students to have a coherent science learning experience that enables skills expected by employers.

Curriculum design

Science degree programs tend to be content-heavy with an over-reliance on knowledge recall examinations – science students and academics agree that skill development is lacking.

The Grattan report signalled that science graduates are more likely to report not using what they learned for their degrees in the workforce. This points to a real problem.

If science graduates are unaware of the broader skills they gained from a science degree, as years of my research indicates, then they are unlikely to make links between work and study.

What is needed?

What is needed is a focus on the real problem – quality science degree programs must enable students to develop and recognise broader skills that are core to having a science degree.

As a side effect of quality degree programs, science students will graduate with a sense of what they learned and how it will enable them to be “job capable”.

What is not needed?

Limiting science degree enrolments.

This would be a ridiculous over-reaction to the limited data presented in the Grattan report and is based on an assumption that the purpose of a science degree is short-term employment outcomes.