Unis should take responsibility for graduate oversupply

Should universities be held responsible for training too many graduates for too few jobs in fields such as dentistry? Flickr/University of Michigan, CC BY-SA

One criticism of Australian universities is that they indulge in oversupplying graduates in certain fields such as dentistry and journalism. But whose responsibility is it to set enrolment targets which would enable the labour market to absorb graduates?

Should it be up to the universities, which the Bradley Review of Higher Education claimed were responsible for strong vocational and economic connections, or government, which will be left with ballooning student debt and myriad other problems if graduates face unemployment?

If the government’s budget intentions gain traction in the senate, university fees are set to rise. Reports are that degree charges may double or even treble in some cases. Indications are that student debt is set to rise significantly, with compound interest boosting the financial cost to students of ongoing debt.

In this climate, graduate oversupply becomes an even bigger issue. Students will be graduating with more debt than ever before. If the labour market can’t absorb them, they’ll be left with this debt for life and taxpayers will ultimately assume the burden.

The United States has seen a similar situation develop. There, student debt has reached US$1.2 trillion - $1,200,000,000,000.00.

Fields in oversupply

To become a dentist a degree in dentistry, dental science or dental surgery is completed at university. The majority of dental practitioners (approximately 85%) work in private practice. Some are employed within state or territory governments. A few successfully seek appointments in the Australian Defence Force. Fewer again move into teaching and research, mainly within universities and dental training institutions.

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Department of Employment show that the national employment level of dental practitioners numbered 15,000 in November 2013. The projected employment growth level to November 2018 would be a modest 1,800, representing 12% growth.

The Dental Board of Australia reports that in June 2014 the number of registered dentists was 15,569. In 2009 11,900 dentists were practising in Australia so the growth has been prominent. In 2013 there was around one dentist to service 1533 Australian citizens, or a touch over 65 per 100,000. In 2009 there were 54 dentists per 100,000 Australians. The ratios are lower in Tasmania and the Northern Territory.

So is there an oversupply of dentists? The figures suggest there is. So too does Eithne Irving, who is the Australian Dental Association’s workforce and policy advisor.

In 2005 the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare provided a report that estimated the labour force projections from 2005 to 2020. The numbers of dentists have already exceeded the figure the report estimated were needed for 2020. The ABS/Department of Employment statistics for November 2013 show that dentist registrations have overshot the mark seven years ahead of schedule.

Despite the Australian Dental Association’s attempts to have the occupation of dentist removed from the Immigration Department’s skilled occupation list, it remains on the list (albeit flagged). The association has also been advocating for a cap on student numbers.

A decade ago the figures from Graduate Careers Australia showed that 97% of graduate dentists were in full-time employment soon after completing their degree. Times have changed. In 2013, the Australian Graduate Survey showed the figure had dropped to 83.3%.

The survey signalled that increasing numbers of graduate dentists are working either casually or part-time in the sector and casually in other industry sectors in jobs unrelated to their vocational qualification. Given the number of dental students in training has tripled in the last seven years, my concern is that on current trends this figure seems set to rise.

While difficult to quantify the labour market need for journalists, or even the numbers working in the profession’s many dimensions, a spokesperson for the professional body known as the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance estimated that 10,000 people were employed as journalists, with 6000 media journalists working in freelance, casual and part-time positions.

Judging by statistics, many journalism students won’t find journalism jobs. Flickr/European parliament, CC BY

While also difficult to obtain data on the number of students specialising in journalism, the figures I could find, obtained by Crikey, found an oversupply of graduates in journalism. Enrolments increased from a “rough” figure of 1150 in 2007 to 1750 in 2012. The Crikey article showed that numerous universities had increased enrolments over its survey period and since 2009 there were two new universities offering degrees in journalism.

Assuming that there are 10,000 working journalists, the prospect of absorbing 1750-plus graduates in one year is a statistical stretch; even more so given the recent redundancies among the mastheads.

Graduates in journalism may have numerous career pathways such as copywriters, event management, web design, marketing and public relations. Many would argue that universities are not vocational colleges and the aim is to develop individuals as opposed to being bolted on to economic imperatives. However, my fear is that universities need to re-examine their role, supported by fiscally responsible policies from government.

Is it up to universities, or government, or both?

The mooted fee hike for university students requires federal education policy enabling students, who may well be saddled with much higher debt, to base their decisions on studies that allow graduates to gain traction in a swiftly changing labour market. Where universities restrict enrolments out of concern for an oversupply of graduates, and many do, the federal government’s policy moves need to be supportive.

The government seems to adopt the economist Milton Friedman’s view that the market is wise and will provide balanced outcomes for graduates. This is not occurring in many fields now. Much greater strategic planning is needed to support Australian universities and our graduates.

Many other professional fields are emerging as areas where there will possibly be an oversupply of graduates. These include teaching, engineering, accounting, veterinary and general practitioners. For people embarking on studies to start or rejuvenate a career, it is becoming more important to choose a vocational pathway based on accurate information about labour market needs.

The fee hikes proposed by the Abbott government add a layer of urgency. While highly skilled people will always obtain employment regardless of the competition in the field, accurate information is needed to help tertiary students make a selection that links them to ongoing professional employment.

The responsibility rests with better information from the federal and state governments, which should work with professional associations, the ABS and industry bodies to offset the prospect of self-seeking institutions graduating far too many for the labour market to absorb.

The United States has many predatory for-profit university organisations that market extensively to induce students to obtain loans and enrol. Concerns over this practice coupled with poor completion rates prompted a US Senate inquiry in 2010.

Universities have an ethical responsibility to signpost students to industries with ongoing work, to develop intellects that enrich the society even though the measures may be intangible, and to ensure that those who are privileged to receive a degree or higher qualifications are aware of the broader responsibility they have to their society.