Over-educated graduates, again

The annual ABS Education and Work report is out today, and so another round in the Birrell vs Norton dispute as to whether we have too few, or too many, graduates for labour force needs.

This is the first Education and Work survey using the ABS’s new occupational classifications. This mucks up my time series, but by abolishing the ‘associate professional’ classification ends my indecision as to whether these occupations should be counted as ‘graduate’ or not. Some of the occupations formerly classified as ‘associate professional’ have been transferred to the ‘professional’ or ‘managerial’ classifications that graduates typically aspire to, while others are now in the new categories of ‘technicians and trade workers’, ‘clerical and administrative service workers’, and ‘community and personal service workers’. (It was the mixed nature of the ‘associate professional’ category that made be inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the Birrell case, and count these as ‘graduate’ jobs.)

With this sharper definition of which jobs are graduate jobs, I arrive at a higher estimate of the proportion of employed graduates in ‘non-graduate’ occupations – up from 19.2% to 26.5%. That’s 644,000 persons. There are another 400,000 graduates who are not working, giving us more than a million graduates not using their qualifications. By contrast, there are about 1.8 million graduates who are using their qualifications.

This new data supports my argument earlier this year (pdf) that labour market shortages in graduate occupations are more due to a misallocation of places between disciplines than to a shortage of places overall.

8 thoughts on “Over-educated graduates, again

  1. Being lucky enough to teach undergraduates, I think that this distinction is becoming less useful because (as your employer would probably agree in kinder and more politically correct terms, incidentally)
    a) Even kids averaging over 70 with their TERs often have horrible levels of literacy
    b) The same is true of numeracy. Many kids can’t even read simple graphs/charts these days. No jokes. I only worked that one out this year.
    c) Perhaps the majority of kids straight from high school have no ability to actually go out and learn stuff by themselves.

    Now it might well be that these kids don’t need degrees, but they do need further education. Whatever is going on the high school system is evidentally not exactly leading to super outcomes. The long term problem (or perhaps not so long term) is when universities get too slack and let people through when they still haven’t learn these things. I, for one, wouldn’t guarantee those 3 things from our graduates, although I probably would for our honours guys. Its easy to see where all this is headed, and it isn’t less degrees.


  2. That’s interesting, Conrad. I can understand the literacy point but I am more puzzled by (b) and (c). On (b), I thought looking and thinking about charts and graphs was pretty much all kids did in high school maths these days. (As I understand it, at least in Victoria, most kids don’t do any calculus.) On (c), I thought kids these days would at least be able to find out stuff using the internet. I know a lot of stuff is probably cut and pasted, but at least they can easily draw on a number of sources. Although some might glorify the pre-web era as a time when high schoolers spent hours in the library digging up obscure monographs, most of us were issued a standard textbook or two and regurgitated our assignments out of those.


  3. Rajat: I believe looking and thinking about charts was taken off the curriculum in the name of political correctness (little girls arn’t good at it), or at least thats what an old teacher I work with told me. Even if the reason is not correct, she was definitely right about many of them not being able to interpret charts. When I explain charts now, I now realize I have to do it painfully slowly (this is the axis, this is the other one, so what does this point refer to? If this point is higher than the other point what does that mean…. etc.). I imagine its probably different in economics as the student body would be different.
    c) applies to a greater proportion of the students than (b). When we run labs, we tell them what to write, what references to look up, what statistical tests to do etc. . If you don’t tell them every last detail you are swamped with complaints. Its quite disturbing really.


  4. Rajat, it takes a certain level of knowledge and literacy to search well. Their poor literacy means most students just grab the first source that looks (probably isn’t) vaguely relevant. Or they don’t use the internet because teachers have warned them off it – having got too many rubbish essays using a single rubbish source. Undergrads give you a horrified look if you tell them to read 10 or more sources for an essay. They read too slowly to process the sort of information the internet gives them. Though there is a pretty noticeable improvement if you can convince them it is worth the effort.

    On (b), I think we need to get calculators out of primary school. Students have no sense of numbers (can’t add or multiply, never heard of long division), so many of them can’t do fractions, can’t do percentages, can’t understand the meaning of the most basic statistics or charts. Not that this deficit will stop them citing statistics in essays.


  5. When I worked for ACER, we wrote questions involving charts and graphs for primary and mid-secondary school for standardised tests, and kids would have answered those questions. Don’t know what the results were from memory.

    I remember tutoring a class of very bright 1st year math students at Sydney Uni about 5 years ago who all pulled out their calculator to work out a very easy sum. I couldn’t believe it and told them to put their calculators away and that they wouldn’t be needing their calculators in the tutes for that subject. (From memory, the problem was something like X+49: I told them to add 50 and subtract 1.)


  6. Andrew, you would be aware of today’s report in The Age about falling uni applications numbers and how this could exacerbate the ‘skills crisis’. Surely even politicians (although maybe not Bob Birrell) can realise how absurd this is – more people are finding jobs they want to do without incurring the cost (both private and public) of a university degree. And this is meant to be a bad thing? In this context, would you agree that your quote has probably been misused?


  7. Rajat – I did tell the journalist that some shortages – eg medicine – were directly the fault of the federal policy, but did not discuss the broader issues. Saying there is no overall shortage of graduates is not the same as saying there is no problem – clearly in some professions there are shortages.


  8. I am an idiot student. I admit I probably should never have gone to University when I did, despite my own failinigs I feel I was let down by the University system and Education system.

    I am mathematically capable but not strong. I can learn and have a desire to do so. I had an interest in Economics and competency in year 12 specialist mathematics – I passed with a 32/50.

    What I was dissapointed about was that in a strong quantitative subject like Economics I studied very little in the way of calc. and hardcore statistics. Mostly I was memorizing facts from a book.

    The first two years of my degree were a complete waste I could have easily learned it all over a single term if they got rid of all the retards that couldn’t perform basic algebra by first year University. Ok if you can’t do it you should be allowed to catch up but in your own time and if you can’t do that you shouldn’t be there.

    I found my degree was an over emphasis on memorizing facts and not enough calc and problem solving. I was so incredibly jealous of what my engineering friends were learning.

    My literacy skills are probably poor. I went to a poorly funded government primary school, and then a poorly funded highschool I didn’t learn to read until grade 2. Neither of my parents completed past year 9.

    My point (if I have one) is that you cannot blame the students as they’re too young and naive. The true failing is that of the adults, the adminstrators and the teachers that lack the will to stand up and do what is best for their students.

    I think I was ripped off – I should have been practically told to study engineering, given the shortages and the fact that after year 12 I could easily manage complex calc. (for that level). So I agree strongly with your statement that students aren’t studying what is required by the economy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s