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What’s Wrong With Academia: Part 3

By: , Posted on: January 2, 2019

Graduate unemployment is at an all-time high, though you wouldn’t know this from the marketing materials put out by universities and organizations dominated by academics and large employers. Of course, marketers are not in the truth business, so let’s tell a few home truths.

Graduate unemployment and underemployment are a fact of life, and engineering graduates fare scarcely any better than the average. There is no longer, arguably, such a thing as an engineering degree. In the UK, the university you went to, (and indeed the school you went to) often have a lot more to do with your employment prospects in a named profession than the subject you studied, other than in the case of extreme comparisons like fine art, which is for many at least more or less a guarantee of long term unemployment.

This pattern is however in the case of engineering not quite what you might imagine. Oxbridge has excellent employment rates, but those just behind them in the research-intensive universities often have poor employment figures, and poorer still if we look at employment as engineers. The UK Government’s Wakeham Review of STEM degree provision and graduate employability May 2016 found that there was high graduate unemployment in Chemical and Process Engineering, “especially for high tariff institutions” (research led universities).

Do these failed engineers go on to great jobs in the City of London, as so many in academia like to think? I’m afraid there is no evidence to support such an idea, though this may seem to be the case to those who went to those (private) schools I mentioned earlier. Those great jobs in the City don’t go to engineers per se. They go to posh kids, who are as likely to have studied geography as chemical engineering. Its about having a face that fits, not a head for numbers.

No, they get the kind of jobs that you used to only need A levels or even O levels to get. Ignoring the tiny percentage who get City jobs, the best prospects are for those who get jobs whose title ends in the word ‘engineer’. The 40K the remainder spent on a Chem Eng degree was wasted. 10% of them can’t get jobs at all. This is all marked by the ways in which universities record graduate employment. They talk about “graduate level jobs”, jobs “related to the field of study” etc. “Graduate level jobs” nowadays are not what they used to be. Lidl store managers or used car sales jobs might count. Deliveroo couriers might, judging by the number of grads who do it. And as far as jobs “related to the field of study” are concerned, anything working for a company – any part of which is in the same building as anything vaguely STEMy – will do, it seems.

The stats that universities usually use are from HEFCE, whose categories I think are a little broad for the purposes they are often put to by marketers. I have however recently seen an interesting HEFCE publication called “Vocational degrees and employment outcomes” from January of 2018. The take-home message of this report for engineers is that “engineering degrees” are not vocational in the way that medicine and law degrees are. The only engineering discipline that even gets a mention is civil engineering.

Of course, if a smart grad is really stuck for a job, they might do a PhD, hoping that this might lead to a lecturing job. This would be a mistake. There is a massive glut of PhDs and postdocs, and the percentage of newly minted docs making it to a lecturing position is pitifully low. The Lidl store manager job would be a better bet.


Professor Sean Moran is a Chartered Engineer with over twenty years’ experience in process design, commissioning and troubleshooting and is regarded as the ‘voice of chemical engineering’. He started his career with international process engineering contractors and worked worldwide on water treatment projects before setting up his own consultancy in 1996, specializing in process and hydraulic design, commissioning and troubleshooting of industrial effluent and water treatment plants.

Whilst Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham, he coordinated the design teaching program for chemical engineering students. Professor Moran’s university work focused on increasing industrial relevance in teaching, with a particular emphasis on process design, safety and employability.

Connect with Sean on LinkedIn here, check out his Facebook page here and stay up-to-date on his thoughts, research and practice at his personal blog here.

Sean’s latest books are also available to order on the Elsevier Store. Use discount code STC317 at checkout and save up to 30% on your very own copy!



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