Chemists fail industry's acid test

March 20, 1998

Harriet Swain reports on how the poor quality of chemistry graduates has become a strain on employers. Opposite, two graduates explain why they diverged from their degree paths soon after starting work

The pattern of relationships between graduates of one discipline - chemistry - and the world of work, as unpicked in a report published next week, resembles a jigsaw of different demands.

Here are pressures on employers to innovate, to meet ever higher standards and to cater more for what individual customers want, while reducing costs.

Here are pressures on students to show themselves highly skilled in their particular discipline, but to be ever adaptable, while willing to work on boring tasks without expecting a job for life.

Here are pressures on universities to equip students of increasingly diverse academic backgrounds and abilities with the skills needed for the ever-changing employment market, yet to maintain high standards in research.

The report, commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Council for Industry and Higher Education, makes no attempt to discourage these parties from getting to know each other better. Quite the contrary, it believes they must become closer for each to remain healthy. It simply points out that, like every relationship, it will require work. And it reminds those involved that they are not alone, stating: "Many of the problems faced by chemistry departments, the graduates they produce and the professional body responsible for accreditation in chemistry are common to other disciplines and therefore the main findings of the study have a wider relevance beyond chemistry."

The report's author, Geoff Mason, a research fellow with the independent research body, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, tried first to discover whether employers were right to moan about declining standards among graduates. What he found was that graduates now have less time than they were afforded in the past to settle into a job before they are expected to fit into the organisation and come up with results.

Three-quarters of the 200 chemical or pharmaceuticals employers surveyed for the report said they had been "very strongly" affected by more demanding legal requirements over the past five years, while more than half reported greater market pressures leading to more team-working, flatter management structures and more interaction with customers by technical staff.

This meant they were increasingly expecting from the graduates who worked for them good communications and inter-personal skills as well as technical knowledge. The report states: "In many companies, newly-recruited graduates are now expected to make a productive contribution from day one or as near to it as possible (hence the high value attached to previous work experience)."

While few employers reported difficulties in the quantities of graduates applying for jobs, many cited problems with their quality.

But Mason found that an increasingly complex jobs market coincided with a crisis among higher education institutions struggling to teach more students with less money. The crisis had left departments like chemistry seriously short of the kind of equipment students were expected to use once they started work, which meant many employers now had to provide training on modern equipment themselves. Thirteen of the university departments surveyed reported problems with out-dated equipment and shortages which meant students had to queue to use basic instruments.

"One of the disconcerting findings of the report is that even elite departments are under pressure to market students in terms of student quality of the past," says Mason. "Even the most prestigious departments expected, after years of reduced unit funding, that students would not be as up-to-date as they should be."

While most large employers of research chemists admitted to recruiting from a select list of established departments with high research ratings, Mason found few universities had escaped problems of underfunding. Old universities were just as badly hit as new.

Similarly, nearly every one of the 16 sample departments examined for the report had introduced "preliminary" courses or extra tutorials for first-year students in an attempt to fill perceived gaps in numeracy and differences in students' experiences.

As a result, Mason came to the "reluctant" conclusion that if no new resources could be found, there was a case for reallocating existing resources among fewer university chemistry departments. This would also address the fact that "some of the less competent graduates emerging from chemistry departments at present have little hope of finding chemistry-based employment".

He believes that BSc courses should be more varied and include general first degree courses which allow people unlikely to follow careers as chemists to combine a broad science education with other subjects.

Meanwhile, the introduction of an easily-understood framework of chemistry qualifications with multiple entry, exit and re-entry points and the certificates to go with them would allow people who do go on to chemistry-based jobs to receive continuing training through studying part-time.

In the other direction, says Mason, universities should work with employers to achieve the right balance between subject teaching and work skills. Work experience - students taking a short break from their studies to work in industry - was the method most favoured by employers for grooming graduates for work. But variations on the sandwich course model (one-year work placements built into four-year degrees) are also now needed, says the report. Employers could suggest projects for students to work on within their institution.

Students also need better careers advice. More than four fifths of chemistry graduates surveyed said they had received no advice from academic staff about the relevance of course choices to future employment prospects. "The bottom line is that hard choices need to be made," says Mason. "If there is no more money available, people will have to look at ways to keep up quality in higher education, for its own sake and so that graduates are employable."

He attacks the practice of some institutions offering courses in chemistry combined with other subjects simply as a way of boosting application figures, without thinking through the career implications for graduates.

Mason's report suggests a new pattern, of a coherent, if more concentrated structure of degree-level chemistry. It would offer a wider range of degree courses, each with an explicit aim and objective.

Every student wanting to take a postgraduate degree in chemistry would have to study on the new enhanced MChem/MSci four-year courses, securing the kind of broader education enjoyed by PhD students in Germany or the United States. Chemistry students would have to work with students of other subjects, picking up better communications skills. They would work more closely with employers in practical ways, while keeping in mind the career implications of the courses they chose to study. The result would be a pattern of education better able to withstand the changing pressures on everyone involved.

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