The European University Institute in Florence is to coordinate a survey of postgraduate students' employment after they finish their studies.
The initiative follows a conference of 80 academics, European education specialists, business people and diplomats at the institute which discussed the future of postgraduate education and the extent to which PhDs should be conditioned by the job market outside academia.
Andreas Frijdal of the EUI, who masterminded the conference, said: "We have opened an avenue of discussion. We've called on people who oversee higher education to monitor what career paths post-graduate students follow. To follow up, we have formed small working groups which in the coming year will collect and evaluate statistics to see what the job market does with PhDs."
Luca Pacces, a director of Spencer Stuart, the executive selection firm, said that there was little turnover or increase in academic jobs. "On the other hand, between 1966 and 1996 the number of PhDs has more than doubled. Many are taking jobs in industry, private companies, non-profit organisations, international agencies, and so on."
Many PhD students were not primarily interested in research, but discovered that their first degree did not ensure a good job and did a PhD hoping to open up the higher levels of the job market.
Patrick Masterson, president of the EUI, quoted Cardinal Newman. "Supply and demand must interact, but the supply should come before the demand." Dr Masterson added: "There are many cases of research which was considered perfectly useless having subsequently opened up new fields of technology and production. A PhD is not only training for research but through research. It prepares for a flexible career path, benefits the individual, benefits human knowledge and benefits the university." He noted that EUI research doctorates had no trouble finding jobs.
Frank Gannon, the Irish head of the European Molecular Biology Institute in Heidelberg, asked: "Should all education and research be driven by industrial requirements? Or should we train quality individuals and carry out excellent research and thereby provide the people and research to satisfy the needs of industry while also doing a wealth of research that industry would never have thought of, since industry reasons in the short term?
"After all, unemployment is not due to lack of training, but to lack of available jobs."
Inevitably the question of public sector funding arose. Deirdre Grattan of the postgraduate studies office of University College Dublin said: "For centuries universities have trained for the professions, doctors, lawyers, teachers. Education for its own sake is a lovely idea, but is it realistic and economically viable?"