Nailing the myth of graduate quality – with a bit of simple maths

Sunday, December 24th, 2006

A few weeks ago I attended the Competitiveness Summit 06, organised by the Design Council to mark the anniversary of the Cox Report. On the whole I enjoyed the day and got a great deal from it. Some things rankled with me, however, and I suspect I will write about them over the next few weeks.
In particular was the number of times the old myth about graduate quality was trotted out, especially by a representative of Seymour Powell, the product design firm. I have to say this chap managed to cram into five minutes some of the most insulting and patronising crap I have ever heard, and if what he said was any indicator of the response he and the company gives to applicants for jobs, I’m not surprised they’re having difficulty recruiting! (But of course it is all ‘our’ fault – academics who apparently are out of touch with ‘the real world’ – unlike anyone sitting behind a Mac in a design studio, for example).

Anyway, back to this myth. It is claimed by many people, especially Creative and Cultural Skills that the quality of design graduates is decreasing – it isn’t as good as it used to be in ‘the good old days’ basically. They offer no evidence for this, interestingly enough, and base the claim on two things: anecdotal evidence (of the type spouted by Seymour Powell), and the conclusion that as there are more design courses, students and graduates than ever before ‘it stands to reason’ that quality must be suffering.

I can offer my own anecdotal evidence to counter that: it isn’t. Each year I am amazed to find the quality of graduates getting better, despite the fact that I tell myself it must be a statistical blip – surely this year can’t be as good as last year? I haven’t met one educator who agrees with the assessment that quality is suffering – only that the qualities themselves are changing, and this is one of the central arguments in my forthcoming paper.

But I wonder why companies like Seymour Powell believe that quality is getting worse. The conclusion I’ve come to is actually quite staggering, and I want to save it for January (sorry about that), but for now let me share with you a really simple ‘proof’ that the myth of graduate quality being linked to increased student numbers is wrong.

Remember that the claim is ‘the number of quality design graduates has decreased sharply in recent years’ and that the co-relation to this is the equally sharp increase in the number of students. (If you study statistics you’ll know instantly what the problem is with this hypothesis).

Let’s assume, for the sake of ease, that twenty years ago there were 1,000 design graduates each year (the actual discipline is irrelevant). Let us also assume that of those 1,000 graduates 250 were what might be described as ‘high quality’.
Now come to the present day and say that the number of graduates per year has increased tenfold to 10,000.
If the proportion of ‘high quality’ graduates were to drop equally dramatically, from 25% to only 2.5% there would still be 250 high quality graduates. In other words, even if critics are correct and the proportions are suffering, the actual number of high quality graduates in a worst case scenario remain exactly the same. Given that this is a worst case scenario, the actual truth must be that rather than the number of high quality graduates diminishing, as claimed so loudly (and believed by many), the number has increased.

This certainly ties in with the anecdotal evidence from within higher education and, believe me, academics are not known for their Pollyanna attitudes – I have worked with some real sceptics in my time and even the worst grudgingly admit that standards are at least as good as they ever were and by most accounts so much better.

The claim by certain sectors of the design industry that the number of quality graduates is diminishing is, to use some frank and un-academic language, bullshit.
What my research is suggesting is that what these people are seeing is a change in the number of traditional graduates applying to them – they wrongly jump to the conclusion that this is a sign of bad teaching and over-supply of graduates. It isn’t. What it is, I’m afraid you’ll have to wait until mid-January to find out…

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