Born and raised in Switzerland, Dr. Christopher Meng came, via the University of Zürich, to Maastricht University (UM) to earn his masters in International Economics at the School of Business and Economics (SBE). He obtained his masters in 1998, and went on to earn his PhD at SBE in 2006. He has remained in Maastricht ever since.
Dr. Meng now works on several research projects for the Research Center for Education and the Labour Market (ROA), including the UM-scanner, which conducts annual surveys into the labour market position of UM alumni. He spoke with us about his current research and what makes it so valuable.
Can you tell me something about your current research?
In my research for Maastricht University (UM), I focus on the transition from school to work. UM has a unique position in the Netherlands: it is the only university that structurally measures, at three different moments in time after graduation, how its alumni are doing in the labour market.
The first measurement takes place every year. It is conducted among alumni that graduated 1.5 years prior. This research is called the WO-monitor. The WO-monitor is conducted on a national scale at all universities in the Netherlands. The only university that does this annually, and has done since the mid-90s, is UM. The second measurement is done among alumni that graduated 6 years prior. The third measurement takes place among alumni that graduated 11 years before.
These measurements are called the UM-scanner. UM is the only university in the Netherlands that executes these second and third measurements structurally. In the Netherlands there also exists, in addition to the monitors at universities, a HBO-monitor, an MBO-monitor, a HAVO/VWO-Monitor, a VMBO-Monitor, as well as a monitor of early school leavers. This means that for every level of education the transition to the labour market is mapped. That is a worldwide, unequalled research situation.
Why is this research important?
We create a big database that can be used for further research. Educational institutes get reviewed by their former students and get an insight into how successful their alumni are in the labour market. This information can be used as an early warning system for an institute. Imagine the reviews of a particular study are not so good or the unemployment rates among its alumni are relatively high. Then you know as a university or school that you need to take a closer look to find out what the cause might be. The UM-scanner and the WO-monitor give you an indication about how a particular educational institute is performing.
What kinds of questions do you ask, and what can you derive from the responses?
Next to retrieving as much information as possible on the labour market situation, in the questionnaire filled out by alumni you also find questions such as, “Would you choose the same educational programme again?” and “Are you currently happily employed?” But there are also questions included about the difficulty of cheating during their education, for example. It is a reality check: Do we prepare our students enough and do they meet the necessary requirements when entering the labour market? And on top of that: How do former students rate their diploma themselves? Furthermore, it is interesting to see where graduates of UM find their jobs. Do they stay in Limburg or do they need to move? It can also be useful to faculties to know in what fields their alumni find jobs. Because all these data are derived in a very structural manner over a long period of time, you get a great insight in changes over time. This information can be used to make educational policy.
Critics say a university does not prepare its students for the labour market, that it prepares them for a research career. Therefore, a university should not take data derived via these monitors into account. Success on the labour market is not a good measuring point, is their idea. I disagree with this view. Most medical students want to become doctors and, when studying law, students often have a career as a lawyer in mind. If a university ignores these facts, it can never cater to the market and offer a proper education.
What are some challenges you face in gathering this data?
The problem we recently face is that the response rate on the questionnaires is lowering. Especially at the WO-monitor we see this problem. The response rate lowered from 40% to 20%. The questionnaires are sent out via email. Up to 2008, the alumni that had not responded yet would also get a paper version of the questionnaire, and then eventually get approached via phone. This method changed in 2009. The written questionnaire and the phone call are left out, due to budget cuts.
Students are bothered with a lot of questionnaires during and after their studies. That is probably the second reason why more people opt out. ROA is not the only institute asking for their opinion and experiences. After a certain amount of emails and letters, I can imagine people are tired of these questionnaires. When the response rate lowers, the conclusions for smaller disciplines are difficult to draw. The thrust of universities and schools in the research lowers as a result of that. That is really a pity, because the WO-monitor and the UM-scanner are great instruments. Higher response rates again are therefore a future wish.
Photo: Norma Mürmann