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Science education and funding, and the long road to recovery

09 September 2010

Governments need to go for world-class quality in their education systems to ensure long-term economic growth, according to the latest edition of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD’s) annual Education at a Glance report, which was launched last week in Paris. OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría says that in a global economy, nations no longer achieve improvement by national standards alone; the best performing education systems internationally provide the benchmark for success.

During the economic downturn, we have seen young people with low levels of education being hard hit, with unemployment rates for those that had not completed an upper secondary level of education rising by almost five percentage points in OECD countries between 2008 and 2009. For people with tertiary degrees, however, the increase in unemployment levels during the same period was below two percentage points. “Good education increases employability,” Mr Gurría reminds us.
Public resources invested in university education also pay off handsomely by bringing in additional tax revenues. The report states that, on average across OECD countries, a man with a tertiary level of education will generate US$119,000 more in income taxes and social contributions over his working life than someone with just an upper secondary level of education. Even after taking account of the cost to the public exchequer of financing degree courses, higher tax revenues and social contributions from people with university degrees make tertiary education a good long-term investment.

Net of the cost of degree courses, the long-term gain to the public exchequer averages US$86,000 in OECD countries, almost three times the amount of public investment per student in tertiary education. Overall returns are even larger, as many benefits of education are not directly reflected in tax income. But what benefits are we talking about here? In its Education at a Glance report, the OECD is looking at the wider economic benefits of higher education and there is no attempt to quantify the impact that specific subjects or disciplines learned at universities are likely to have on nations’ economies.

You may have gathered, by now, that I am (once more) talking about science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses in our education system; and I make no apology for it.

In a recent DPA newsletter leader, Dr Pam Waddell, director of Birmingham Science City, described the activities of her organisation and commented on the state of STEM education, not just in her region but nationally. She laid great emphasis on the importance of improving the esteem and teaching of science and engineering – a statement that chimed with the experiences of a number of newsletter readers who took the trouble to comment further on these issues.

One, in particular, whom I will not name as he has not given me permission to do so, described his own experiences. A retired engineer currently giving his time as a STEM ambassador in the Birmingham area, my correspondent says that many of the schools he encounters appear disinterested in the advice he has to offer - particularly when trying to explain what is needed in terms of subject choice to ensure that pupils' interest in science is not lost altogether. It is his personal belief that teachers are too concerned about the number of subjects their pupils are able to pass, instead of concentrating on those subjects that will produce people with the ability to generate future wealth for our nation.

In his opinion, teachers pay little heed to this need, often presenting engineering in a poor light and basing their judgements on press reports that seem to magnify all that is wrong with traditional manufacturing. He laments the fact that there is no spark of enthusiasm for sunrise industries such as renewable energy, new kinds of transportation, medical engineering and nanotechnology, to name but a few. A review of the ‘soft subjects and options that are taught is badly needed, he says, fearing that we have lost at least two generations who would have been interested in scientific subjects had they had the encouragement and opportunity.

Two years ago, the Dyson Academy – an ambitious initiative to establish an engineering training centre in Bath - became bogged down by heritage opposition, planning delays and even a public inquiry following Environment Agency concerns about its liability to flooding. James Dyson had been working on the £56 million project for four years, and his own foundation had sunk £3.5 million into the scheme. Despite a direct appeal to the prime minister, he failed to secure the future of the project. It was not a good moment for the UK’s engineering sector.

So, what is now needed to boost the morale of STEM ambassadors like my correspondent and ensure a viable future for well-intentioned schemes like the Dyson Academy: more funding, more campaigning or a combination of both? Despite all the arguments in support of them, now is perhaps not the time for the government to be allocating cash even for these worthy causes. But action to educate our future engineers and technologists has not hit the buffers quite yet. A certain impecuniosity, brought about by record-breaking government borrowing, currently ties the hands of the coalition, but we are at least fortunate in the knowledge that some projects, conceived well before the current recession, apparently continue on track – some even to fruition.

The most recent is the £22m JCB Academy in Rocester, Staffordshire. A relatively modest venture by Dyson’s standards but important nonetheless, the new facility opened its doors to 120 aspiring young engineers aged between 14 and 19 at the beginning of September. The JCB Academy is the brainchild of Sir Anthony Bamford who, throughout his 35 years as chairman of JCB, has championed the cause of British manufacturing and long voiced his concern over its decline and the dearth of young people with engineering skills emerging from the education system.

At the opening he expressed his passion for engineering and his commitment to British manufacturing. “We need the right calibre of young people to ensure that we continue to be a nation that makes things in an innovative way,” he said. “The JCB Academy is one small step to helping achieve that aim. The facilities here are second-to-none and offer the students the opportunity to learn about manufacturing and engineering in a way that is exciting and practical and aligned to the needs of employers when they qualify in a few years time.”

The JCB Academy is believed to be the first school of its kind in the UK for the education of 14 to 19 year-olds with a core focus on engineering. Like other state schools, it is funded by the Department for Education, but as main sponsor JCB contributed 10 per cent of the capital and donated the mill in which it is based.

And in two years time, should all go to plan, the Aston University Engineering Academy for 14 to 19 year-olds, which gained funding approval from Ed Balls just weeks before the General Election, will provide an initial 600 student places. Led and sponsored by Aston University, this new Engineering Academy will be part of a national network of University Technical Colleges for 14 to 19 year olds, proposed by the coalition government.

In a speech last week before an audience at Queen Mary, University of London, business secretary Vince Cable recognised the importance of science to the nation’s economic wellbeing, but warned that government funding for scientific research was likely to become more selective. Rejecting what he described as a ‘lazy’ approach to cost-cutting (‘salami-slicing’, as he put it), he would like to see the coming shortfalls in direct funding offset by more collaborative ventures between scientists and researchers across international boundaries and greater effort to commercialise research through business partnerships and spin-offs. But how to encourage academics to collaborate with industry to maximise the benefit of their research?

Mr Cable said Hermann Hauser’s report, commissioned by his predecessor Lord Mandelson, suggested a sensible approach – that of establishing a network of technology and innovation centres, based on international models such as the Fraunhofer Institutes in Germany. Both he and science minister David Willetts agree that it is a good way forward, and Mr Cable is examining the Hauser recommendations and the value of investing in these in the context of the all-important Spending Review, due next month.

But beyond simply copying overseas models, Mr Cable believes that what really works are business driven high technology clusters with academic links. A notable example is the Research Council campus at Harwell. Under the previous government, the UK invested in over 60 of these centres but, as Hermann Hauser points out in his report, the funding was thinly spread. resulting in activity that has largely failed to achieve a national impact in areas of leading UK capability such as nanotechnology.

Vince Cable’s message is clear: if we are to establish a national network of technology centres we should look to drive this number down and establish well-funded centres with long-term vision, focused on areas of clear technical leadership and commercial promise.

Les Hunt

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