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Lords Committee reports on UK STEM shortfalls

24 July 2012

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee have called for immediate action to ensure enough young people study STEM subjects at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Without this the government risks failing to meet its objectives to drive economic growth through education and hi-tech industries as identified in its Plan for Growth.

The report stresses the important role STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) postgraduates play in economic growth by driving innovation, undertaking research and providing entrepreneurship. However the Committee says that the government is failing to articulate how they will support postgraduate STEM provision in order to realise their plans for growth, explain to students the benefits of undertaking STEM postgraduate study or improve understanding about the demand for STEM postgraduates from industry.

The Committee identifies a potential compound effect of the higher education reforms on postgraduate provision producing a 'triple whammy' effect due to higher fees, a lack of student finance, and a decline in the number of overseas students leading to UK universities losing funding that subsidises other areas and a weakening of the quality and number of the Masters courses on offer. The report calls for the establishment of an expert group, including substantial employer involvement, to formulate a strategy for STEM postgraduate education to help underpin the government’s plans for growth.

The Committee also considered the recent changes to immigration rules and say that it has led to a perception that the UK does not welcome students.  The report recommends that a distinction is made in official immigration statistics between university students and other immigrants with only the latter group used to calculate net migration. This would reflect the fact that students are often temporary residents in the UK and would allow the government to reconcile their conflicting policies to reduce immigration and to expand Higher Education to promote economic growth.

Other recommendations in the report include:
- The government should work with stakeholders to define STEM by producing a statement of competencies and skills that a STEM graduate should posses. The current definition of STEM is too wide and hides the true picture of the state of traditional STEM subjects, such as chemistry and mathematics
- A single body should be appointed to provide real time data analysis and a commentary of where STEM shortages exist, in order to put remedial action in place if necessary; and to inform student on whether the courses they are considering studying will equip them with the skills needed by employers
- The recent higher education reforms put students at the heart of the system in order to drive up quality. However, the Committee is concerned that the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) does not provide enough sign-posts for students to recognise high quality STEM courses that employers demand.  To remedy this the Committee recommend a review of the remit of the QAA and support the accreditation of courses by professional bodies. The report also raises doubts about the added value of kite-marking courses individually, saying this would be overly burdensome for employers

Commenting, Lord Willis, Chairman of the Lords Sub-Committee on Higher Education in STEM Subjects, said: "The government has made clear that education and hi-tech industry is vital to its plans to generate economic growth. However, without a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce that will not be possible. It is vital therefore that higher education in the UK has a strong STEM sector and is able to produce the graduates and postgraduates hi-tech industries will demand.

"It is crucial that students entering university to study STEM subjects have the appropriate levels of math skills to begin their courses.

"We were surprised to hear that many undergraduates have to be given remedial maths lessons when they start university. The government should now make it compulsory for every pupil to study maths beyond 16. This will not only help STEM students but ensure a level of numeracy for everyone that will be increasingly required by employers in the future.

"We also worried that the tightening of immigration controls send out a message that the UK doesn’t welcome international students. Combined with the increases in tuition fees, this risks damaging universities funding base and limiting their ability to offer higher quality STEM courses. The government must take steps to ensure international students are not put off studying here."

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