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STEMming a worrying decline

25 July 2012

The take-up of STEM subjects is considered vital to the well-being of the UK’s economy, according to a recent report; the government gives it lip service but is rather short on action.

The Lords Science and Technology Committee report into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) higher education, which was published on July 24, opened something of a can of worms. Some rather startling facts came to light, such as one in five undergraduate students reading engineering at university had not gained an A-level in maths, and that undergraduate students with A* maths qualifications reading engineering at the University of Cambridge required "remedial" maths tuition before they could proceed with their courses.

According to the report, while there has been an increase in the number of STEM students, a significant proportion of that growth has taken place in what the government describes as “softer sciences”, such as sports and forensic science. Relatively little growth has taken place in traditional or 'core' sciences, such as engineering, and there has been a steep decline in computer science.

Some argue that the softer option is no bad thing as it does at least attract those youngsters to STEM (soft or otherwise) who would certainly not have taken on the slog of pure and applied mathematics, physics and chemistry. Others might carp that the promotion of softer sciences to pupils is simply a ruse by schools and academies to improve their STEM performance and, in particular, their league table positioning.

Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers agrees that the issue of insufficient skills is a very pressing concern for UK industry and the three percent drop in engineering graduates between 2003 and 2010 is, in his words, very worrying. A survey carried out by the Institution earlier this year found that while 76 percent of manufacturers are recruiting, 41 percent of them are struggling to find people with the right skills.

Dr Brown also believes the UK’s career advice system is one area which is sorely lacking and, if put right, could help steer talented young people into careers, like engineering and science, which are vital to the country’s future. "Government is currently cutting funding and face-to-face careers counselling in schools," he says. "Instead, they should be boosting funding and encouraging the involvement of industry. The inspiring people who are creating these jobs clearly provide the best careers advice you can get.”

Gareth James, head of education at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) says he hears from across industry, and repeated time and again, that there are not enough young people with the right qualifications available to take the rewarding and challenging engineering careers that are available now and anticipated over the next couple of decades.

“Good quality qualifications in maths, physics, chemistry, biology and computer science will open many doors to young people but if they want to stand out as potential employees they also need to demonstrate their ability to apply their learning and to have good employability skills such as team working," he said in response the Lords Committee report, to which the IET submitted evidence. "It is vital that if young people want to have the best chance in the jobs market that they need to research what employers are looking for, to choose their subjects accordingly and gain the sort of experience and skills that will make them appealing.”

The findings of independent research commissioned by the IET on the skills gaps and shortages within industry support the fact that the pipeline of talent into the sector is too thin.  At present, only 14% of boys and 9% of girls know what engineers do, let alone feel inspired to become one. If more young people do not pursue STEM this will be a massive handicap to UK plc.

Another fact highlighted in the Lords Committee report is that a proportion of those attracted to STEM subjects in higher education establishments and subsequently graduating with the degrees sought by key sectors of manufacturing like aerospace and automotive, are actually taking up non-STEM jobs.

What exactly does this tell us? That there are rather more STEM graduates seeking jobs than there are positions to fill? Unlikely, given the findings of surveys such as the IMechE’s. More likely, STEM jobs are losing, or have lost, their appeal among graduates, which is something that needs urgent redress.

The IMechE report referred to above found only 19 percent of engineers responding to the survey agreeing that the government was doing enough to help UK manufacturing – suggesting (my presumption) that the engineering profession was being undervalued. Indeed, both manufacturers and members of the public surveyed by the IMechE perceived little effort on the part of government to rebalance the economy away from its heavy dependence on the service (mainly financial) sector to the manufacturing sector.

This perception is somewhat contradicted by the government’s latest ‘Plan for Growth’ statement (March 2012), which laid considerable emphasis on rebalancing the economy and establishing STEM-focused sector skills councils which would work alongside industry to ‘kite-mark’ courses and give students a better idea of what employers in the real world deem appropriate to their needs. Both pledges are still works-in-progress, but the initial results of the kite-marking exercise are promised for September, in time for the new university intake.

The government is being pulled at from all directions with demands for investment when, in reality, it is cash-strapped, thanks to the huge debt it has inherited. Investing in higher education and, more broadly, in our manufacturing infrastructure through tax incentives for capital purchases and the like, might be considered yet another strain on government resources, but it will pay many times over in the longer term.

Les Hunt

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