Developing the next generation of scientists and engineers by consolidating efforts in education, business and industry

The Westminster Higher Education Forum connects policymakers in Parliament, Whitehall and government agencies with key stakeholders to discuss topical matters. Earlier this month, the BES attended the seminar which considered issues concerning the next generation of scientists and engineers. Here are some highlights…

Professor John Perkins, Chief Scientific Advisor for the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) kicked off the seminar by looking at engineering skills in the UK. Reflecting on the Review of Engineering Skills (November 2013), Professor Perkins reported that the skills shortage would impact the government’s ability to deliver its industrial strategy. One of many positive responses to the report has been from the Royal Academy of Engineering who have devised four specialist Finish and Task Groups to consider the review’s 22 recommendations. He emphasised the significance of a collective effort from stakeholders in business, industry, and education, coming together as a community to consolidate initiatives like Tomorrow’s Engineers driving inspiration, and the employer-led Trailblazer Apprenticeships which value alternative, work-based routes into engineering.

The seminar then went onto consider the current provision of STEM in schools, from the school curriculum, to practical lessons, teaching and careers advice.  Professor Louise Archer, from the ASPIRES Project reported findings from the five year survey where 19, 000 school children across the UK were interviewed at ages 10/11, and then again at 13/14. A positive finding was that the majority of young people are interested in science. However, this interest does not translate into them wanting a career in science, with most students opting for a career in business instead which is the most gender, ethnic and class equal of all career aspirations. However, the report did find the greater a young person’s ‘Science Capital’ – knowledge, resources, contacts in STEM – the more likely they are to aspire to a career in STEM. Professor Archer urged for greater promotion of the transferrable skills students acquire from studying science, whether or not they do actually pursue a career in it – they should keep their options open for as long as possible.

Tim Bowker, the Head of Physics at Bodmin College in Cornwall successfully demonstrated the different ways to encourage STEM in schools; from STEM club, to university trips, peer mentoring and collaborating on research projects with partners like Flybe and the Marine Biological Association of the UK. He emphasised the significance of setting up structures in schools so students and teachers can harness inspiration and opportunities into action for the long term.

Never too far from most talks concerning Higher Education is the issue of tuition fees, highlighting the important influence of policy on funding and educational outcomes. Interestingly, Lis Edwards from Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the regulator and funder for Higher Education in England, reported that they have managed to protect and maintain the levels of high cost funding for lab based subjects in 2014/15, despite an overall cut in the teaching funding available. What is more, there is support for growth from BIS that is expected in the next year, £185m coming over the next four years from 2015/16, with additional capital funding in 2015/16. Questions do remain around barriers to further growth in higher education and how the upturn of STEM in school is carried forward beyond further education, which HEFCE are keen to explore.

According to Melanie Radford from the University Technical College (UTC) Cambridge, the UTC movement looks promising for closing the STEM skills gap in the UK. She emphasised that aside from the more obvious funding issues, it is important that all issues are identified and understood in order for them to be closed. As well as encouraging more women to pursue STEM careers, there is a need to support disadvantaged youth diagnosed with disabilities and B/C GCSE grade students who are passionate about science. UTC Cambridge have longer school days and school year, and are currently mapping the curriculum to STEM employer led challenge projects through strong industry partnerships which should ensure students are better placed to achieve the necessary qualifications to study STEM subjects at university.

At postgraduate level, the new government backed centres for Doctoral Training Providers (DTPs), is envisioned to help meet the needs of STEM graduates in industry and academia too. At each centre there will be small cohorts of approximately 10 students per year on a four year doctorate course. There is an expectation of original research, a broadening skill set, and enhanced technical knowledge embedded within a research area of the university, which would need to be identified as a priority area through consultation with industry and business too. We are pleased to announce the BES has a number of bespoke training courses available to PhD students at UK institutions that are part of the new NERC DTPs. Professor Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council expects around 5,000 innovative and internationally competitive students to be trained through the DTP process. Having already leveraged extra funding from industry, this initiative demonstrates the endless possibilities which can come about through connecting industry and academia.

A common theme which ran throughout the seminar was the call for continued efforts to connect and maintain links between education, industry and business. Professor Perkins reported that the time constraints associated with the STEM supply system are over ten years, so strongly recommended interested stakeholders continue to take collective action.  Only then will the progress made within and across these sectors take effect, and challenge these long standing issues at a national level.

We are keen to hear your view on issues concerning the STEM skills gap and issues affecting the current and future generation of scientists and engineers in the UK. Share your opinions by tweeting us at @BES_careers.