Government must boost STEM skills for UK competitiveness

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has today published a report that calls upon the Government to take immediate action to ensure enough young people study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at university. Without this, the Committee conclude, the Government will fail in its ambition to boost economic growth through science and high-tech industry.

The Committee’s report, the output of an inquiry into ‘Higher Education in Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths Subjects’, calls for the Government to make it compulsory for all students to study mathematics post-16, at a level appropriate to the other subjects they are taking at A’ level.

The chair of the Committee, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, has expressed his surprise and that of other Committee members, to discover how few STEM undergraduates enter university with a post-16 maths qualification. It is estimated that approximately 70% of biology undergraduates lack an A’ Level in maths for example. The Committee have also expressed their concern that universities such as Cambridge are called upon to provide remedial maths education to undergraduates in physics and engineering, even when those students enter the university with the top grade possible in this subject. The Committee has called for higher education institutions to become more involved in setting the maths curriculum for A’ level students.

The Committee’s report also emphasises the important role that STEM postgraduates have to play in the UK economy, supplying vital skills to industry for example. However, the Committee suggests that the provision of postgraduate STEM courses will be hit by a ‘triple whammy’ of higher undergraduate tuition fees, reduced funding for courses (the Natural Environment Research Council has withdrawn from funding Masters courses for example) and lesser numbers of overseas students (the high tuition fees from whom are used by universities to subsidise other areas of their work). The Committee call for the formation of a dedicated group, involving employers, to examine how postgraduate STEM education can be supported in the UK given these factors.

The Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), Imran Khan, in speaking to the Guardian about the Committee’s report, has called for a ‘genuinely joined up approach to STEM education’, to ensure that the UK remains competitive against those nations investing heavily in growing their STEM workforce, such as China and India. According to Lord Willis, speaking on this morning’s ‘Today’ programme, every major competitor country to the UK makes maths compulsory to the age of 18; England and Northern Ireland are at the bottom of the league, with Scotland as an exception.

Students also require greater information about whether the courses they are planning to study will equip them with the skills needed by employers. For example, the numbers studying so called ‘soft sciences’ such as sport science doubled to more than 8,000 between 2003 and 2010: the Committee raise concerns that these graduates are less employable than those studying traditional science subjects such as biology, chemistry and physics. The Committee suggests that the Government should work with interested parties, including employers, to generate a list of competencies that STEM graduates should possess.

In this context the work of both the Society of Biology and the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (IEEM) to accredit environmental science and ecology courses that provide a sound grounding in research or practical application respectively should serve to provide prospective ecologists with the information they require: the Committee signals its support in the report for accreditation by professional bodies.

The Government will now prepare a response to the report’s recommendations, to be submitted to the Committee after the summer parliamentary recess.

Media Sources:
Make maths compulsory for all A’level students, says Lords. The Guardian, 24 July 2012, Alok Jha.
Science graduates ‘lack skills required by business‘. BBC News, 24 July 2012, Judith Burns