Memorandum submitted by Universities UK
1. Universities UK is pleased to submit
this memorandum to the Select Committee. Universities are facing
considerable difficulties in attracting and retaining suitably
qualified entrants at undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral
levels in some science subjects. Unless these problems are addressed,
they will have a damaging effect on UK innovation and competitiveness.
2. The education system, at all levels,
is at the heart of the knowledge-based economy. Universities are
dependent on foundations laid at school. We need to encourage
the study of science and technology across the whole education
system, from primary through to higher education [HE]. A key target
must be retention in school science study post 14 and boosting
of A-level numbers in science.
3. Universities UK believes that there is
a pressing need to boost retention of science study in schools
beyond age 14. Attitudes to the study of sciences and careers
in related subjects need to be addressed early if we are to halt
the decline in numbers applying to study sciences at university.
Whilst careers in Medicine and Veterinary Science are seen as
secure and well-paid, careers in other sciences are often not
seen as attractive or financially rewarding.
4. In particular, there is a need to address
the participation of women in certain science subjects, such as
engineering. Improvement in the rate of participation of women
in science subjects would go some way to addressing the supply
problems at undergraduate level and beyond.
5. Universities UK welcomes the announcement
made by Government on 2 January of the launch of a recruitment
drive for the Science and Engineering Ambassadors Programme which
aims to encourage more people to study science and technology
beyond GCSE. Much could be made of strengthening university-school
links to support science teaching in schools. Current science
and engineering students and recent graduates from these disciplines
in related careers play an important role in visiting schools
and colleges and acting as mentors to pupils and post-16 students.
Additional funding to assist this would be welcome.
6. Universities are already making a great
contribution to the process of interesting young students in science
through summer schools and other activities that get potential
students onto campus and into laboratories, particularly in the
context of programmes aimed at widening participation.
7. Recruitment to undergraduate science
and technology courses is a cause for concern. The numbers of
graduates have increased in recent years by less than half the
rate of increase for all graduates, and large increases in computing
mask sharp decreases in chemistry, physics and engineering. Medicine
and Veterinary science remain popular and are perceived to lead
to secure and rewarding careers.
8. The latest UCAS undergraduate applicant
figures for full-time study beginning in 2001 show that compared
with 2000, applicants to study chemistry were down by 5.1 per
cent and biology by 4.3 per cent.
9. The longer-term trend is similarly worrying.
Between 1994-95 and 1999-2000 the actual number of students (of
all levels and including part-time) studying physical sciences
fell by 4 per cent. During this period there was an 11 per cent
drop in engineering and technology.
10. Meanwhile, however, applications to
study computer science were up by 12.2 per cent in 2001 compared
with the year before. Between 1994-95 and 1999-2000, there has
been a 41 per cent increase in the number of students studying
11. Scientists make a vital contribution
to the UK's economy, not least through research and development.
In response to concerns that innovative businesses in the UK sometimes
find it difficult to recruit the skilled researchers they need,
the Government asked Professor Sir Gareth Roberts to lead an independent
review of the supply of scientists and engineers in the UK. A
consultation paper, containing an initial review, was published
in June 2001. This paper said that the numbers of people graduating
in science and chemistry have fallen in recent years and the numbers
graduating in engineering and technology have seen a more marked
decline. However, the numbers of first or upper second-class degrees
have fluctuated to a lesser extent. Overall, the numbers of first
and upper second-class degrees in science and engineering subjects
has risen in the period 1993-94 to 1998-99.
12. Roberts' consultation paper also stated
that there was a clear gender divide between different sciences.
During 1999-2000 women constituted 83 per cent of students in
subjects allied to medicine and 61 per cent in biological sciences,
whereas men made up 85 per cent of engineering and technology
students, 77 per cent of computer science students and were strongly
represented in physical sciences (chemistry and physics) 63 per
cent and mathematical sciences (63 per cent).These imbalances
are stark indicators of the way in which we are failing to tap
into the full range of possible resources and are a useful basis
for defining where work needs to be done at school level.
13. As with first degrees, there was a decline
in the numbers of postgraduates in the fields of chemistry and
physics between 1995-96 and 1999-2000 (although less so for doctorates
than other higher degrees). This decline was most noticeable amongst
those studying for a physics "other higher degree" where
numbers fell by 26 per cent. In mathematics numbers fell by 12
per cent for "other higher degrees" and declined 6 per
cent overall. There was an overall increase in postgraduate numbers
in both computer science and engineering and technology.
14. However, Roberts also showed that, measured
against key comparator countries, the UK is second only to Germany
and Finland in the proportion of first and second degrees taken
in science and technology subjects. Whilst only the US and Canada
have a lower level of first degree to Masters level graduates
in engineering, the UK has the highest proportion of computer
science graduates, and the second highest proportion of graduates
in physical sciences.
15. The UK has strengths in the way that
it teaches science at school level, eg the study of science from
the age of five, earlier than in some other countries, and the
proportion of the school curriculum devoted to it. It is accepted
that learning science involves more than ingesting facts about
the natural world, and a significant component of science study
encourages personal inquiry (although separation, within the national
curriculum, of science from design and technology is unfortunate).
16. Primary school science earns strong
reports and pupils have positive attitudes to, and interest in,
science and the world around them. Problems surface at secondary
level, including a lack of qualified science teachers, even for
advanced classes in core subjects. Universities regularly report
that students embarking on courses in scientific subjects need
remedial teaching. Science teachers in schools can be isolated,
with little opportunity to learn from their peers, and limited
in-service training opportunities.
17. Recruitment into teacher education in
science is a further concern, with numbers falling (although recent
incentives to recruit teachers in shortage subjects will help)
and increased retirements of experienced science teachers predicted
in coming years.
18. There is insufficient time and resource
for practical sessions in science: but performing experiments
is an attraction, if carried out by pupils and not merely demonstrated
by a teacher or viewed as a simulation. The committee could usefully
look at the opportunities that are available for pupils to take
mixed programmes of study, eg taking sciences along with arts
subjects. High priority is given to school success in national
examinations: does this discourage innovative teaching and reinforce
19. Universities have worked with schools
for many years to support science education. For example, at the
University of Surrey a dedicated Educational Liaison Centre promotes
science participation through activities including residential
Science and Technology Taster Conferences, occasional half-day
schools team challenges, annual Science, Engineering and Technology
week activities, Lecture Programmes, outreach visiting speaker
programmes and a local COMPACT network supporting both staff and
students in over 50 schools and colleges. There is also a well
established Tutoring and Mentoring programme which sends undergraduates
out into local schools.
20. The University of Ulster runs a programme
called "Step up to Science" which targets disadvantaged
pupils in deprived areas of Londonderry where HE participation
rates are exceptionally low. The programme includes a summer school,
postgraduate student mentors for target students, the provision
of work placements and development of an induction programme for
target students to help ease the transition from school to university.
Many other universities run broad-based access programmes and
summer schools, which include sciences amongst the subjects they
seek to encourage young people from poorer backgrounds to study
21. Visits to university enable school pupils
to experience real-life science, to learn about the excitement
of research, to see some its applications. We urge the committee
to consider recommending the expansion of this activity, supported
by appropriate funding, so as to inspire pupils to stay with science
study and increase undergraduate intake in these subjects. The
establishment, eg, of relevant university centres could facilitate
the involvement of scientists and engineers in school science
22. Recent studies of public attitudes to
science and technology have found widespread respect for the achievements
of science and technology and recognition that they make our lives
healthier and more comfortable and contribute to economic competitiveness.
At the same time science and engineering suffer from an unfortunate
image, widespread among parents, teachers and the media. Study
of the physical sciences is seen as difficult, male-dominated
and leading to careers which are poorly remunerated. Life sciences
are more popular, but young people have concerns about environmental
impact and ethical issues.
23. There is an urgent need to improve and
increase awareness, and to highlight the value and reward of careers
in science disciplines, including careers at the technician level.
However, career guidance in schools is given by teachers, the
majority of whom have no experience of science or engineering.
24. The evidence of external review of teaching
in science subjects in UK universities is one of high quality
across the board, despite problems arising from sustained cuts
in unit funding. The Government has made welcome injections to
research infrastructure in recent years but teaching infrastructure
remains in need of substantial additional resources. Laboratory
based provision is expensive: severe difficulties are now being
encountered as universities seek to support the complex level
of facilities necessary to teach science and engineering, especially
as other subjects, eg IT-based disciplines, now make high demands
on capital equipment. In our recent spending review submission,
Universities UK stated that according to our evidence, the HE
sector as a whole needed a total of £6.56 billion of which
£1.26 billion is recurrent, for work on the teaching infrastructure.
25. Universities have evolved new programmes
in science and technology (often 4-year), to cope with advances
in knowledge to be covered and to equip students with the skills
needed for research, industry and the professions. There is increased
industry input to the curriculum and its delivery, with attention
to transferable skills.
26. It is sometimes thought that the research
assessment mechanism encourages the closure of science and engineering
departments. In fact, the principal driver in decisions of this
sort is student demand. Universities UK feels that the disinclination
of school students to continue through A-level and on to HE in
science subjects must be addressed if the future of such departments
is to be safeguarded, as the problem is one of demand rather than
supply. Universities do all that they can to encourage the study
of science and engineering, but have no choice but to respond
to market conditions.