Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


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.


Undergraduate applications

  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 computer science.


  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 factual command?


  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 at university.

  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 teaching.


  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.

February 2002

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