Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum from the Department for Education and Skills


  The Roberts review was commissioned at the time of the 2001 budget as part of the Government's strategy for improving the UK's productivity and innovation performance. It stemmed from the Government's concern that the supply of high quality scientists and engineers should not constrain the UK's future R&D and innovation performance.

  The review, published in April of 2002, found that in comparison to other countries, the UK has a relatively large and growing number of students studying for scientific and technical qualifications. However this growth is primarily due to the increases in the numbers studying IT and the biological sciences, with the overall increase masking downward trends in the numbers studying mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences.

  Coupled with this finding that the supply of graduates from certain subjects are falling the report also found that scientists and engineers in the UK are in demand from a wide range of sectors, not just the conventional higher education and R&D occupations, but also from sectors such as financial services who are increasingly demanding highly numerate graduates and postgraduates.

  Figure 1 shows the destination for first degree graduates entering employment in 1999/00. It illustrates that in many science and engineering subjects over half of all new graduates enter employment working in "R&D manufacturing". Maths and physics graduates can also be seen to be the most likely of this group to enter the financial service sector, which is consistent with the highly numerate and problem solving nature of these degrees.

  Focussing on the needs of the higher education sector, the Roberts review worked in collaboration with HEFCE to develop a model of the stocks and flows of academic staff in UK HEIs. The ageing demographic profile of the academic workforce is of significant concern as it is likely to create staffing problems in future years. 16% of academic staff were due to retire within 10 years in 1999-2000, and this figure increases when we constrain ourselves to look at certain sciences. For example over 25% of the academic staff teaching Maths, Physics or Chemistry were over 55 in 1999-2000.

  Table 1 shows the actual and forecast inflows by SET discipline in 1998, 2005 and 2010. It illustrates the varying picture across subject groups with the most critical need arising in Mathematics and Engineering, which require a 33% and 22% increase in inflows in 2010 respectively, in order to preserve the 1998 staffing figures. To meet this forecast demand of maths academics in 2010 the Roberts review estimates that institutions would have to recruit just over 50% of the 1998-99 output of Maths PhD students.


  A further indicator of the relative demand for graduates of certain subjects is the returns that they receive in the labour market. Figure 2 illustrates that Maths and male Engineering graduates enjoy a return significantly higher than the average (male) return to HE, indicating that demand for graduates in these disciplines is relatively high.


  A study by Mason (1999) found that some 41 percent of recent recruiters of technical graduates reported that they had some difficulty in meeting their recruitment targets. The main areas of expertise reported in shortage all involved electronics and/or software engineering, design and programming.

  The table below taken from Mason (1999) shows the incidence of recruitment difficulties by sector and the extent of these difficulties.

Table 2

Percent of recruiters reporting:
"Very Difficult"

R&D Services
Computer Services
Financial Services


  Across the whole sample of recruiting enterprises in the Mason (1999) study, the estimated median number of applications received for each advertised position for a technical graduate ranged from 29 (physical sciences) to 46 (computer science). So this hardly suggests a deficiency in the quantity of technical graduates.

  Electronic engineering was the only discipline in which the report found an apparent shortfall in the quantity of graduates due to the very specific nature of the job they were being recruited for. In the other disciplines recruitment difficulties appear to have more to do with quality shortcomings than any overall deficiency in supply.

  Just over three quarters of firms within the survey that had recruitment difficulties reported some dissatisfaction with the quality of job applicants, in particular their "lack of appropriate work experience" followed by "lack of commercial awareness/understanding" and "weak communication and presentation skills".

  Recent unpublished research commissioned by the DfES asked a sample of employed graduates 3.5-4 years after they had graduated the extent to which certain skills were developed on their undergraduate course and subsequently how much they were used in their current employment. It found that just over 80% of respondents found spoken communication skills were used a lot in their current jobs, however only just over 35% of respondents thought that such skills had been developed a lot on their undergraduate course,[83] so this problem of weak communication skills may extend beyond just SET graduates.


  As part of the Mason (1999) report recruiting firms were asked to rank their selection criteria on a scale of one to four, with one being not at all important and four being very important. Table 2 shows the employment weighted average ranking given to the various factors.

Table 3

Employment Weighted Average

Class of Degree
Previous work experience (eg sandwich placement)
A level Score
Reputation of Specific University
Whether candidate attended Old or New University

  Larger employers were more likely to attach greater importance to a university's reputation and this was further borne out by the pattern of response to a question about the extent to which enterprises target specific university departments in the course of their recruitment campaigns. But even after allowing for the employer's size the reputation of the graduate's university is clearly deemed less important that their class of degree and relevant work experience.

So do graduates benefit from attending the more prestigious universities?

  Analysis looking at graduates more widely has discovered that even after controlling for individuals' personal characteristics, graduating from a Russell Group Institution adds between 0 and 6% to male graduate earnings compared to graduating from a modern university. The respective figure for a female is around 2.5%.[84]

March 2005

83   The Class of 99: A study of the Labour Market Experience of recent graduates: unpublished. Back

84   Conlon and Chevalier (2003) Does it pay to attend a prestigious university, CEE discussion paper. Back

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