Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects - Science and Technology Committee Contents


The Government in their Plan for Growth attach great importance to education and hi-tech industry in order to create jobs and prosperity. The jobs of the future will increasingly require people with the capabilities and skills that a STEM education provides. However, there appears to be a mismatch between the STEM graduates and postgraduates that higher education institutes (HEIs) supply and the demand from employers, both in terms of the number of students and the skills and knowledge they acquire.

We start this report by analysing the current definition of STEM which uses the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS). We found this definition unsatisfactory because it is too broad and includes subjects that have not traditionally been considered STEM. An implication of such a broad definition is that there is a danger that a significant proportion of the growth in the number of students studying STEM subjects is made up of courses with little science content, thus hiding the true picture of the level of STEM skills available to meet the needs of the economy. The Government must work together with stakeholders to define STEM by using a statement of the competencies and skills that a STEM graduate and postgraduate should possess and the characteristics that a STEM course should contain.

One aspect of STEM education that was flagged up to us during this inquiry was the interface between schools and higher education (HE), and maths. We are concerned that the number of pupils studying maths post-16 is insufficient to meet the level of numeracy needed in modern society, and the level at which the subject is taught does not meet the requirements needed to study STEM subjects at undergraduate level. The study of maths should be compulsory for all students post-16 and maths to A2 level should be a requirement for students intending to study STEM subjects in HE. In addition, we urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths requirement for admissions into STEM courses as the lack, or low level, of maths requirements at entry acts as a disincentive for pupils to study maths and high level maths at A level.

Another issue with which we had to grapple was the lack of reliable data on the supply and demand of STEM graduates and postgraduates. This lack of data makes it very difficult to assess whether there is in fact a shortage of STEM graduates and postgraduates and in which sectors. This is critical because, if it is not known whether there is a shortage, remedial actions cannot be put in place. To this end, we believe that a single body should be appointed to be a repository of information on the supply of, and demand for, STEM graduates and postgraduates with a view to providing comprehensive, real time data analysis and a commentary with market intelligence of where STEM shortages exist. These data will serve multiple purposes, such as aiding the classification of shortage areas as Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS), or inform students on whether the courses they are considering studying will equip them with the skills needed by employers.

We analyse in this report how quality is assessed in HE and the mechanisms for improving quality, given that the mismatch in supply and demand for STEM graduates relates in part to a lack of high quality graduates in many sectors, not necessarily the overall number. These issues are complex and there are many nuances that have to be taken into account. However, we concluded that the remit of the QAA should be reviewed with a view to introducing a system to assure quality, standards and benchmarks in HEIs that is fit for purpose. We support accreditation of courses by professional bodies as a way of signposting high quality courses. At the same time we call on the QAA to ensure that employers are sufficiently involved in setting standards and benchmarks, and promoting quality.

It is clear that STEM postgraduates play a significant role in driving innovation, undertaking research and development, and providing leadership and entrepreneurship. However, it appears to us that, although the Government recognise the central role that STEM plays in their strategies for growth, they fail to articulate how they intend to convey to students the benefits of STEM postgraduate study, to reduce the decline in STEM qualifiers in some STEM subjects, or to improve our understanding about the demand for postgraduates and the value they offer to the economy. Additionally, they fail to make clear what support they will give to postgraduate STEM provision in order to realise their vision. To remedy this situation we call on the Government to set up an expert group, with substantial employer involvement, to consider the supply and demand of STEM postgraduate provision with the aim of formulating a strategy for STEM postgraduate education in the UK which will underpin the Government's strategies for growth.

Two recent policy reforms—on HE and immigration—are likely to have a significant impact on the HE sector. Although it is too early to assess their effect with accuracy, the evidence that we received indicates a significant concern about the outcome of the reforms. We support the role that the Government have given to HEFCE to monitor unintended consequences and to intervene, as appropriate, to protect strategic or vulnerable provision, yet we are concerned that HEFCE may not have the funds to intervene should it need to.

We believe that changes to immigration rules have resulted in a perception that the UK does not welcome students. This perception, in conjunction with the actual changes to the immigration rules, may reduce the number of overseas students coming to study to the UK and, in turn, the income that HEIs derive from these students to fund other activities. This may result in a reduction of provision of STEM courses that rely on this income to make them viable. We call on the Government to make a distinction in the immigration statistics between HE students and other immigrants, and use only the latter category to calculate net migration for policy-making purposes. This move would reconcile contradictory policies from the HO, to reduce net migration, and BIS, to expand the HE sector to promote economic growth.

There is a danger that the HE and immigration reforms could have a compound impact on stand-alone Masters degree provision producing a 'triple whammy' effect due to higher fees, lack of student finance and a decline in the number of overseas students choosing to study in the UK. By the time the effect of these reforms is quantified and analysed, it may be too late to put remedial action in place. The role of the expert group mentioned above will be crucial in this regard.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012