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

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

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.  In the Government's Plan for Growth, education is described as "the foundation of economic success". The Government further stated that "our economy needs to become much more dynamic ... and retooled for a high- tech future, if we are going to create the jobs and prosperity we need for the next generation".[1] The Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) warned that "the workforce of the future will increasingly require higher-level skills as structural adjustments in the economy force businesses to move up the value chain. These jobs of the future will increasingly require people with the capabilities that a STEM qualification provides".[2]

2.  This raises the question whether the UK produces enough STEM graduates and postgraduates to fulfil this increasing demand and realise the Government's aspiration to use science to underpin economic growth.[3] The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) reported that "STEM skills shortages are widespread" with over 40% of employers currently experiencing difficulty recruiting staff with STEM qualifications.[4] If the UK is unable to fill today's vacancies with high quality STEM graduates and postgraduates, there is little chance that the economic growth that the UK needs in the future will materialise.

3.  On the other hand, STEM graduates have been increasing in recent years and we are also aware that there are reports which indicate that a substantial number of STEM graduates have taken up non-STEM jobs, suggesting that there might be an over-supply or mismatch between supply and demand.[5] This apparent contradiction, coupled with the importance that the Government attach to STEM as an engine of economic growth, sparked the Committee's inquiry.


4.  Higher education (HE) is devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For this reason, this report focuses on England. However, some of the problems that we have encountered and possible solutions that we propose may apply throughout the UK.

5.  We have chosen to concentrate on the areas that we believe are of crucial importance to the supply and demand of a STEM-skilled workforce. We consider whether the Government are using the available levers effectively to support and influence the HE sector to meet the UK's skills needs in order to generate economic growth.

6.  Although it was included in our call for evidence, we have not covered diversity because of the activities of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering in this area. The House of Commons Health Committee is currently scrutinising medical careers. We have, therefore, excluded this area from our inquiry as well.

7.  Given the significant attention that A level and GCSE study is receiving, including the Department of Education review of the National Curriculum,[6] we thought it inappropriate to include scrutiny of secondary education in this inquiry. However, the weight of evidence that we have received led us to conclude that post-16 maths and the interface between school and HE study warranted a closer look.

8.  We received substantial written evidence on the recent HE reforms. Whilst it is too early to assess the repercussions of the reforms for the HE sector as a whole, we have highlighted areas of concern focusing on undergraduate and postgraduate STEM provision.


9.  The acronym "STEM" encompasses a group of disciplines that teach the skills required for a high-tech economy. What this means in practice, and how this definition relates to specific courses in higher education institutions (HEIs), is a more complex matter and the definition varies across the HE sector and Government.

10.  For the purposes of this inquiry, however, we have adopted a definition used by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). This definition uses the Joint Academic Coding System (JACS) which classifies all subjects into 21 groups (see Appendix 7). Within these groups, STEM classifiers are: medicine and dentistry; subjects allied to medicine; biological sciences; veterinary science, agriculture and related subjects; physical sciences; mathematical sciences; computer science; engineering; technologies; and architecture, building and planning.


11.  We published a call for evidence on 2 November 2011. We received 119 written submissions. In November 2011 we held a seminar with representatives of Government departments, academics, employers and other stakeholders. Between December 2011 and April 2012 we held 13 oral evidence sessions, including one with Vice-Chancellors from nine HEIs. In April, we also wrote to 14 HEIs with specific questions on postgraduate provision and the responses are published with the written submissions.

Structure of the report

12.  The definition of STEM is a fundamental issue underlying this inquiry. In Chapter 2, therefore, we discuss the complexities behind this issue and the repercussions that too wide a definition have on the analysis of relevant data. Chapter 3 focuses on the interface between school and HE maths provision. In Chapter 4, we set out the policy context within which the HE sector operates. We also provide some background data on trends in STEM subjects, and discuss the supply and demand of STEM graduates and postgraduates. Chapter 5 focuses on quality, including quality assessment mechanisms and the involvement of employers and other stakeholders in the process of quality assurance. In Chapter 6, we consider recent policy reforms in HE and in immigration, and the impact that they are having, or may have, on STEM in HE.

13.  The membership and interests of Committee Members are set out in Appendix 1. Those who submitted written evidence and gave oral evidence are listed in Appendix 2. The call for evidence with which we launched our inquiry is reprinted in Appendix 3. A list of attendees at the seminar is set out in Appendix 4, and a list of abbreviations and acronyms is provided in Appendix 5.


14.  We are grateful to all those who assisted in our work by providing written evidence or attending oral evidence sessions. We also thank our Specialist Adviser, Professor Sir William Wakeham, for his expertise and guidance throughout this inquiry. We stress, however, that the conclusions we draw and recommendations we make are ours alone.

1   HM Treasury & BIS, The Plan for Growth, March 2011. Back

2   CIHE, The demand for STEM graduates and postgraduates, January 2009. Back

3   http://www.bis.gov.uk/news/speeches/david-willetts-policy-exchange-britain-best-place-science-2012.  Back

4   CBI, Building for Growth: Business Priorities for Education and Skills-Education and Skills Survey, May 2011. Back

5   The Guardian, Job figures cast doubt on Whitehall's push for science degrees, 11 September 2011; BBC News, Engineering graduates "taking unskilled jobs", 8 September 2011; The Guardian, It is nonsense to claim Britain produces too many science graduates, 14 September 2011.  Back

6   The Government. Back

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