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

CHAPTER 2: Definition of STEM

15.  One of the first issues which we had to address when we began this inquiry was how to define a STEM subject. We found that the definition varied between different bodies within and outside Government and also from country to country (making comparisons about the number of STEM graduates difficult).[7] Although (in paragraph 23) we propose a different approach to defining STEM subjects, the definition which we have adopted, at this stage, makes use of JACS. We do not, however, find JACS entirely satisfactory for the reasons set out (in paragraph 17) below.

16.  JACS "is owned and maintained" by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and HESA and "is used for subject coding of provision across higher education in the UK".[8] Box 1 sets out the subject groups at the highest level of JACS 3, with Groups A-K constituting a collective set of disciplines we refer to here as STEM. Each Group is subdivided into subjects. For example, "physical sciences" is subdivided into nine subject areas and then into 114 further subjects. Appendix 7 to this report lists the subject areas included in each highest-level Group for STEM. The full listing by subject can be found on the HESA website.[9]


JACS 3 listing of the highest-level Groups[10]
Groups with STEM are in bold (Groups A-K):

A - Medicine and Dentistry

B - Subjects allied to Medicine

C - Biological Sciences

D - Veterinary Sciences, Agriculture and related subjects

F - Physical Sciences

G - Mathematical Sciences

H - Engineering

I - Computer Sciences

J - Technologies

K - Architecture, Building and Planning

L - Social Studies

M - Law

N - Business and Administrative Studies

P - Mass Communication and Documentation

Q - Linguistics, Classics and Related Subjects

R - European Languages, Literature and related subjects

T - Eastern, Asiatic, African, American and Australasian Languages, Literature and related subjects

V - Historical and Philosophical Studies

W - Creative Arts and Design

X - Education

17.  Although JACS is a useful tool for defining STEM and for carrying out analysis of trends in the study of STEM subjects, different organisations have raised objections to some of the subject areas included, or excluded, from the definition of STEM within JACS or in other definitions.[11] For example, some Sector Skills Councils use narrow definitions, depending on their interests, and do not usually include medicine and subjects allied to medicine. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) excludes some subjects such as architecture from their analysis of STEM subjects;[12] and other bodies prefer the broader definition used in this report, which includes computing, psychology and medicine.[13] The Careers Research and Advisory Centre (CRAC) commented that "subjects such as nursing, but also psychology, sports science and archaeological science ... fall within JACS Subject Groups most commonly considered to be within STEM, but many would consider these might not be STEM subjects".[14]

18.  The problem in defining STEM using JACS is that it leads to the inclusion of some degree subjects that traditionally have not been considered STEM (and where the direct STEM content may be small) such as some complementary medical courses or some sports science courses. In terms of the overall numbers of students studying, and graduating from, STEM, such courses are then given the same value and weight as subjects such as engineering or chemistry, even though they may not be considered by many to be STEM and graduates from these courses may not have sufficient STEM skills to satisfy the demands of the employment market for STEM graduates.

19.  The Government suggest in their evidence that other classifications are possible, for example, "core" and "non-core" subjects or "hard" and "soft" subjects, with the newer courses, such as sports science and forensic sciences, being categorised as "soft" subjects.[15] However, because of the continually evolving disciplines within science and the difficulties surrounding the classification of subjects within JACS, it can be difficult to disaggregate and classify courses under such headings.

20.  A significant number of the submissions we received took another approach and defined STEM by describing the skills that a STEM graduate ought to have, thereby moving away from the argument about which subjects should be included in the definition of STEM.[16] The Science Council, for example, argued that science should be defined "as a methodology, rather than as a subject or group of subjects".[17] The University of Oxford suggested that:

"... the defining characteristic of an undergraduate education in the STEM subjects is the ability to think analytically, including about abstract problems, and to use evidence to support propositions. The associated skills a STEM graduate has—including numeracy, literacy, ability to use information technology, programming skills, group working, presentational skills, time organisation, and research skills—are all valuable to any employer."[18]

21.  The characteristics of a STEM graduate usually include: numeracy and the ability to generate, understand and analyse empirical data including critical analysis; an understanding of scientific and mathematical principles; the ability to apply a systematic and critical assessment of complex problems with an emphasis on solving them and applying the theoretical knowledge of the subject to practical problems; the ability to communicate scientific issues to stakeholders and others; ingenuity, logical reasoning and practical intelligence. In our view, defining STEM in this way is the more rational approach. UCAS and HESA are currently considering a fundamental revision of course subject classifications.[19] It would, we suggest, be sensible for these bodies to take this approach into account when reviewing the current classification system. It is these sorts of skills—the essential STEM skills—that are needed to generate economic growth; and when, in our recommendations, we refer to STEM subjects, it is this stricter definition which we have in mind.

22.  The definition of STEM has to be born in mind when analysing data, particularly data relating to trends for undergraduate and postgraduate provision. As we have seen, the definition of STEM using JACS classification is broad. An implication of such a wide-ranging definition is that there is a danger that a significant proportion of the growth in STEM uptake may be 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.

23.  We recommend that, given the importance that the Government attach to STEM skills in stimulating economic growth and the wider importance of a STEM-literate society, the Government should work together with HESA, the Research Councils, HEIs and professional bodies to formulate and apply a standard definition of STEM. The definition should derive from a statement of the competencies and skills that a STEM graduate should possess and the characteristics that a STEM course should contain, including direct STEM content.

7   The Government, the Science Council. Back

8   http://www.hesa.ac.uk/content/view/1776/649/. Back

9   http://www.hesa.ac.uk. Back

10   http://www.hesa.ac.uk/content/view/1805/296/. Back

11   ABPI, BMA, CRAC, Council for the Mathematical Sciences, Medical Schools Council, Open University, The Physiological Society, Royal Geographical Society, Society of Biology, University of Oxford and the Wellcome Trust. Back

12   HEFCE. Back

13   ABPI, BMA, Council for the Mathematical Sciences, Institute of Education, Medical Schools Council, Open University, University of Oxford. Back

14   CRAC. Back

15   The Government. Back

16   Higher Education Academy, Research Councils UK, the Royal Society of Chemistry, British Academy, Science Council, University of Oxford, Institute of Physics. Back

17   The Science Council. Back

18   University of Oxford. Back

19   UCAS. Back

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