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).
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)
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".
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
JACS 3 listing of the highest-level Groups
|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
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.
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;
and other bodies prefer the broader definition used in this report,
which includes computing, psychology and medicine.
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".
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.
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.
The Science Council, for example, argued that science should be
defined "as a methodology, rather than as a subject or group
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 hasincluding
numeracy, literacy, ability to use information technology, programming
skills, group working, presentational skills, time organisation,
and research skillsare all valuable to any employer."
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.
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 skillsthe essential STEM skillsthat
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
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
ABPI, BMA, Council for the Mathematical Sciences, Institute of
Education, Medical Schools Council, Open University, University
of Oxford. Back
The Government. Back
Higher Education Academy, Research Councils UK, the Royal Society
of Chemistry, British Academy, Science Council, University of
Oxford, Institute of Physics. Back
The Science Council. Back
University of Oxford. Back