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

CHAPTER 7: Conclusions and recommendations

Definition of STEM

252.  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. (paragraph 23) (Recommendation 1)

The school and higher education interface, and maths


253.  The number of students taking maths post-16 is insufficient to meet the level of numeracy needed in our society, and the level at which it is taught often fails to meet the requirements for studying STEM subjects at undergraduate level. We share the view that all students should study some form of maths post-16, the particular area of maths depending on the needs of the student. For example, prospective engineering students would require mechanics as part of their post-16 maths, whereas prospective biology students would benefit from studying statistics. (paragraph 30)

254.  We recommend that, as part of their National Curriculum review, the Government make studying maths in some form compulsory for all students post-16. We recommend also that maths to A2 level should be a requirement for students intending to study STEM subjects in HE. (paragraph 32) (Recommendation 2)


255.  We support the Government's efforts to involve HEIs in setting the curriculum and we urge HEIs to engage fully and make every effort to smooth the transition from school to HE, particularly in maths. In order to inform this process, we urge that HEIs work together to establish where the skills gaps are and which areas of the maths syllabus are essential for STEM undergraduate study. We would expect this work to be completed by July 2014. (paragraph 39) (Recommendation 3)

256.  We support the recommendation by the House of Commons Education Committee that there should be a single comprehensive national syllabus, accredited by Ofqual, to offset the risk that competing examination boards will tend to drive down standards. We would expect the national syllabus for maths to meet the needs of all students post-16 as per our conclusion and recommendation in paragraphs 30-32. The proposed national subject committees will be critical to the success of the new scheme. Should the scheme go ahead therefore, we would seek assurance that the HEIs would have a significant role within the committees and that the committees would be given the capacity to be fully effective in ensuring that standards, particularly at A2, are maintained. (paragraph 40)

257.  The Education Committee recommended that the Government should pilot a national syllabus in one large entry subject as part of the forthcoming A level reforms. We would recommend that maths should be the subject of such a pilot. (paragraph 41) (Recommendation 4)


258.  We recommend that the Government increase their efforts to boost specialist STEM teacher recruitment. The Government should assess which existing initiatives have yielded positive results and which have not worked, so that resources can be concentrated on those schemes that produce the best outcomes. (paragraph 43) (Recommendation 5)


259.  We recommend that the Government should direct the new National Careers Service to ensure that appropriate advice is given to young people about the following: STEM subject choice at school and its possible consequences for future study and careers; the choices available within STEM subjects at HE level and beyond and the advantages of pursuing a STEM degree; and, relevant careers advice that highlights the jobs available to STEM graduates both within STEM and in other industries. In order to make STEM careers and subject choices more accessible to students, parents and teachers, we would encourage the Government to use new technologies by, for example, commissioning a STEM careers App. (paragraph 46) (Recommendation 6)

260.  Schools should ensure that support for careers education through continuing professional development (CPD) is provided to those offering careers advice to students. (paragraph 47) (Recommendation 7)


261.  The lack, or low level, of maths requirements for admission to HEIs, particularly for programmes in STEM subjects, acts as a disincentive for students to take maths and high level maths at A level. We urge HEIs to introduce more demanding maths requirements at entry for STEM courses. The proposed change should be introduced within a time frame that would allow current school pupils to adapt their subject choices at school to the new requirements. The benefits of this policy would be two-fold: it would send the right signal to young people of the importance of maths for their future career choices, therefore increasing the number of pupils studying maths at A level; and maths knowledge and skills at university entry are likely to improve. We further recommend that HEIs should work together to ensure that entry requirements for the same course are consistent across different HEIs. (paragraph 49) (Recommendation 8).

Supply and demand in STEM higher education


262.  The lack of reliable data on the supply and demand for STEM graduates and postgraduates makes it very difficult to assess whether there is a shortage of STEM graduates and postgraduates, and in which sectors. More needs to be done to identify areas of shortage so that remedial action can be taken and to enable students to make informed choices about whether the courses they are considering will equip them with the skills needed by employers. (paragraph 72)

263.  We recommend that the Government appoint a single body (or amalgamates the efforts of existing bodies such as HESA, UCAS, UKCES, CIHE, the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) or the new National Centre for Universities and Business) to be a repository of relevant information currently collected by different agencies on the supply and demand for STEM graduates with a view to providing comprehensive, real time data analysis and a commentary with market intelligence of where STEM shortages exist, broken down by sector. This body should provide yearly updates to HEFCE, Government and other stakeholders on skills shortages so that remedial action could be taken to protect, or grow, those STEM areas which are needed to support economic growth and where market failure means that supply does not meet demand. All these data should be accessible to all stakeholders in order, amongst other things, to inform student choice. (paragraph 73) (Recommendation 9)

264.  We recommend that this body should also be responsible for holding, monitoring and analysing data for postgraduate education, including the employment of qualifiers from postgraduate courses on an ongoing basis—disaggregated into PhD, research Masters and taught Masters, and by subject areas. (paragraph 74) (Recommendation 10)

265.  We urge HEIs to contribute to the provision of data to this body by putting in place a robust, long-term tracking system for postgraduate provision and destination data. (paragraph 75)


266.  We recommend that the Government commission a study to find out the first destination of STEM graduates with a first degree (by degree class) as well as postgraduates. The study should also attempt to find out the reasons that lie behind students' career choices. This information would help to explain what makes STEM graduates and postgraduates choose non-STEM jobs and allow STEM employers to take action to attract the best and brightest into STEM careers, particularly research. (paragraph 83) (Recommendation 11)

267.  Given the significant number of students choosing to study "softer" science courses, we recommend that HEFCE and HEIs collaborate in conducting a study into the career progression of students of new STEM courses (such as some sports science and forensic science courses) to enable those undertaking these courses to decide whether they are being equipped with the skills graduates need to succeed in the STEM job market. (paragraph 87) (Recommendation 12)


268.  It appears that SIVS policy has had a positive impact on STEM and the Government should therefore continue to support the initiative. There are concerns that the HE reforms may erode STEM provision in favour of cheaper subjects. The SIVS policy is an important tool to help counteract that. The new approach to SIVS proposed by HEFCE is to be welcomed in that it will allow other subjects, such as computer science, to be offered support if they are deemed vulnerable. (paragraph 97)

269.  We recommend that the body in charge of collecting and analysing data (see the recommendation in paragraph 73) should, by providing evidence and analysis to HEFCE and the Government, contribute to the process of establishing which subjects should be given SIVS status. (paragraph 98) (Recommendation 13)

270.  While HEFCE has a legitimate role in determining which subjects are vulnerable and should be supported as part of the SIVS programme, we recommend that the Government should decide which subjects are strategic and should therefore be given SIVS status. The Government's decision could be included in the Secretary of State's annual letter to HEFCE. (paragraph 99) (Recommendation 14)


271.  It is clear that STEM postgraduates are valued and in demand amongst employers, and that they play a significant role in driving innovation, undertaking research and development, and providing leadership and entrepreneurship. It appears to us that, although the Government recognise the central role that STEM plays in their strategy for growth, they fail to articulate how they intend to highlight to students the benefits of 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. They also fail to make clear what support they will give to postgraduate STEM provision in order to realise their vision. This is, in our view, a mistake. (paragraph 106)

272.  We recommend that the Government set up an expert group to consider the supply and demand of STEM postgraduate provision in the UK and to identify weaknesses and areas of skills shortage. The Government, as the strategic leader, should agree the terms of reference of this group with a view to formulating a strategy for STEM postgraduate education in the UK which will underpin their strategies for growth. As part of the expert group, we urge employers to spell out their needs to Government and to identify skills shortages at STEM postgraduate level. (paragraph 107) (Recommendation 15)

Quality, standards and benchmarks


273.  The Government's response to the Higher Education White Paper consultation stated that they will "not at this stage be seeking to introduce changes to primary legislation" but they would move their reform agenda forward "primarily through non-legislative means". It is not clear to us, therefore, if Parliament will be given the opportunity to scrutinise the proposed changes to quality assurance and HEFCE's power. We recommend that the Government clarify in their response to this report what opportunity Parliament will be given to scrutinise further the proposed changes to quality assurance, as set out in the Higher Education White Paper. The Government should also set out a timetable for when the changes will take place and outline the form they will take. (paragraph 120) (Recommendation 16)


274.  Given the skills gaps that exist in key areas across the graduate pool, the QAA has a long way to go in ensuring that industry is sufficiently involved in setting standards and benchmarks. We recommend that the QAA should do more to recruit employers, SMEs in particular, to engage with HEIs and take part in setting QAA standards and benchmark statements. The QAA should be in a position to report back on how it plans take this recommendation forward by July 2013. (paragraph 131) (Recommendation 17)

275.  We further recommend 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. This should include the development (and achievement) of objectives for the inclusion of employers in the setting of standards and benchmarks, and a yearly list of thematic problem areas, accompanied by an action plan, where consistent skills gaps occur. (paragraph 132) (Recommendation 18)


276.  We recommend that the Research Councils monitor the impact of embedding Roberts' Money into the standard funding mechanisms. (paragraph 136) (Recommendation 19)


277.  We considered whether the Government or HEFCE should play a greater role in improving the quality of teaching in HEIs. We concluded that they should not on the grounds that HEIs were primarily responsible for the quality of teaching. However, we look to HEFCE to take steps to ensure that the REF does not act as a disincentive to HEIs to promote quality in teaching. (paragraph 145)

278.  We recommend that the number of lecturers that have received teacher training during the course of their careers should be set out in the Key Information Set (KIS), along with information about the training received, and we urge HEIs to offer an accredited course on teaching which all academic staff would be required to complete. (paragraph 146) (Recommendation 20)

279.  Student assessment of staff performance and teaching quality should be applied across all HEIs. We recommend that HEIs should have a robust system in place for assessing the quality of teaching including an anonymised and standardised assessment by students. The anonymised results of such assessments should be published in the KIS at a departmental level. QAA should be charged with reviewing whether HEIs have appropriate systems in place to achieve this and that the assessment of teaching quality is fit for purpose. (paragraph 147) (Recommendation 21)


280.  The KIS is a good starting point to help to ensure that students have the information they need to make an informed decision about their courses. However, the value of some of the information offered is not clear or sufficient to enable a student to make an informed choice about the quality of provision delivered by their course. The Government should ensure that the information provided in the KIS gives students the information they need to make an informed choice about the quality of their course. We recommend that the KIS should contain more detailed information on destination data beyond six months, as well as career paths; other measures of quality (including teaching); and more information on outcomes (that is, the skills that students will acquire during their studies). A similar KIS should also be available to postgraduate students with equivalent information on postgraduate provision. (paragraph 159) (Recommendation 22)


281.  Given the limitations on the role that the QAA plays in sign-posting high quality provision, we believe that accreditation of courses by professional bodies would be a sensible way forward. Accreditation may not be possible for courses in areas where there are no professional bodies. However, for those that have professional bodies and do not already have an accreditation scheme, we would urge them to consider setting up such a scheme. (paragraph 170)

282.  In our view, it would be overly burdensome for employers to kite-mark individually hundreds of courses in the UK. A better approach would be to involve industry through the accrediting bodies and for companies to state whether they supported the accreditation. Given the tension between accreditation and kite-marking, we invite the Government to explain the aim of kite-marking and what it is expected to achieve beyond that which accreditation by professional bodies already provides. (paragraph 175) (Recommendation 23)

283.  We recommend that professional bodies, such as the Institute of Physics or the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, should make further efforts to provide accreditation of different STEM subject areas to ensure that students have confidence in the quality of their chosen course and that they will achieve high quality outcomes in terms of skills and knowledge. For those courses where there is less of a clear link with a profession, we recommend that the Science Council consider whether it would be possible to develop a broader system of accreditation to ensure that graduates have the core skill set required of a STEM graduate. We further recommend that the Government should provide support for such activities in the early stages of development until they are fully established. (paragraph 176) (Recommendation 24)


284.  We recommend that the Government, employers and HEIs find a way to incentivise employers, particularly SMEs, to offer more work placements, and encourage more students to take them up. (paragraph 186) (Recommendation 25)

285.  In order to assist HEIs in engaging with employers and in securing placements for their undergraduate and postgraduate students, we further recommend that a central database should be established to post opportunities for placements for undergraduates and postgraduates. We recommend that the Government extend the remit of the Graduate Talent Pool service to include undergraduates and postgraduate placement opportunities. (paragraph 187) (Recommendation 26)


286.  Based on the evidence we have received, we find it difficult to judge the processes used for the assessment of quality in postgraduate provision. Our impression is, however, that the quality of postgraduate provision is measured in an inconsistent way across funding bodies and warrants further scrutiny. (paragraph 192)

287.  We recommend that the expert group established to look at postgraduate provision should examine how the quality of postgraduate teaching provision is assessed to ensure quality and consistency of approach across funding bodies, and consider how measures of quality of postgraduate education that go beyond research excellence might be developed. In particular, we would urge the Research Councils and other postgraduate funding bodies to expand the quality principles that underpin the DTC model to other types of postgraduate funding provision. (paragraph 193) (Recommendation 27)


288.  We recommend that the Government encourage the Research Councils to preserve a variety of PhD delivery models to ensure that the UK's current breadth of expertise in science is maintained and that new areas of science are able to grow. We also recommend that the expert group set up to consider the supply and demand for STEM postgraduate provision considers whether the current provision of funding for doctoral study across funding bodies is sufficient to cover the breadth of excellent research across the UK. (paragraph 201) (Recommendation 28)

Policy reforms


289.  The recent adjustments to the core and margin system may allay some of the concerns about the effect of the HE reforms on STEM provision. However, we invite the Government to explain in their reply to this report on what evidence this change of policy was based and the timescale in which it was implemented. (paragraph 208)

290.  We recommend that HEFCE publish the quantitative evidence on which they base their funding model for public subsidies of STEM subjects with a view to reassuring stakeholders that these subsidies in conjunction with students' fees are sufficient to cover the cost of STEM provision. (paragraph 212)

291.  It is too early to assess the impact of HE reforms on the sector. We recommend that the Government have particular regard to the effect of the reforms on STEM provision. 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 that will not be supported by the market. However, we have some concern that HEFCE may not have sufficient funds to intervene should it be necessary and recommend that the Government ensures that HEFCE will have the necessary resources should these circumstances arise. (paragraph 216) (Recommendation 29)


292.  We are concerned that changes to the immigration rules may reduce the number of overseas students coming to study to the UK and, therefore, the income that HEIs derive from these students to support other activities. This may result in a general reduction of provision of STEM courses that rely on this income to make them viable. (paragraph 227)

293.  The Government have replaced the PSW route with more selective arrangements under Tier 2, notably making a job offer paying more than £20,000 a year a requirement for a visa. The UK Border Agency (UKBA) told us that the limit was set following guidance from the Migration Advisory Committee. It is not, however, clear if this guidance was intended specifically for graduates. We would ask the Migration Advisory Committee to reconsider its advice. We would further ask the Committee to monitor the impact of the changes on both the number of graduates who stay on to work in the UK and on the number who decide not to study here, due to the real or perceived barriers created by the closure of the PSW route. (paragraph 229) (Recommendation 30)

294.  HE is a global market and the UK has to compete with other countries that are positioning themselves to attract international students. The perception that the UK does not welcome students may be having a detrimental effect on recruitment from some countries such as India. The UK must be seen to welcome the brightest and the best and the Government must increase their efforts to dispel perceptions that the UK does not welcome students. We recommend that the Government develop a strategy to send out a more positive message through the UKBA website, immigration agencies and the British Council. (paragraph 233) (Recommendation 31)

295.  The lack of reliable statistical data is a concern because the Government are not able to identify problems with their visa system soon enough to put in place a mitigation plan. Data from HESA is more accurate but by the time it is published it is 18 months out of date. This problem is particularly acute for the HEIs that we spoke to who are reporting that the HE reforms are having a significant impact upon their recruitment of overseas students already. (paragraph 237)

296.  We recommend that the Government working with HEIs, as a matter of urgency, make further efforts to co-ordinate data collection and ensure that data is shared between UKBA and HEIs. In addition, the Government should collect real-time data on the effects of changes to immigration policies in HEIs with a view to setting up a mitigation plan, if necessary, and to enable policy decisions to be based on the latest information. This should be achieved by September 2014. (paragraph 238) (Recommendation 32)

297.  Given the significant contribution that overseas students make to the economy and that the majority leave the UK following their studies and do not therefore contribute significantly to net migration, we recommend, therefore, that the Government make a distinction in the immigration statistics between HE students and other immigrants and uses only the latter category to calculate net migration for policy-making purposes. (paragraph 241) (Recommendation 33)


298.  There is a potential compound effect of policy reforms on stand-alone Masters provision. The new higher fees regime combined with the lack of student finance is a threat to the number of UK domicile students who decide to pursue postgraduate education. Added to which, immigration reforms are already having an impact on certain HEIs who may in turn reduce Masters provision significantly. Little is known of the effect that this "triple whammy" will have on postgraduate provision. By the time the effect is quantified and analysed, it may be too late to put remedial action in place. This reinforces the importance of our recommendation (in paragraph 107) to set up an expert group to consider the supply and demand for postgraduate provision. (paragraph 252)

299.  The risks associated with the HE and immigration reforms are high and potentially costly. The anxieties expressed to us by employers, HEIs and professional bodies are real and we urge the Government to heed them. (paragraph 253)

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