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20/09/2014

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Crucial to success

Phil Willis demands more STEM graduates.

Phil Willis demands more STEM graduates.

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There are few times in politics when there is an overwhelming consensus. Yet the belief that science, technology and innovation lie at the heart of our economic recovery has emerged like a giant beacon of hope. The Government’s 2011 Plan for Growth may have had its critics, but there was political, academic and industrial agreement that developing and utilising science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills was crucial to the UK’s future success.

Armed with this level of agreement, the Lords Science and Technology Committee launched its inquiry into the teaching of STEM subjects in our universities. After all, if this is where the engine room of recovery was to be developed, shouldn’t it be capable of robust examination?  It was, and there is a great deal to be proud of as our universities come to terms with rapidly changing demographics, global competition and the largest revolution in student funding since the emergence of mass higher education in 1963.

What was equally clear is that the current status quo was totally insufficient if the UK was to develop the STEM talent needed to power our future health and wealth requirements.

Remedial coaching for triple-A* students

Some thirty recommendations addressed severe challenges in the system: none more important than our woeful failure to address the school-higher education interface in maths, identified in 2006 in the Royal Society’s report A Degree of Concern.

Despite valuable efforts by successive governments to improve both the teaching and take-up of maths, we still have the lowest proportion of 16-18 year olds studying maths in the developed world.

What’s more, those who do fall far short of what is required to undertake graduate studies in key subjects of engineering and physics.  Indeed, when Cambridge and Imperial report they have to give triple-A* students remedial coaching in maths, it is evident something is wrong. Perhaps even more worrying was the finding that 70 per cent of Biology and 40 per cent of Chemistry students had not even studied maths beyond GCSE!

Lack of response

Disappointingly, the government dismissed our recommendations to make maths compulsory for 16-18 year olds. It was disappointing, too, that universities themselves did not step up to the plate when encouraged to take the lead in designing and implementing new more demanding A2 examinations.  By not responding to the challenge for all post-16 students to study some form of maths, the government is seriously undermining the need for a more STEM-orientated workforce.

Of course, if the UK were producing an over-supply of STEM graduates, perhaps the government could justify its somewhat laissez-faire approach. But this is clearly not the case. The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) estimates that, by 2020, an additional 200,000 engineering professionals will be required; yet on current projections we will be able to provide at best 50 per cent of these. The CBI in 2010 forecast a need for 600,000 professionally trained STEM staff by 2017, concluding that 40 per cent more STEM graduates were needed.

Emerging economies

This is not a new problem. Harold Wilson, contributing to the BBC Horizon programme in 1969, spoke of the need to train and retain more STEM graduates.  Sir Gareth Roberts in his Set for Success report in 2002 made similar claims. Both did so when the UK was producing more than its global share of STEM graduates. That has dramatically changed.

The supply of STEM graduates is now a top priority for the emerging economies of India, China, Brazil, Singapore, and Malaysia, who are now producing the majority of STEM graduates.

If the UK is to utilise its world-class science base fully, its innovation brilliance and its engineering know-how, it needs a STEM workforce fit for purpose.

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Lord Willis
Lord Willis of Knaresborough is a member of the Lords Science and Technology Committee
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