The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has called for immediate action to ensure enough young people study Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.
It reports that a lack of action will result in the Government failing to meet its objectives to drive economic growth through education and hi-tech industries as identified in its Plan for Growth.
A high level of numeracy is of increasing importance to employers in hi-tech industries and the Committee were shocked to discover that many students starting STEM degrees, even those with A-Level maths qualifications, lack the maths skills required to undertake their studies.
To help remedy this, the Committee recommends that maths should be compulsory for all students post-16. They also call on universities to toughen up entry requirements for maths in STEM courses and play a bigger role in setting up the maths curriculum.
The report stresses the important role STEM postgraduates play in economic growth by driving innovation, undertaking research and providing entrepreneurship.
However the Committee say that the Government is failing to articulate how they will support postgraduate STEM provision in order to realise their plans for growth, explain the benefits of undertaking STEM postgraduate study to students or improve understanding about the demand from industry for people with STEM qualifications.
The Committee reported said that the Government’s higher education reforms is producing a “triple whammy” effect, with higher fees, a lack of student finance and a decline in the number of overseas students leading to a drop in educational quality.
The report calls for the establishment of an expert group, including substantial employer involvement, to formulate a strategy for STEM postgraduate education to help underpin the Government’s plans for growth.
The Committee also considered the recent changes to immigration rules and say that it has led to a perception that the UK does not welcome students.
The report recommends that a distinction is made in official immigration statistics between university students and other immigrants with only the latter group used to calculate net migration.
This would reflect the fact that students are often temporary residents in the UK and would allow the Government to reconcile their conflicting policies to reduce immigration and to expand Higher Education to promote economic growth.
Lord Willis, chairman of the Lords sub-committee on higher education in STEM Subjects, said: “The Government has made clear that education and hi-tech industry is vital to its plans to generate economic growth. However without a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce that will not be possible. It is vital therefore that higher education in the UK has a strong STEM sector and is able to produce the graduates and postgraduates hi-tech industries will demand.”
Lord Willis said he was surprised to hear that many undergraduates have to be given remedial maths lessons when they start university. “The Government should now make it compulsory for every pupil to study maths beyond 16,” he added. “This will not only help STEM students but ensure a level of numeracy for everyone that will be increasingly required by employers in the future.”
There has been a 3% drop in engineering graduates between 2003 and 2010, despite growth in automotive and aerospace sectors in the UK.
A survey by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers earlier this year found that 76% of manufacturers are recruiting, but that 41% are struggling to find people with the right skills.
“The Government is currently cutting funding and face-to-face careers counselling in schools,” said Dr Colin Brown, director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). “It should instead be boosting funding and encouraging the involvement of industry.”