Plugging the science gap

Adam Bushby finds that a shortage of science graduates is a far from fictional problem

It's a narrative we've become accustomed to hearing in recent times. It's a problem the government is all too aware of and one which the Lords Science and Technology Committee issued a rallying cry on in July. The UK has a skills shortage in the sciences and far from pennies dropping, it's now time for them to be spent on reversing the alarming trend. Science fiction, this is not.

Closed for business

With the government preoccupied with driving GDP as it looks to dodge the economic storm clouds currently circling, the news that between 2003 and 2010 the number of UK students graduating in engineering dropped by 3 per cent while the number of those undertaking computer science courses fell by 27 per cent will come as a bitter pill to swallow.

The causes of the problem are three-fold, according to the committee's report. A reduction in the number of visas issued to foreign students, it warned, has been doing serious damage to future skills in both maths and science. Far from the "open for business" rhetoric associated with the UK government in recent times, there are fears that potential maths and science students from outside the UK are being held at arm's length due to strict immigration rules, which also means that educational institutions are losing out on valuable funding.

Higher university fees were the second obstacle cited in the report, with the third being a lack of student finance. Indeed, just this week, the Independent Commission on Fees found that 37,000 fewer students applied for English universities this year, a drop of 8.8 per cent on 2010, after tuition fees tripled.

The skills gap is not a new problem, however. As far back as 2006, then chancellor Gordon Brown promised radical action in order to remedy the science skills shortfall. A £30.5 million war chest was made available in that year's budget, aimed at recruiting some 3,000 additional science teachers across the UK, as well as funding science clubs in 250 schools. At the time, the director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE), Dr Peter Cotgreave, said: "Gordon Brown mentioned the words 'science' and 'scientific' at least 17 times - more than in any of his previous budgets - and we welcome this focus. But he didn't do much to plug the massive shortage of maths and physics teachers."

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skill's Plan for Growth manifesto from 2011 was also unequivocal in its message: "If we do not act now, jobs will be lost, our country will become poorer and we will find it difficult to afford the public services we all want. If we do not wake up to the world around us, our standard of living will fall, not rise."

Placing critical importance on education and relying on the hi-tech industry to create jobs and prosperity in the UK, the Plan for Growth goes on to trumpet the fact that "the UK is the world's second largest exporter of services. It has a world-class research base with more top-ranking universities than any country, except the US. If these and other strengths are harnessed, more successful British companies can compete in global markets, develop innovative products and services, and so create new jobs and rising prosperity". But if this vision is to become reality, then it's clear that a change of tack is needed.

Do the math

And so to the remedies. For one, it was recommended that maths should be made compulsory for all students beyond the age of 16. Lord Willis, chairman of the Lords Sub-Committee on Higher Education in STEM subjects, explained: "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." The benefits to students and industry would be obvious, but the logistics may not be straightforward.

The report also backed the forging of stronger links between government and employers in order to establish a definitive list of skills and competencies that each STEM graduate should possess. This grounding in the needs of industry would undoubtedly help students develop a skillset much more in line with the practical demands of the workplace.

Perhaps most crucially, the report recommended the creation of a single body responsible for producing analysis and commentary on where STEM shortages were appearing. The upside of this step would be the arming of potential students with information on whether the course they wish to take is the best option for them in the context of the jobs market.

Last, the committee voiced its concern over the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)'s lack of information relating to which institutions are offering the STEM courses most valued by employers. By offering courses accredited by professional bodies, standards should rise.

It's hoped that implementing these steps will result in a conveyer belt of suitable graduates into industry, but the requirement for better STEM graduates is matched by the need to create more STEM jobs - a scenario the government must put its efforts into achieving. For if the career paths are built, the students will surely follow.