Last month, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published their report, Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. This was the output from an inquiry announced in September 2011, whose key objectives were stated in the November call for evidence.
“Industry continues to report shortages of STEM graduates in some areas and yet at the same time a substantial proportion of STEM graduates end up working in jobs that do not require a STEM degree. The focus of this inquiry is to explore the reasons for this mismatch and how to ensure that the UK is producing a sufficient supply of STEM graduates to meet all its needs.”
In addition to the supply and demand of STEM graduates, the inquiry would also look into the quality of STEM graduates being produced.
While the main content of the report runs to almost seventy pages, it quickly becomes apparent that the key questions asked of the inquiry remain to be fully answered.
The very definition of “STEM” subjects proved controversial, varying as it does “between different bodies within and outside Government and also from country to country”. For the purpose of the inquiry, the Select Committee adopted the broad Joint Academic Coding System (JACS), although even this was deemed “unsatisfactory” as it includes “courses with little scientific content”.
On the subject of STEM supply and demand, the Select Committee found a “lack of reliable data... [which] makes it very difficult to assess whether there is in fact a shortage of STEM graduates and postgraduates and in which sectors”. Widespread criticism was made of the data collected and methods used by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the company that provides stakeholders “access...to a comprehensive body of reliable statistical information and analysis about UK higher education”.
As such, scrutiny of the supply of STEM graduates was lacking, and relied on the criticised HESA data. With respect to the demand of STEM graduates, the Select Committee focussed on reports and evidence provided by, among others, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which indicated that “employers are still having trouble recruiting STEM graduates”. They referenced a 2009 BIS study which suggested that the shortage was specific to areas such as engineering and IT, with other evidence also highlighting shortages in IT, engineering and the electronics sectors.
Examining the HESA data for postgraduate supply and demand, one key concern was that UK domesticated student numbers were increasing at a slower rate than overseas students. Indeed, “42% of PhD students who finished their doctoral degrees in 2010 were from overseas”. However, outside of research, little was known about “what roles postgraduate provision is playing”.
With the key focus of the inquiry derailed by a lack of data, the Select Committee considered related topics. For example, why do almost half of STEM graduates go to work in non-STEM areas? (This had already been the subject of a 2011 BIS research paper, STEM graduates in non-STEM jobs, which determined there was no “clear or simple main reason”.) Similarly, are the best graduates attracted to STEM jobs? (“The evidence is only anecdotal.”)
The remaining two thirds of the report focussed on two topics: the assessment of quality in Higher Education (HE), as “the mismatch in supply and demand for STEM graduates relates in part to a lack of high quality graduates in many sectors, not necessarily the overall number”; and the effect of policy reforms on the HE sector.
Thirty three recommendations were made by the Select Committee. The following eight (paraphrased) directly related to the core aims of the inquiry:
- Define STEM properly (recommendation 1)
- Appoint a body to collect data on the supply and demand for STEM graduates (9)
- Include data for postgraduate education in the above (10)
- Commission a government study to examine the first destination of graduates and the reasons for their career choice (11)
- Suggest that HE institutions study the career progression of graduates from “softer” science courses (12)
- The appointed body (from recommendations 9 and 10) to make recommendations on which subjects should be considered Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS), but the government to make the decision on which subjects are SIVS (13, 14)
- The government to set up an expert group to look at STEM postgraduate provision (15)
The remaining 25 recommendations were associated with:
- The study of maths at school, STEM teachers and careers advice (7 recommendations)
- Quality and skills gaps (13 recommendations, including two related to industrial placements)
- Policy reform (5 recommendations)
Arguably, the inquiry was unable to identify the scale of any mismatch in the supply and demand of STEM graduates. While the recommendation to set up bodies and initiate studies to provide relevant data is laudable, it will likely be at least 2-3 years before any meaningful data is available. In the discussion of unmet demand for STEM graduates, physical sciences (indeed, any science subjects) were conspicuous by their absence – emphasising the point that the definition of STEM subjects is not only too all-encompassing, but irrelevant to this discussion. It is time to deconstruct STEM into its components of science, technology, engineering and maths, and allow each specialism to investigate and address its own issues of supply, demand and quality.