Are STEM admissions processes hindering our diversity efforts?

The requirement for potential STEM students to have studied traditionally related subjects such as maths and physics seems outdated and unnecessary, says Judy Raper

Judy Raper's avatar
8 Mar 2022
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University admissions policies could be hold back diversity efforts for students wanting to study STEM subjects

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It’s no secret that the ongoing lack of diversity in STEM industries causes significant problems. Recent studies have shown that companies with more female employees and with women in leadership positions financially outperform those that are less gender diverse. I want to stress that gender is just one example of diversity, and much of what I argue below also applies to other under-represented groups. We’ve known about the need to diversify these industries for a long time, yet little has changed over the past 30 years.

Many are trying to fix this. Take initiatives such as STEMAZING, which inspires young women and girls by elevating and promoting diverse role models working in STEM. Or sector bodies such as the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is trying to paint a broader picture of industry and shift away from the stereotypes that have so far failed to encourage diversity. We’re starting to learn, through emerging specialisms that are more focused on helping people, such as environmental and biomedical engineering, that these areas tend to attract more women, so emphasising this quality of the sciences across other specialisms may be an area to explore.

While these efforts should make a positive difference, the fact remains that some of the new candidates inspired to follow STEM careers will be restricted from enrolling on to the relevant degree programmes because they don’t have the education backgrounds that traditionally comprise STEM-based entry requirements. For example, a student might be inspired to become an engineer to help tackle climate change thanks to new marketing that highlights how engineers help people and solve problems. However, because she opted to study history over maths at A level, she’s unable to pursue engineering at degree level.

Eliminating barriers to diversity within STEM degree programmes

Of course, it is unarguable that the knowledge students gain while studying maths and physics at level 3 lays strong foundations for success and is needed to fully understand certain modules in an engineering degree, especially in terms of the technical requirements of STEM subjects.

However, is it sufficient to assess this independently as part of the admissions process and build the rest into the degree programme, rather than relying on students having prior knowledge? If a candidate can demonstrate a basic understanding of how engineers use mathematical principles to solve problems, why should it matter if they have an arts background? What’s more, given the technological advances we’ve seen in recent years, engineers need only to understand the application of complex calculations, rather being able to carry them out for themselves day to day. Could we go as far as to suggest that the traditional admissions pathways into STEM are outdated?

Reviewing university admissions processes

There has long been discussion about the fairest way to handle university admissions, so does the sector have an opportunity to modify the traditional pathways into certain degree subjects, and, if so, what might this process look like for STEM subjects?

For engineering degrees, I would suggest replacing the requirement for maths and physics qualifications with an aptitude test. This isn’t a totally new idea – some universities have removed the requirement for a physics qualification, and fewer still accept candidates without maths. But this is rare, and most candidates without these cannot study engineering. Yet, passing a tailored numerical test is enough to show that they have an aptitude for the mathematical and scientific principles that underpin engineering and gives them the groundwork to then develop this to workplace competency as part of their degree.

An updated admissions process could also give higher education providers an opportunity to assess candidates on the most valuable workplace attributes. A conversation with industry employers will tell you that there are clear skills shortages in the engineering sector, with new graduates falling short when it comes to “work-ready” skills such as creativity, teamwork, social awareness and problem-solving. We shouldn’t disregard the importance of basic competency in maths and physics, but we may not be placing enough value on these other key skills. In fact, granting places on engineering courses to candidates with maths qualifications while rejecting candidates with more creative subject qualifications makes even less sense when these skills gaps are considered.

A new process

With the subject/qualifications barrier removed, a greater number of capable students could apply to study a STEM subject such as engineering. Degree programmes can be designed to incorporate all the necessary knowledge and skills development, and candidates without the relevant qualifications can sit a numerical test to ensure that they will be able to understand these aspects of the course once they enrol.

Interviews and presentations assessing candidates’ aptitude towards other important workplace skills would encourage applications from a broader pool of candidates by placing more value on the diverse range of skills needed. At The Engineering & Design Institute London (TEDI-London), we’ve already adopted a different approach to the admissions process and achieved a more diverse student population, of which 50 per cent are female. For the sake of diversifying STEM workforces so they can better serve society, perhaps it is time for others to do the same.

Judy Raper has been dean and CEO of TEDI-London since its incorporation in June 2019. She joined TEDI-London after a sustained career in academia in Australia and the US, during which she was named one of Australia’s 100 most influential engineers, one of Australia’s 10 leading female engineers in 2019 and received an award for leadership in engineering named in her honour from UNSW Sydney.


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