Leader: Enough of STEM's hard sell

The government is mistaken to continue arguing that science graduates alone are the key to delivering economic growth

August 26, 2010

The mantra that the economy can be resuscitated only by producing more students studying STEM subjects has been passed effortlessly like a baton between governments in the race to save the nation from going bust.

In January, Lord Mandelson, business secretary at that time, told the House of Lords that science, technology, engineering and maths skills were "crucial in securing future prosperity".

In July, his successor Vince Cable gave a speech at London South Bank University in which he said that the CBI "estimates" that by 2014 there will be unmet demand for 775,000 roles needing STEM graduates and that some 60 per cent of businesses "expect" problems recruiting STEM-trained staff in the next three years. Note the words in inverted commas.

"These figures", he continued, "raise very difficult questions about the mix of skills and the choices students are making." Despite making clear that it was not the government's role to decide what students should study, he said the government "will send signals about the wider national interest through, for example, differential funding of STEM subjects."

True enough, the 10,000 extra university places created for 2010-11 were in STEM and the other priority subjects identified in jobs and skills strategies. The Higher Education Funding Council for England joined in with its Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS) scheme, which incentivises universities to shift student places away from lower price-band subjects into STEM and modern languages.

Back in October last year, Michael Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, argued in these pages that the CBI was wrong to state that the UK had a shortage of STEM graduates (not to mention that teaching funding should be diverted to "enable the delivery of high-quality and relevant STEM education"), a key theme of its report Stronger Together - Businesses and Universities in Turbulent Times. "That such a shortage exists may be true, but the possibility is prima facie counter-intuitive," he said, citing Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures on employed science graduates and relatively low average starting salary levels (a higher first salary would indicate a shortage).

Almost one year on, it appears that he was right. A study by Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at the University of Essex, shows that there is "no significant relationship" between a nation's economic growth rate and the number of students studying STEM subjects.

Such confirmation is welcome, but it seems that universities had already been treating the lack of critical analysis from the government with the contempt it deserved. A Freedom of Information request to Hefce revealed that although £10 million had been set aside for SIVS across England (an amount scheduled to rise to £30 million by 2012-13), only 1,700 places were moved, well below the target of 3,000 to 6,000.

Perhaps it is the government that is most in need of STEM graduates, to inject scientific rigour into its thinking and help it to see the key point of Professor Whiteley's research, which highlighted a "very clear positive relationship between investing in higher education and achieving high growth rates". The message for policymakers is clear: do your research properly, forget the focus on specific subjects and invest in higher education full stop.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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