Let us keep a sense of proportion

October 24, 1997

Spotlight on science: Tessa Blackstone defends her view that the proportion of students studying science and engineering should fall. Readers respond. Peter Swinnerton-Dyer suggests a different solution

Following the article ("Open all hours for the masses", THES, October 17) , based on essays I wrote as master of Birkbeck, I should like to make clear my views on the place of science and engineering in higher education.

As the extract from those essays made clear, we need top-class scientists and engineers. There is no doubt of that or of the vital role of universities and colleges in educating scientists and engineers at the highest levels. It would also be a matter for concern, to me and to the government generally, if few of our brightest students wanted to study science or engineering at university or subsequently to pursue research in these subjects. Labour's Road to the Manifesto document on lifelong learning made clear that a world-class science base is vital to our national prosperity.

But that is different to arguing that we must increase the already significant proportions of young people studying science and engineering in higher education, regardless of their qualifications to do so, their motivation, their likely destinations after graduation and the effect an increase would have on the quality of existing provision. I am dismayed when I hear of institutions with places to spare on science and engineering courses which, under financial pressure, admit students with poor qualifications, when those same universities could admit more well-qualified applicants in other subjects. Industry, particularly those firms heavily committed to scientific research at the leading edge - has made clear to me that its concern lies primarily with the quality of the science and engineering graduates that it recruits, not the quantity that are available in the labour market. OECD indicators show that, in general, the supply of science and engineering graduates entering the young labour force in the UK is well above the OECD average and higher than that in North America and most countries in the European Union including Germany.

It is for reasons such as these that I do not believe that we should expand university science and engineering courses at all costs. For the plain fact is that it does cost significantly more to educate science and engineering than other graduates, and it is likely to cost increasingly more as they will need to be educated on ever more sophisticated and expensive equipment. It is critical that we use any additional resources we have in this area to sustain high quality provision. If increasing numbers of science and engineering graduates were to go straight into jobs unconnected with their subject of study, I believe it would then be right to question whether we should spend scarce resources on encouraging yet more people to graduate in these subjects.

This is all the more so at a time higher education funding has been in crisis. We all know that the last Government left universities in a seriously underfunded state. While full-time student numbers have risen by some 70 per cent, funding per student has fallen by a quarter since 1989: that has affected all students, including those studying science and engineering. The changes to the funding of higher education that we are proposing will raise the money needed to enable us to improve quality for all currently in higher education and to resume growth. The Pounds 165 million package of measures which we have already announced for higher education in 1998/99 ensures that universities do not face cutbacks at the level planned by the last government, while allowing a start to be made on enabling more people to benfit from higher education. Some of the extra funding will be to meet the urgent need to improve scientific infrastructure.

Simply increasing the proportion of science and engineering places in higher education without regard to quality of education, student choices or qualifications makes little sense to me. I do not believe it will produce future Nobel prize-winners of the stature of Professor Sir Harry Kroto.

Baroness Blackstone is minister of state for education and employment in the House of Lords.

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