Students on A-level courses have trebled in number in the past 30 years but the proportion of 18-year-olds taking science and mathematics has stuck stubbornly at 5 per cent, according to a study published this week.
This means that the new students taking A levels are choosing not to specialise in science, although they may take one science alongside their non-science A levels.
Trends in Higher Education, by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of Brunel University, says that the proportion of students taking A levels who choose science and mathematics declined from 44 per cent in 1962 to under 17 per cent in 1994.
But more are mixing science with arts or social science A levels, Only a fifth of these students go on to science or technology courses at university. The number of 18-year-olds has also fallen by a third.
Professor Smithers says the figures show why it has not been possible for science and engineering in universities to expand as much as the humanities, social sciences, and newer courses in media studies and tourism.
The study, commissioned by the Council for Industry and Higher Education, says attempts to expand engineering have failed because the subject has out-run the supply of suitably qualified students, attracting fewer of the top A level students now than ten years ago.
Only 21 per cent of entrants on to engineering and technology courses in 1995 achieved a total A-level score above 21 compared to 75 per cent in medicine and dentistry, 42 per cent in law and 41 per cent in languages.
Least demanding is education, where just 7 per cent of entrants score 21 or more A level points.
Thirty per cent of school-leavers went into higher education in 1994 but it is predicted that 60 per cent of 18-year-olds will enter higher education sometime in their life.
What trainers told the study
No assessor or trainer would go public with their criticisms of NVQs but the report is littered with anonymous admissions: "If someone has achieved the practical competencies and is a little short on knowledge we let them through." (assessor)
"Fifty per cent of our time is taken up by assessment, most of the remainder goes in training. There is no time to give a broad education or to correct educational difficulties. The construction industry training board withdrew some students because we were giving them numeracy and literacy assistance. They told us we must just concentrate on competencies." (college head of construction) "The old system was better. The standards were better. You knew that if someone had done the core and specific parts, no matter where, it would be the same standard." (college lecturer) "I view paintwork at a metre distance and ask each student 'are you happy with it?' Some say no, so I thank them and acknowledge I have seen the faults, and I will often pass them." (assessor) "We can't be too rigid or they would vote with their feet - they come from differing experiences and attitudes." (assessor).