STEM focus is an economic own goal, LSE head warns

'Obsession' will leave top social science faculties bereft of UK students, writes Simon Baker

July 8, 2010

Top-performing social science and humanities faculties could end up with almost no UK students if the "obsession" with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) funding continues, the director of the London School of Economics has warned.

Howard Davies said that the LSE could be forced to skew its recruitment even more towards non-European Union students if government spending cuts were distributed unevenly to protect STEM subjects.

Speaking to Times Higher Education before he addressed the Association of Graduate Recruiters conference on 5 July, Mr Davies said the focus on STEM was "economically irrational" when the market was demanding graduates in areas such as finance, media and law. "We are in danger of having a university policy that pretends the economy is a different shape than it is," he said. "If we distort our public investment to starve the social sciences, this is actually an own goal."

Mr Davies said the LSE suffered after the 2008 research assessment exercise because of the STEM focus - its economics department received a funding cut despite being the best outside the US.

"The government's message is, 'It doesn't matter how good you are, you are going to get less money because we are skewing the funding into STEM subjects'. I think this is economically irrational," he said.

Mr Davies said that a continued STEM focus, coupled with a massive cut to the teaching grant, could lead institutions to recruit more foreign students "to make ends meet".

"You'll find you're getting almost no British students educated in the top institutions, which is a very unwelcome outcome," he warned.

Already at the LSE in 2008-09, more than half the school's 8,6 full-time students were from outside the EU, accounting for more than two-thirds of tuition-fee income.

Mr Davies added: "At the margin, the choice will be do we simply not recruit good people and accept a decline in quality or do we take on more overseas students, and I think if push comes to shove that is what the faculty will decide because they will not wish to see the LSE decline into mediocrity."

Higher tuition fees for international students were also an option, Mr Davies said, as the real-term cost of courses had fallen for applicants from places such as China.

"I think we could increase fees in those markets without damaging the quality of the applications we receive and without giving the impression that we are just gouging them, because actually we are quite a good deal at the moment."

Meanwhile, Mr Davies said the sector needed to consider "rationalising provision" and to create efficiencies if it wanted to survive government spending cuts.

"Whether that requires mergers or acquisitions or closures I don't know, but I certainly think it requires much better techniques of collaboration between universities," he said.

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