Sum of our fears: peers decry maths standards

Universities need to toughen up the mathematical content of their entry requirements for science students if employers’ needs are to be met.

July 24, 2012

This is one of the conclusions of a report by the Lords Science and Technology Committee on the academy’s provision of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

According to Baron Willis of Knaresborough, chair of the Lords sub-committee on higher education in STEM subjects, successive governments have recognised that high-quality STEM provision is crucial for driving economic growth.

“But there seems to be a major mismatch between the supply of STEM graduates and the demands of employers,” he said.

“The CBI says its members have real difficulty in recruiting high-quality STEM graduates, yet we have also heard there are significant numbers of STEM graduates unemployed.”

Part of the problem, Lord Willis added, was that a large proportion of recent rises in STEM graduate numbers was accounted for by non-traditional “soft” science subjects, such as sports science, which were less valued by employers.

But he said his committee was “gobsmacked” to discover that many undergraduates in traditional “hard science” subjects had not studied maths at A level, while even those who had often lacked sufficient mathematical knowledge for their chosen university courses.

“When you have the vice-chancellor of [the University of] Cambridge saying: ‘We get nothing but A* students, yet we have to do remedial maths for them to engage with engineering and physics,’ there is something seriously wrong with the system,” Lord Willis said.

The report recommends that universities require all applicants for STEM courses to have A-level maths. It adds that all sixth formers should be required to study maths in some appropriate form beyond the age of 16.

Another recommendation is that an expert committee be established to monitor the effect of the government’s higher education reforms on postgraduate provision.

The report expresses particular concern about taught master’s courses and says student loans should be extended to such programmes, with an earnings threshold of £15,000 for repayment.

The report also echoes universities’ calls for overseas students to be exempted from official immigration figures in order to dispel the perception that the UK no longer welcomes foreign applicants.

Other suggestions include a review of the remit of the Quality Assurance Agency to put it in a better position to drive up university standards – partly with the help of industry and professional bodies.

Meanwhile, universities should set up accredited teaching courses and require all their academics to complete them, the report says. The numbers to have done so should be included in the Key Information Sets that universities must provide to prospective students from this autumn.

The report adds that KIS data should also include the results of anonymised assessment of teaching standards by students.

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