An academic believes he has found evidence to refute the government's case that increased university provision of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects is needed to aid the economy.
There is "no significant relationship" between a nation's economic growth rate and the number of STEM students, according to an analysis by Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at the University of Essex.
In January, the then business secretary, Lord Mandelson, told the House of Lords that STEM skills were "crucial in securing future prosperity", hence the government was "opening up opportunities in universities and beyond".
Professor Whiteley took from the Penn Database information on economic growth in 2000-08 in 30 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and set it alongside Unesco data on the number of students studying different types of subjects - broken down into categories including arts, social sciences, science and engineering - averaged for the same period.
"It turns out that there is no significant relationship between enrolments in particular disciplines and economic growth across these OECD countries," Professor Whiteley said. "For example, the correlation between the percentage of students enrolled in engineering and manufacturing courses and economic growth is a negligible 0.11 - in other words, no relationship at all."
Professor Whiteley also plotted a graph showing the relationship between economic growth in 28 OECD countries and enrolments in all subjects per 100,000 population, averaged over the same period as the other data.
This showed a 0.46 correlation, Professor Whiteley said, and a "very clear positive relationship between investing in higher education and achieving high growth rates".
He added: "The important point for policymakers is that they should invest in higher education in general, not necessarily in particular subjects."
Scientists had mounted a "perfectly understandable lobbying exercise" for STEM, Professor Whiteley said, but their requests should not be granted "if there is no evidence that what they are after does any good".
Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics, told Times Higher Education last month that the focus on STEM was "economically irrational" when the market was demanding graduates in areas such as finance, media and law.
The 10,000 extra university places created by the government for 2010-11 are in STEM and other priority subjects identified in jobs and skills strategies.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has also developed the Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS) scheme, offering universities funding to shift student places away from lower price-band subjects into STEM and modern languages.
Figures gathered by THE, following a Freedom of Information request to Hefce, show that business, law, sociology, English and history were the main areas where universities proposed cutting student places to create extra STEM provision.
Of 33 institutions that applied for funding, 11 proposed moving places away from business subjects, nine from law subjects, six from sociology, five from history and five from English.
Across England, only 1,700 places were moved, below Hefce's original target of 3,000 to 6,000. Hefce had set aside funding of £10 million for SIVS, scheduled to rise to £20 million in 2011-12 and £30 million in 2012-13.
A Hefce spokesman said the scheme arose because the government sees the subjects as "strategically important, with their economic significance being one aspect of this, and most crucially we determined that they were vulnerable".
Sir Alan Langlands, Hefce chief executive, told this year's Association of University Administrators conference that support for STEM would avoid the situation of "five to six years ago (when) some perfectly reasonable departments of chemistry and physics were having to close because there weren't the student numbers to support them".
Michael Thorne, vice-chancellor of Anglia Ruskin University, said the real issue was a lack of student demand for science subjects at A level.
He said universities' desire to "follow the money" on SIVS "will always be moderated by the (undergraduate) demand issue, which is why there was really only a token response to the call for the shift. No doubt the incentives will be increased over time."
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