Wakeham: some STEM subjects have concerning employment rates

Soon-to-be-released review into employability has identified the importance of work experience, students’ attitude and accreditation

April 15, 2016
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Overspecialised?: the picture for some subdisciplines, for example in engineering, showed huge variations in unemployment rates

A number of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects have been singled out as leading to poor graduate employment prospects by a major study into why some areas are underperforming.

Sir William Wakeham, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton who led the review, told delegates at a conference in London on 14 April that the numbers of students taking certain subjects were “probably not appropriate” because there were so few jobs for them to go in to afterwards.

His report was commissioned by the government last year to look at why employment prospects in some STEM areas were disappointing.

It looked at data on employment rates after graduation, the proportion of graduates in non-graduate jobs, and those earning below £20,000 a year, as well as collecting the views of universities, professional bodies and industry, he explained to delegates.

Sir William’s presentation on the report – which is set to to be published soon – showed that biological science was one area of concern.

Although its unemployment rate was not particularly high (and actually below average for low-entry-grade universities), “something like 40 per cent” of graduates were in non-graduate jobs, and many were in low-paying occupations, even years after graduation, Sir William said.

For computer science – which has already had its own specific review – unemployment rates were high, particularly for graduates of low-entry-grade universities.

Some subjects had a mixed picture. Chemical engineering graduates had high unemployment rates, but had the highest salary of all engineers. “They can pick and choose when they get a job,” Sir William explained.

Mathematics had “some problems” in terms of graduates in non-graduate jobs, he told the event organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum.  

The overall picture for some subjects disguised big variations in outcome by subdiscipline, he said, and this was particularly true for engineering. For example, there were high unemployment rates for bioengineering graduates, because unless students had a postgraduate degree, “you can’t get employed”, he said.  

Systems engineering graduates also had high unemployment rates. This area was “invented as a degree title when universities were short of student numbers [and] they invented many different degree titles in order to increase the number of students they could take”, he said. “Nobody is any longer employing people from those courses, and it would be better if students didn’t start them.”

Earth, marine and environmental sciences, and agriculture science were also “thought to be of concern” by professional groups spoken to by the review, he said. These subject areas, along with biological sciences, should have their own specific subject reviews, the review found.

The study also found that employers were just as worried about graduates’ “attitude” to work as their “aptitude”, Sir William said. They were said to lack work experience and training in mathematical and statistical skills.

“Students are not engaged with their own career. They don’t think about their career until after the final year examinations…and that is not good,” Sir William said. Students, as well as universities and industry, had to take responsibility for this, he added.

The report suggests that subjects could follow the lead of engineering in rolling out more accreditation programmes. “Where there is good employment, there is strong accreditation,” Sir William said.

Asked whether the numbers of students across different subjects was right, Sir William said: “The balance is probably not appropriate. Of course, in a free market system, which we are operating in and will operate in even more, this is difficult to control, and I do not think any of us want to advocate manpower planning.”


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