The Lords Committee report on STEM skills in higher education was published this week, with worrying findings on the teaching of Mathematics and Computer Science. Policy makers should seize on these statistics and articulate and clearer vision and more fundamental vision for technology and hi-tech skills.
Without a doubt STEM postgraduates play an important role in driving economic growth by innovation, research and entrepreneurship. It is difficult to see how the UK will drive economic growth through education and hi-tech industries without more graduates.
The Committee confirmed that many students starting STEM degrees, even those with A-level maths qualifications, lack the maths required to undertake studies in subjects such as engineering and physics and are having to take remedial courses. The lack of key skills extends from too few young people studying maths beyond GCSE to too few students taking postgraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, computer science and maths subjects.
Moreover, the rising number of graduates in “soft sciences” e.g. forensic and sport science have soared and that these graduates are less employable than those with degrees in more traditional sciences.
The Committee recommends that Maths should be compulsory for all students post-16 – a rec very unlikely to be achieved without massive investment in teachers, and support for schools.
The worrying drop is unsurprising considering the extremely low level of entries to Computing A-level in our schools.
Previous to the Lords report, the assumption was that students were being advised to study Maths A-level, not Computing. Yet the report shocking shows that only 39% of Computer Science HE students studied Maths at A-level (Fig 1, p23) – compared with 98% of Physics students. We probably need to question the rigour of ‘Computer Science’ at UK universities as well.
A proper, unified strategy is needed here: from primary school, through universities to the world of work. Policy makers must devote resources to teacher training and foster an environment where schools link up with local employers far more than they do now, starting with agreeing the steps set out in out Call-to-Action.