A degree of concern? First degrees in science, technology and mathematics

26 October 2006

There have long been concerns that the UK education system may not provide the numbers of skilled people needed for the workforce. This report sets out the background information and initial findings of a project to explore the widespread concerns over the supply of skilled people needed to maintain the UK as a leading knowledge economy. The report concentrates on science, technology and maths (STM) first degree courses in the UK.

The categories under which data are collected inevitably have to be modified from time to time to reflect changes in what is happening in universities. This can make it difficult to compare, for example, the numbers of students taking particular subjects in different years. A central aim of this project was to develop a consistent picture of student numbers over the past decade. The Society and the Office for Science and Innovation (OSI) therefore commissioned the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to reanalyse its original data so as to generate information about the trends in student numbers in STM subjects that, as far as possible, used the same definitions throughout the period. As a result of this valuable collaboration, our report is able to present consistent trends in first degree STM graduates over the last decade.

Based on a detailed analysis of these and other relevant statistics, the report includes a wide range of data on STM A-levels, STM first degree courses and the first destination of STM graduates, and draws attention to:

  • the need to place UK developments in an European and global context, including the contributions that both students and staff from outside the UK make to UK HE;
  • the importance of a high degree of flexibility throughout the education system;
  • the importance of looking in detail at individual disciplines, not just broader subject groupings;
  • the mostly downward trends in numbers taking STM A-levels and undergraduate degrees;
  • HESA's reanalysis of its data, which has shown that the recent apparent large rise in first degree graduates in mathematics and biology is essentially a reflection of changes to the way students on joint courses are attributed to subjects and how subjects are classified, and therefore should not be interpreted at face value;
  • the lack of fluency in basic mathematical skills shown by many entrants to undergraduate courses;
  • the significant premium placed on STM graduate skills by employers.

The report is designed to underpin a further study of the fitness for purpose of UK STM higher education into the middle of the next decade and beyond, Science HE 2015 and beyond.