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Should university applicants decide our industrial policy?

George Blair  02-02-2015

Employers have complained for many years that UK universities consistently educate too few science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students. This, firms argue, constrains their growth.  In addition, some of the best graduates are lost to science and technology, as they write algorithms for better paying financial institutions.  

On the other hand, universities educate a huge oversupply of graduates in disciplines such as psychology, media studies and sports science.  This is not to argue that subjects be assessed purely through an employer’s eyes.   Subjects such as at the classics, history or relatively obscure languages, do have their place, too, as they contribute to the breadth of learning.  The point is we should have fewer students in disciplines where there is a large oversupply and more in STEM subjects.

How have we got to where we are?  While we have an excellent history of educating an elite of world class STEM researchers and workers, their numbers are small as are those of middle rank and technicians.  The long shadow of empire with its need for highly able administrators still influences our education.  The city of London grew in importance with the flood of capital from our overseas investments and huge exports.  In contrast to this, countries like Germany venerate engineers with impressive titles are much more likely to have a dominant role in company boards. 

Our lack of STEM students is reinforced by student choice driving our education system.  If they don't want to study STEM subjects, then universities provide fewer places and expand more popular disciplines, regardless of employment prospects.  Therefore, the universities are not at fault, they are merely responding to market forces, as intended.  However, the market should reflect the needs of employers as well as the wishes of students.  

What can we do about it?  One option would be to attract more students to STEM subjects by reducing course fees.  However,  this is unlikely to be enough.  Where would enough suitably qualified applicants come from?  

We also need more investment below university level.  University technical colleges  for the 14 to 18 age group and an excellent initiative.  However, they are a drop in the ocean.  Every school should offer weekend STEM classes, which could be remedial and advanced streams.  There could be prizes for the very best students and those who have made the biggest improvement.  There could also be national awards for the best young mathematician, scientist, etc.  This would show that these disciplines are valued.  Schools should also be encouraged to set up chess and computer clubs, with competition between different schools.  

Colleges should offer STEM course during the day and night for those above school age to improve their employment prospects.

Shouldn’t this be in every political party manifesto?  If not, we should campaign for it to be so.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/skills-not-schools-lord-baker-unveils-utcs-new-deal-for-teenage-learning-8880050.html  accessed 22 January 2015

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