Science graduates 'lack skills needed by business'

Engineering student using computer at Imperial College London The report looked at engineering and other science degree courses

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Universities are not producing enough science graduates with the skills needed by UK industry, a report says.

The Lords Science and Technology Committee calls for immediate action to boost student numbers in science, technology, engineering and maths at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Too many students start science courses with weak maths skills, it says.

Report chairman Lord Willis said he was "gobsmacked" by figures which showed few who had studied maths beyond GCSE.

The report notes that the government's Plan for Growth attached great importance to education and the hi-tech industry to create jobs and prosperity.

Skill shortage

But it highlights a lack of key skills which extends from too few young people studying maths beyond GCSE to too few students taking postgraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects.

The sub-committee that produced the report said they were shocked that so many Stem undergraduates did not have A-level mathematics.

The figures showed that around 70% of biology undergraduates, 38% of chemistry and economics undergraduates and 10% of engineering students did not have A-level maths.

The report team even found evidence that even an A* in A-level mathematics was no guarantee that students would be able to cope with a university science course.

Lord Willis said: "When you have a university like Cambridge saying that even with an A* in mathematics we are having to give remedial maths in order to study engineering there is something not quite right if we are going to produce the very best to compete with the world.

"In reality the quality of the Stem graduates coming out of universities does not meet the requirements of industry and in fact is ultimately not even likely to meet the requirements of academia."

The report says that, without action, the government risks failing to meet its objective of driving economic growth through education and hi-tech industries.

It recommends that maths should be compulsory for all students after 16 and calls for universities to toughen their maths requirements for entry to Stem courses and to get more involved in the school maths curriculum.

Sir William Wakeham of the Royal Academy of Engineering, a specialist adviser to the committee, said the pharmaceutical industry in particular needed biology graduates with good statistical skills to analyse the effects of new drugs.

The report also urges universities to improve the quality of their own teaching and to involve industry in the content of Stem courses to ensure graduates are employable.

'Soft' sciences

The committee raises concerns that graduates of "soft" sciences such as forensic or sport science are less employable than those with degrees in traditional subjects like chemistry.

Despite this, the report says the number of UK students taking "soft" sciences has soared. Graduates in sport science, for example, more than doubled to more than 8,000 between 2003 and 2010.

During the same period, the number of engineering graduates fell by 3% to 12,080 and of computer science graduates by 27% to 11,400.

The report says the government is not doing enough to attract bright students to postgraduate Stem courses.

It suggests that recent reforms to university finances and student funding, together with controls on overseas students, could weaken the quality and number of postgraduate courses at UK universities.

The government said: "Every sector of the economy relies on universities to produce highly skilled graduates.‬

"The numbers of Stem students are going up, and application rates remain strong. The Government are committed to building on this. We have protected science funding, and are now working with employers and universities to ensure people get the skills the country needs."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 275.

    One more point: where has the government been as pharmaceutical laboratories have been shutting down all over the UK?

  • rate this

    Comment number 274.

    I am a science lecturer and it seems that even those who have got good grades in A-level struggle with basic concepts they should have cemented at A-level. The problem gets worse each year. A-levels and GSCEs seem to be more about remembering key facts for the exam but little understanding. Universities may have to start doing top-up courses to not lower the intellectual content of their degrees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 273.

    @263. Double Dip Dave

    The truth?

    The truth being that:

    a) No first time undergraduate will pay fees upfront.
    b) The "debt" that you accrue is much more like a tax.
    c) That applications this year are the 2nd highest on record.

    Or your petty ill-informed version of the truth where only the "privileged Etonian elite" will now go to university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 272.

    "These stories perpetrate the myth that there are loads of science jobs."

    The House of Lords report cites a claim made by the BCI that there'll be 600,000 new STEM jobs by 2017 or something like that. Others have repeated it. The BCI represent big business and would be happy to flood the STEM jobs market. I tried researching where the BCI get the figure from without success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 271.

    @268, yes but now I've got 2 degrees I can't get the job washing up at the pub because I'm over qualified. I also can't get the engineering or science jobs as there are far far more STEM graduates than STEM jobs, a lot of competition and I have no work experience other than washing up. £6.50/hour is better than diddly squat

  • rate this

    Comment number 270.

    I have met many people who would seem on paper at least to have impressive qualifications but are simply not worth paying in brass washers. Scientific qualifications whilst important have to be applied in the right manner - which is not always the case - so is it any wonder that some people struggle all their lives in mediocre jobs? Beware those who insist on having a littany of letters attached.

  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    The fundamental problem here is one that plagues all political decisions: investment in science and education pays off in the long term. The rewards are also difficult to foresee. What motivation do short termist business or political leaders really have to invest in it? STEM subjects make modern world. Double STEM teacher salaries and see where we will be in 30 years time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 268.


    But in common with many graduate positions, you'll start low but probably get some decent pay rises for the first few years. If not, then after you have 2 - 3 years experience, you can move companies to get better money. Look at the long term picture - what could you be earning in 5, 10 or 20 years time ? That's when your degree could be worth it...
    Washing up isn't a career...

  • rate this

    Comment number 267.

    240 In God I trust
    The answer to your question is there are NO jobs,haven't you read the posts from under/unemployed scientists. The generations since '79 have failed our young people, the focus on financial services and unregulated market forces have left us with very few large science based employers where are GEC, Ferranti, ICI, Courtaulds, etc. So maybe a degree in media Studies makes sense

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Science is hard. Humanities are easy. Humanities grads resent and feel inadequate against scientists. (I have an English degree.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.


    Hi, a good grasp of basic maths and stats. There are a few very helpful computer programmes of course, but you need to know how to interpret the data and understand the results.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    I'm not entirely sure how i incurred your ire, but i am a STEM graduate - funding has been cut from a lot of R&D which hasnt helped students or graduates find opportunities. People in our industries rarely do what we do for the cash anyway, but it would be nice if our skills and efforts were valued (like they once were)- if they were, respect might be higher and in turn the compensation

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    #253 - It's not about cheap point scoring, it's about the truth.

    By the way, is your surname "Clegg" ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    @ 209. Fred Bloggs

    The real problem with stats in the media, and even in science is that it can massaged and presented in almost any way you want. There is a truth (and I personally will always seek that truth), but give me a load of data and then tell me what you want to be told, and I could probably provide some 'statistical evidence' to support your desired claim.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    every one now day is worried about the feeling of those for fail and under achieve. that is why benefits are being cut since the country can't afford those who want coast along any more. the benefits will now just keep you alive no extras. since the lazy are a drain on society. the country should force every one to take science courses some will fail but people always fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    Hi drcarol (248.) I will of course defer to your greater knowledge in this area. But do you, as a biologist/biomedical scientist require advanced mathematical skills, such as calculus trigonometry, etc. (I'll have to say 'etc.' as I didn't do Maths A-level!).

    Or do you simply need a very good grasp of 'basic' Maths (i.e. add, subtract, multiply, divide, percentages) for statistics, and so on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    I'm an engineering graduate and started on a salary of 26K+ plus bonuses company shares and private medical....I've been working for less than 12 months and my base salary has gone up 18% to over 30K...maybe its me but I don't see the argument that engineering jobs aren't well paid!?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    I really hope the folks at the BBC who moderate these comments take note of the discontent in this thread, the state of Science as a career in this country is a real issue and needs to be discussed and debated as such. There is so much potential value to be obtained from a *properly* balanced debate on this issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    @252.doug, most jobs have an element of out of hours unpaid work. As for Engineering my Brother is an Engineer, and it took him 5-7 years to get a decent salary. Eventually he went and did contracting work

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    #248 I personally know several BMS's and none of them understand basic calculus or linear algebra. Either you have a limited understanding of what constitutes maths and stats or you are working in a highly specialized field of biomedical science.


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