Education & Family

Science graduates 'lack skills needed by business'

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

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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