Thursday, 8 September 2011

STEM subjects and the next generation of academics

Once again there are worries about STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) subjects in the UK. Not so long ago, the concern focused on recruiting sufficient good quality undergraduates into these subject areas, especially students with good mathematical skills. That may indeed still be perceived as a problem, but the latest issue seems to have more to do with postgraduate students, specifically getting more UK students into STEM MSc and PhD programmes. Reportedly, UK postgraduate student numbers in these fields have been static or declining, while available places are being increasingly filled by overseas students. This brings in some very welcome fee income to institutions, but raises questions about the viability of many university departments if this was thought of predominantly in terms of provision for UK students.

There are several issues wrapped up in all this, that we need to disentangle and think about carefully.

First, does it matter that an increasing share of our postgraduate students in the STEM subjects come from overseas? From the standpoint of the providing departments, surely not - they are only concerned to fill their available places and ensure that their provision is properly funded. Moreover, for many people, one of the benefits and attractions of postgraduate study is precisely the huge diversity of the student body. However, this benefit might be less clear for someone who finds himself/herself as the sole UK student in a class of 40-50 mostly Chinese students, say. So there will at times be an issue of balance to think about.

Second, both at undergraduate level, and even more so at postgraduate level, there is a great deal of student mobility around the world, with the best students seeking out opportunities in countries that offer the sorts of course and/or research programmes that they seek. Much of this mobility involves students from poorer parts of the world, or parts of the world lacking high quality universities, coming to countries that are both richer and better endowed. Some of these students stay and work in the country where they studied, many eventually return home. Relatively few UK students take part in this international mobility, partly because the UK is well endowed with good universities already, partly because most UK students lack good language skills and this would constrain where they could study (e.g. within Europe, though increasingly European universities do offer  English language programmes).

Third, why do we need (more?) STEM graduates with MSc and PhD level qualifications? Part of the argument is about providing the next generation of academics as the current faculty head off into the sunset and retire. Of course, recruitment of new academic staff is itself increasingly international, but most departments tend to feel they should include some UK academics among their numbers, and this is said to be becoming increasingly difficult. That said, I'm not aware of situations where significant posts simply cannot be filled.

We also apparently 'need' more STEM graduates at all levels to meet the demands of the wider economy. But do we? We are often told that 'industry' needs more engineers and mathematicians, but when I look at the jobs pages in various publications I don't notice all that many especially attractive salaries being offered. This makes me wonder where the alleged demand is to be found. It may well be that UK students are being completely rational in their reluctance to pursue STEM subjects to a high level. To encourage more to do so, I imagine we would need a mix of far better funding to support UK postgraduate students in the STEM subjects, and a sense that there really are lots of excellent - well paying - jobs at the end of the line. There's plenty of food for thought here, but we shouldn't just bemoan the lack of UK students taking STEM subjects.

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