National HE STEM Programme Evidence used within Report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has recently announced that UK Universities are not producing enough science graduates with the skills needed by industry and have called for immediate action to boost the numbers of STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) graduates.

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The report, chaired by Lord Willis of Knaresborough, notes that too many students begin higher education courses with inadequate skills in mathematics, and that many institutions are, as a result, offering additional mathematics support.  This reinforces the importance of the work of the National HE STEM Programme, and led by sigma, to establish mathematics support centres within universities across England and Wales.  The report also notes that many engineering students have ‘virtually no understanding’ of mechanics; this has been an area the Programme has been working to address since 2010 through a major project (now involving 13 STEM departments within 8 higher education institutions) led by the School of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leeds.

As part of the Committee’s call for evidence, the National HE STEM Programme provided a substantial response (see pages 513-534)based upon the work it has undertaken within the higher education sector since its inception in 2009, and in building upon the work of the four disciplinary pilot projects that preceded it.  The Programme is an example of one of the measures to support the ‘Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects’ (SIVS) policy introduced by government in 2005, which have ‘provided value for money and those on the supply side appear to have been particularly effective’ according to a 2011 report by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. 

Specifically mentioned is the work of the Programme in ‘promoting demand and attainment among potential students’ [Paragraph 90], and its work with Cogent on the mapping of QAA benchmark statements to recommendations made by the CBI and the involvement of employers in assessing and establishing these baseline standards [Paragraph 130].  Cogent noted that there are large gaps between the different standards in relation to the engagement and interaction with employers when it comes to quality assurance processes for degree provision.

The Programme also provided informed opinion on the use of Key Information Sets (KIS) which are intended to provide greater information to prospective students on individual degree programmes with a view to better informing their choices [Paragraph 157].  The Programme noted that initial ‘mock-ups’ only contained short-term data with longer-term benefits not included.  For example, the employment data presented relating to recent graduates only covers the immediate 6 month period following graduation with the longer term benefits, which may take several years to be realized, not included. 

This response is closely followed by a recommendation within the report: ‘The Government should ensure that the information provided in the KIS gives students the information they need to make an informed choice about the quality of their course. We recommend that the KIS should contain more detailed information on destination data beyond six months, as well as career paths; other measures of quality (including teaching); and more information on outcomes (that is, the skills that students will acquire during their studies). A similar KIS should also be available to postgraduate students with equivalent information on postgraduate provision.’

The Employability Skills Review project, led by Dr. Adrian Toland of Manchester Metropolitan University is also explicitly referenced within the Willis review [Paragraph 160].  The project is quoted in support of the recommendation that steps should be taken to ‘encourage HEIs to explore ways of engaging with employers to develop employability support plans that will help ensure their graduates have the relevant practical skills that are required for the workplace; deliver an enhanced capacity for employer engagement supported by training and a commitment by employers to financially support programmes which provide clear benefit; encourage HEIs to utilise ‘in-house’ careers advice and guidance support resources; and increase HEI awareness of the developing methods of providing both direct and indirect experience of employers, and support their wider adoption across STEM.’

With the 3-year lifetime of the National HE STEM Programme due to conclude on the 31 July 2012, the work of the projects it has initiated is now increasingly coming to the fore.  The National HE STEM Programme conferencetaking place at the University of Birmingham on 4th – 6th September will provide a natural focus for its work to be disseminated and shared with a wider audience.  Registration is still open and any enquiries should be directed to