Not enough students take STEM A Levels, warns IET

The increasing number of students taking science, technology and maths (STEM) A Levels is not enough to address the UK’s skills shortage, leading engineers have warned.

Continuing the trend of the past few years, the number of pass grades in physics, maths and technology subjects this year rose by 5.2 per cent, 6.2 per cent and 5.6 per cent respectively, compared with 2009.

However, this rate of increase will not be enough to fill the country’s technology skills gap in time to avoid damage to the economy, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

The numbers of students studying physics and technology in particular are still very low, Gareth James, the IET’s head of education, told The Engineer.

‘We’re seeing a very small turnaround,’ he said. ‘In the areas that are particularly relevant to what we’re trying to address, maths has stayed relatively high compared with other areas where there have been declines over the last few years.’

More than 30,000 students completed a physics A Level this year, while more than 18,000 took a technology-related subject. By comparison, more than 77,000 studied maths and almost 12,000 studied further maths.

However, Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, said there was more reason for optimism.

‘We saw increases in both the absolute and relative number of people taking science and maths A Levels across the board,’ he told The Engineer. ‘Given that we’ve also got similar increases in the pipeline with AS Levels also going up in science and maths, I think we’re finally heading in the right direction.’

Nonetheless, the skills gap is a pressing issue for many engineering companies and demand for STEM-qualified school leavers and graduates alike is expected to increase. More than a third of engineering companies report a lack of confidence in recruiting enough suitably qualified professionals to meet their business needs, according to the IET.

Some commentators have argued that more students are choosing STEM subjects because they see them as more beneficial to their careers.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘Students are choosing subjects more astutely, particularly in these difficult economic times when competition for university places and top jobs is greater than ever.’

However, a Science Council survey from 2008, when today’s A Level graduates chose their subjects, suggests that two thirds of teenagers do not believe science qualifications lead to rewarding careers.

Diana Garnham, the Science Council’s chief executive, said more effort was needed to increase the take-up of STEM subjects to meet employer demand for graduates, which some estimates set as high as half a million more by 2017.

‘We need to show that the world of science and engineering is open to everyone – and that there are a great variety of jobs all over the UK, at all levels and in lots of surprising environments,’ she said. ’There’s no one type of scientists and no single type of engineering.’

James said that an improved careers service, more specialist teachers and a greater emphasis from engineering employers on professional certification was needed to help raise the profile of STEM skills among young people.

‘There is a perception problem among young people because STEM subjects are seen as being harder,’ he said. ’And when they don’t necessarily know what to do with their lives, then they might shy away from those things and go for the easier option where they are more likely to get a better grade.’