Light in the gloom?

The government’s investment programme to attract students to ‘difficult’ university courses, including science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), is seeing the number of young people entering STEM courses start to rise

As the much-underrated Kevin Costner film ‘Field of Dreams’ put it, if you build it, they will come. The government began its £350m, eight-year investment programme to attract students to ‘difficult’ university courses, including science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in 2004, and this week the Higher Education Funding Council for England reported that the number of young people entering STEM courses has started to rise.

The grant includes £100m earmarked especially for meeting the higher cost of science education – the average science degree costs £8,000 per student per year to teach, about twice as much as an arts degree, and can rise to £25,000. However, as Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry pointed out, the UK still lags far behind the US, China and India when it comes to investment in teaching facilities, and laboratories and equipment in the UK can be ‘uninspiring and inadequate’.

The news of rising numbers is extremely welcome, of course, and it’s hardly surprising that a funding boost and fresh equipment has helped out here. No prospective undergraduate, having decided to take the science and technology route at A-level, is going to be thrilled by looking at antiquated laboratories with antiquated equipment. Successive governments have expressed alarm at falling numbers of science students, but some real action in the area seems to have had an effect, both in making students feel like they are wanted and in making sure their environment and equipment is conducive to making sure their skills are state-of-the-art by the time they graduate.

However, the director of education at the CBI has said that ‘we still have a long way to go if growing business demand for STEM skills is to be met.’ The question of growing demand is an interesting one. In our survey, featured in the current issue of The Engineer, two-thirds of respondents said that they feared a skills shortage in the UK, and two-fifths said they didn’t expect their workforce to have the requisite skills for their jobs in ten years’ time. But with the current economic climate, this situation could well change. Traditionally, finance jobs have tended to leach away a proportion of the top tranche of numerate graduates. But with the banking crisis, the end of bonus culture and the nationalisation of many big names, who’s going to want a job in what’s effectively part of the civil service? The lab could be the place to be.

Recent announcements from the government make it look like we’re back to Keynesian economics, with big investment plans on infrastructure and other large projects to boost employment and spend our way out of recession. It’s been suggested that this could be a major opportunity to overhaul the energy infrastructure to shift to lower-carbon forms of generation, improving our environmental performance at the same time as keeping the STEM sector up and running. Now there’s an idea.

With business uncertainty growing steadily and difficult times undoubtedly ahead, the temptation is to grab at any straw for good news. But it certainly seems that there are opportunities for engineers in the coming years. If we’ve learned anything from previous recessions, it’s that the sectors which generate growth — which actually make real things with real value — shouldn’t, indeed cannot, be allowed to wither.

Stuart Nathan

Special Projects Editor