CBI calls for greater action on filling UK science skills gap

13 March 2014 -

Cutting tuition fees and encouraging more young women to study science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) courses are among the Confederation of British Industry’s suggestions to make the subjects more attractive and easier to access.

In its latest report, Engineering our Future, the CBI argues the lack of workers suitably equipped with the skills to work in the sectors of the future – such as advanced manufacturing and green energy – could result in Britain’s economy falling behind the rest of the world. A CBI/Pearson survey shows that last year 42% of firms faced difficulties recruiting individuals with STEM skills and knowledge. The body believes improving the marketing of the subjects, while setting solid and clear targets for attracting more young women, are essential to avoid a potential chronic skills shortage.

Katja Hall, CBI Chief Policy Director, said, “Growth and jobs in the future will depend on the UK having a workforce that can exploit new technologies and discoveries. The growing skills vacuum is threatening the recovery, as demand from firms is outstripping supply. “Highly-skilled workers are essential for our growth sectors and it will be those young people with science and maths who will go on to become the engineers and new tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Hall added, “But it is increasingly clear that the really problematic shortages are at skilled technician level. We do have to play a long game on skills, creating more apprenticeships, but we also need policies for the short-term, including retraining existing workers with in-demand skills in key sectors.”

Specifically, the CBI outlined the following considerations for ministers:

  • A possible reduction of fees on some STEM courses to attract more students and the development of one-year crossover courses for young people to switch back to STEM in preparation for a related degree – an approach used by the legal profession after graduation.
  •  New collaborative training solutions to progress apprenticeships and retraining to meet the pressing need for skilled technicians.
  • Sixth forms, colleges and universities to set and report on ‘Davies-style’ gender diversity targets to boost women’s participation in key subjects like physics and maths.
  • Supporting the development of more University Technical Colleges and Studio Schools.

Geraint Johnes, a professor of economics at Lancaster University’s School of Management, claims improving student bursaries would be more effective than lowering course fees. ”The proposal to reduce university tuition fees is problematic for a number of reasons. Not least, the current funding system for undergraduate education in the UK is one where loans are repaid out of future income streams – and crucially involves the writing off of any part of the loan that remains unpaid after 30 years,” Johnes said.

“This means that students do not know how much of their loan they will end up repaying, and are therefore likely to be insensitive even to quite large fee discounts. There is evidence that students are responsive to the award of bursaries, but that is quite a different thing. The devil is in the detail, and, while the aim of the CBI’s proposal is worthy enough, the detail would frustrate that aim if it were ever to be put into practice.”

According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), blame lies largely with successive governments who have shown inconsistent thinking and a lack of co-ordination to appreciate the need for skills in the workplace, meaning the country’s productivity and long-term competitiveness has been undermined.

Across the Atlantic, similar fears over skill gaps in technology and science exist. Recent reports show US employers will only be able to fill half of the 1.4 million available computing jobs with candidates who hold computer science bachelor degrees from US universities by 2018.

Technology entrepreneur and Red Hat chief executive Jim Whitehurst suggests corporate leaders and executives should take on greater responsibility in boosting the image of STEM. “There are several things leaders could do to help,” he says, adding that it starts with building early interest in STEM.

“Students introduced to STEM early and who have support at home are more likely to get involved in STEM-related activities. Corporate leaders could also help by sponsoring summer camps and weekend workshops that help inspire an early interest in computer science.”

Powered by Professional Manager