back to article National Audit Office report blasts UK.gov's 'muddled' STEM strategy

The UK government's "muddled" attempt to boost skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) risks wasting taxpayers' money, according to a report by the National Audit Office today. Since the early 2000s there has been growing concern about how to achieve higher productivity and economic growth in an era …

  1. Korev Silver badge
    Boffin

    "Our research indicates that there are particular shortages of STEM skills at technician level, but an oversupply in other areas, such as biological science graduates, who are then often underemployed in an economy in which they are not in high demand," said the report.

    Sadly successive UK governments sat back and did nothing while pharma life sciences R&D contracted sharply in the last decade or so.

    I'm also slightly confused about why there are too few "technicians" and too many biological sciences graduates. There are many technicians (wth degrees) in biology labs...

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Unhappy

      particular shortages of STEM skills at technician level,

      You mean the people who probably don't have degrees, just actual skills needed to get stuff done.

      This is the real difference between the UK and (IDK) say Germany.

      Both offer excellent training for their top graduates.

      But Germany makes much better use of those not-academic-but-smart students rather than what appears to be the UK view of "They are basically disposable scum."

  2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    "an oversupply in ... biological science graduates, who are then often underemployed in an economy in which they are not in high demand"

    So no change in half a century. I always reckoned that as HMG was one of the major employers (a relative term) of biologists they were prepared to finance and oversupply so as to be able to pay rock bottom salaries and save money over the long term.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The most significant and damaging oversupply isn't biological sciences, its bloody useless, know nothing PPE graduates.....like the new Science Minister.

      I suggest that DEFRA should leave badgers alone, and get the hired badger assassins to track, trap and then shoot PPE grads. And all those "unneeded" biological sciences types could be put on to sorting out bovine TB, squirrel pox, and inbreeding amongst the farming community.

      Four problems solved, more jobs, fewer wasters.

      1. Natalie Gritpants

        OI, leave me and my brother alone!

        1. Rich 11 Silver badge
          Joke

          Do you and your brother own a local farm for local people?

  3. tiggity Silver badge

    Why bother

    With the hard work of STEM subjects and then (if you're lucky) a series of small term contracts at pitiful pay.

    Do a subject like accountancy or law and let the money roll in with (relatively) far higher job security

    Maybe get a few scientists to do the public inquiries so often called by the govt (instead of a judge e.g. Grenfell) - after all science (in non theoretical areas) is all about analysing data and producing evidence based conclusions (obviously this would defeat the point of public inquiries, i.e. to give the result the govt wants, rather than the inquiry actually having any intellectual rigour & coming to an unwanted conclusion)

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Why bother

      "Maybe get a few scientists to do the public inquiries so often called by the govt (instead of a judge e.g. Grenfell) - after all science (in non theoretical areas) is all about analysing data and producing evidence based conclusions"

      ITYF that judges are also good at analysing data. In a jury trial, of course, it's not the judge who produces the evidence based conclusions but they still produce summaries of the evidence.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: ITYF that judges are also good at analysing data.

        Exhibit 1: Charles Haddon-Cave, QC

        This man knows his stuff (from an analytical point of view) and can be remarkably direct, which may be part of why very few people have actually heard of him.

        "Sir Charles is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and is a past Chairman of the Society’s Air Law Group as well as a past Chairman of Advocacy Training Council of the Bar. [...] Whilst at the Bar, Sir Charles appeared in major aviation and marine disaster cases such as Manchester Air Disaster, Herald of Free Enterprise, Braer Disaster, Kegworth Aircrash, Knight Air Crash, BP Trent and Marchioness Disaster." (from

        https://www.aerosociety.com/news/podcast-beaumont-named-lecture-2014/)

        2009: "THE NIMROD REVIEW

        An independent review into the broader issues surrounding the loss of the RAF Nimrod MR2 Aircraft XV230 in Afghanistan in 2006"

        (600 pages)

        2013: "A "Normal" Accident -- The Loss of the RAF Nimrod XV230: A Failure of Leadership, Culture, and Priorities"

        Haddon-Cave's one hour speech at Piper 25, a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster:

        https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/JCO/Documents/Speeches/ch-c-speech-piper25-190613.pdf

        (19 pages, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE read them, especially this paragraph:

        "SEVEN LESSONS FROM NIMROD

        ...

        13. First, it is important to look at the underlying organisational causes of any major accident. It is easy to blame the guy with the screwdriver or the joystick or the clipboard in his hand. But it is vital important to examine the fundamental ‘organisational causes’ of accidents. I found 12 uncanny, and worrying, parallels between the organisational causes of the loss of Nimrod XV230 and the loss of the NASA Space Shuttle ‘Columbia’:"

        If you'd rather listen for an hour, here is the speech as presented, which is very similar to the words in the PDF, but not quite identical:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y99_lhFFCsk

        (yes it's a video but the pictures mostly don't add much)

        Or as presented to the Institute of Chemical Engineering's Hazards confrence in 2016:

        http://www.icheme.org/events/conferences/past-conferences/2016/hazards-26/trevor-klets-lecture-form-capture/haz-26-video.aspx

        "Safety is everyone's personal responsibility. It starts at the tiop, with the CEO. [...] Organisations where everyone is responsible, but no-one is accountable, are bound to fail."

        There's a lot of duplication in the keynote speeches, with a little bit of audience-specific customisation. That's largely inevitable, because most of the real issues aren't related to technologies, they're related to ways of thinking and ways of organising.

        Share and enjoy. But more importantly, understand, learn, and act.

    2. Commswonk Silver badge

      Re: Why bother

      @ tiggity: Maybe get a few scientists to do the public inquiries so often called by the govt (instead of a judge e.g. Grenfell) - after all science (in non theoretical areas) is all about analysing data and producing evidence based conclusions (obviously this would defeat the point of public inquiries, i.e. to give the result the govt wants, rather than the inquiry actually having any intellectual rigour & coming to an unwanted conclusion)

      That deserves a lot of upvotes. You didn't mention the problem of identifying and dealing with the perpetual woes of the NHS, and I have long felt that if a team with "engineering skills" (however you choose to define them) were let loose on the subject it would find a proper solution in weeks rather than months.

      Note "proper" solution, not necessarily a politically welcome one.

      1. Mage Silver badge
        Pirate

        Re: a team with "engineering skills"

        But not connected with any Silicon Valley or similar operation. We don't want mostly white male privileged sociopaths only interested in exploiting people influencing any decisions.

  4. Mage Silver badge
    Headmaster

    STEM

    Problem is lack of suitably trained teachers and suitable curriculum. I remember when Apple II, Research Machine 380 and BBC Micro went into schools. The teachers should have got one and training first. There should have been a clear plan.

    There is too much emphasis on MS Office and not enough on lab based wider science, simply using Pi or tablet or whatever as a tool for STEM, not an end in itself.

    Teachers, labs, and last of all throwing gadgets and IT at it!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: STEM

      I think the problem is a combination trying to define something that is constantly changing and wanting to define something for political reasons.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: STEM

        But we just had a 25% increase in STEM students - simply by reclassifying "exercise science" and "domestic science" as STEM.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: STEM

          But we just had a 25% increase in STEM students - simply by reclassifying "exercise science" and "domestic science" as STEM.

          Shhh! Next thing we know they'll be claiming that social sciences and political science are STEM. Then they could say that PPE counts as a political science, and then all the utter wankers with PPE degrees will be STEM graduates.

          Apparently there's 88 PPE undergraduate courses starting this year. If there's 40 people on each, that's another 3,500 dossers becoming STEM graduates, increasing the total by 4%.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: STEM

      I think there is too little emphasis on classical education in grade school. I'm perhaps an older father of young children, being in my 50s and having a 13 year old and an 11 year old. I can see that they don't read books that would be at as high a level as was typical 40 years ago. Maths is about numeracy and understanding concepts, which is great, but being able to spit out multiplication tables and memorizing a few formulas was pretty damned practical. Kids can barely read cursive and actually writing cursive seems beyond the pale for them. I think there should be no use of computers for anything in school through Elementary and Middle school and then only in particular courses in High school.

      To be fair, I don't know if the problem is the new system or the too large classrooms with a huge mix of intellectual, physical and emotional issues and too few teachers to look after the specific needs of all the children included. Those countries that have been able to successfully integrate this wide range of abilities have, I believe, decreased class sizes to appropriately suite that situation. This is not the case where I live in Canada, sadly.

  5. inmypjs Silver badge

    Governments are useless..

    at just about everything. Who would have thought?

    Maybe it should be up to students to figure out what qualification (if any) is going to be useful to them before spending years and thousands getting it.

    1. wiggers

      Re: Governments are useless..

      Centralised planning fails again!

    2. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: Governments are useless..

      Funnily enough, in that context the much touted "STEM shortage" immediately disappears in a puff of magic smoke. Or maybe I'm just misinterpreting all those news on yet another business axing half the staff each six months...

    3. codejunky Silver badge

      Re: Governments are useless..

      @ inmypjs

      No matter how many times this is proved there will still be people arguing for more government control. Just as there are still people arguing for communism.

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: Governments are useless..

        I agree that the onus for their choice should be upon the student, but those young people need to be equipped with sufficient information to be able to look five years or more ahead. Someone has to fund that research, and you can be damn sure industry would slant it their way if they were the ones paying -- and they'd have no qualms about setting it aside if it became inconvenient a year or two later. Governments should at least be taking a longer view, one which benefits the country as a whole, and also -- theoretically at least -- can be held responsible for their failings. Governments are also uniquely placed to provide incentives to support a desired objective which is subjectively seen by young people as too hard a course, a vocation slagged off by the tabloids, uncool etc.

        1. codejunky Silver badge

          Re: Governments are useless..

          @ Rich 11

          "I agree that the onus for their choice should be upon the student, but those young people need to be equipped with sufficient information to be able to look five years or more ahead."

          Well that rules out government. They look to their next election. In comparison businesses look to survive not just this gov but the next and so on. Nobody knows what the situation is in 5 years but businesses will fight tooth and nail to survive while gov will bribe and lie to get re-elected. The whims of government are least predictable.

          "Someone has to fund that research, and you can be damn sure industry would slant it their way if they were the ones paying -- and they'd have no qualms about setting it aside if it became inconvenient a year or two later"

          Good. Do you really want good money throwing after bad? Do you want research into something useful or just some form of benefit system of pointlessly employing people? Being able and willing to drop a dead project allows those people and resources to do something useful. Does this describe any government you have heard of?

          "Governments are also uniquely placed to provide incentives to support a desired objective which is subjectively seen by young people as too hard a course, a vocation slagged off by the tabloids, uncool etc."

          This is a terrible idea of the government picking the winners. The government is terrible at doing this. Over budget, late and all of this on the taxpayers dime. When the government picks winners and dictates which way things should go we come worse off.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Governments are useless..

            Big Business no longer cares about 5 years from now, or at the least that's as far as they look ahead. Everything is about the next quarterly report. It matters very little which country has qualified workers as they, Corporations, move to the lowest cost center that has workers with somewhat applicable credentials. The only way for the education to combat that is to educate students with the ability to read, write and do Maths like the typical graduate in the 1960s and 70s could in Canada, if you'd completed the academic route through high school.

  6. Mage Silver badge

    Also

    Making Polytechnics into copies of Universities and dumbing down degrees hasn't helped. We do need pure academic training, but also professionally properly done other STEM training.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Also

      Agreed. When University coursework has been dumbed down so far that everyone can get a degree then that system is obviously broken. I was, initially, going to go with Medical, Science and Engineering Degrees but realistically any University degree should be difficult and push students to the limits of their abilities. I predicate the above on the belief that all education should be free but that access to that education should be earned by proving oneself academically.

  7. a_yank_lurker Silver badge

    What is STEM?

    We have a similar problem over here. But I think there is a fundamental problem when discussing STEM, what is it you are babbling about? My background is in material science and yet I am in IT as a programmer with limited formal IT training. Also, I have worked as process (chemical) engineer with even less formal training. So are talking about training people who have enough general skills along with some specific ones that they can shift around in various STEM fields or are we talking about have people with very specific skills that will probably be obsolete in 10 years?

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's really very simple

    A bunch of people who look down on anyone doing techie things they don't understand have been persuaded that we need more "techie" things, just like others have been persuaded we need more high speed railways.

    We then get "initiatives" run by social studies graduates which are supposed to "fill" the supposedly voracious demand for said techies. Meanwhile, the government roundly ignores the actual wage and jobs data, in the same way as it disincentives the supply of relevant technical education by allowing Arts courses to charge the same for tuition as engineering courses (English 2 hours lectures per week, engineering 30 or so).

    Oh well!

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: It's really very simple

      "it disincentives the supply of relevant technical education by allowing Arts courses to charge the same for tuition as engineering courses (English 2 hours lectures per week, engineering 30 or so)"

      It's arguable that the English course is subsidising the engineering course.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: It's really very simple

        Why? The university makes far more money from it's English courses.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: It's really very simple

          Because you can't run a lab science class for the standard fixed tuition fee. So you either shut down the chemistry dept or divert money from the cheap to teach arts depts to STEM.

          In top universities it is the opposite way round, the STEM research depts bring in massive amounts of external grants which you charge 150% overhead on - and divert the money to the arts depts

  9. imanidiot Silver badge

    Too many cooks spoil the broth

    The problem with education and especially "improving education" is that it has become a businessmodel for all and sundry types that have no business being involved in education and have no idea what is actually important. The focus is on particular narrow skills, while the broad, base skills upon which everything else is built get ignored. STEM education is pushed towards very specific skills of dubious usefulness and ignores the basics like structural thinking, abstraction, mathematics, critical thinking, finding+sorting+judging+selecting information, etc, etc.

    1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: Too many cooks spoil the broth

      Have one of these as well as an upvote ->

    2. Nick Kew

      Re: Too many cooks spoil the broth

      That's true amongst a lot of the commentariat. And I expect also in great swathes of the polyversities.

      I wouldn't say it was true of my maths education, nor of my later spell in a comp sci department. The only focus on jobs in the latter concerned what I myself (and one or two peers) might do after the end of a fixed-term contract. And the way most of us in research jobs would spend the first year getting up to speed with a project, the last year looking for the next job, with not much time between those for genuinely productive work.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Too many cooks spoil the broth

      "education is pushed towards very specific skills of dubious usefulness and ignores the basics like structural thinking, abstraction, mathematics, critical thinking, finding+sorting+judging+selecting information, etc, etc."

      Of course. If schools actually taught people to think for themselves, gather some facts, do a bit of analysis, consider some options and outcomes, imagine what would happen to the typical politicians and the typical wealthy in the West. It simply doesn't bear thinking about.

  10. rcp27

    Market forces?

    For my entire career companies have complained about not being able to recruit STEM type people and yet they still seem to think that a position for a graduate engineer deserves half the pay of that for an accountant or lawyer. You would have thought all those economics graduates would understand supply and demand

  11. Duffy Moon

    My experience

    I graduated with a biological science degree seven years ago and still haven't found a job which uses it. I even spent more time and money on a masters in biotechnology, thinking it would make me more appealing to employers. The Job Centre just pushed me into applying for office temp work. Maybe I'd have more luck if I lived near Oxford/Cambridge, but I can't relocate.

    Originally, the plan was to get into medical school on a graduate degree, but the places are so scarce that I was turned down after all four of my interviews. There's no point in my applying again, as I couldn't afford the fees now.

    I seem to be just one of the un-tapped resources in the UK. A potential medical doctor/researcher, now reduced to trying to scrape together cash in the gig economy.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Pint

      Re: My experience

      I graduated probably before you were born (unless you were a mature student or took a prolonged course).

      That kind of thing happened to us, too. Not quite the "gig economy" as we know it today, but a series of short term jobs, geographical uprootings, grotty HMO rentals, and the like, taking me to around ten years older than I infer you are today. Then came the real poverty.

      Beer. 'Cos you'll need it.

      1. Duffy Moon

        Re: My experience

        I was a very mature student - born in 1970!

  12. Cuddles Silver badge

    STEM is meaningless

    The problem with STEM is that it's a completely meaningless concept; it's uselessly broad, vague term that encompasses anything and everything that could be seen as in any way technical or sciency, or might potentially be used in a technical or sciency context. How can anyone have a sensible discussion about a lack of STEM skills when you're lumping doctors, electricians and theoretical physicists all into the same group? And as if that wasn't bad enough, now apparently they're trying to decide if HR drones, of all people, might count as well.

    If there are issues with a lack of skilled people in certain areas (and the same applies to issues of gender and racial imbalances as well), you need to actually focus on those specific areas. Giving a vague "STEM" shrug doesn't help in the slightest, since even if your efforts achieve anything, you're likely to end up encouraging people to get into other fields that didn't have the a problem in the first place. If you don't have enough engineers, telling children they could one day become a surgeon or rocket scientist doesn't address the problem.

  13. MT Field

    FTFY

    The government faces a complex challenge in encouraging four departments to work together and get anything done.

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