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In 2005 the higher education (HE) sector, supported by HEFCE, started work with schools and learned societies in tandem with the Government's science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programme and other STEM initiatives (note 2). The aim was to raise demand for courses in subjects that were strategically important to the nation, but in which provision was vulnerable because of low demand from students. HEFCE has invested around £350 million in additional support for these subjects (note 3).

Today's report 'Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects' (HEFCE 2010/09) contains a detailed and robust analysis of student number trends, both in terms of those studying in HE and in terms of other indicators of demand, such as A-level entries and acceptances through UCAS. The last three years of data, for example, show that the number of students in chemistry, physics and maths programmes in HE has increased at a greater rate than the average across all subjects, and to a level beyond that at the beginning of the decade. The data suggest that this trend will continue, but patterns are more variable in engineering and in modern languages: the group will investigate these areas further in the coming year.

Sir Alan Langlands, Chief Executive of HEFCE, said:

'I am delighted that the support we have given to strategically important and vulnerable subjects (SIVS) is showing such positive results. The value of vulnerable science subjects to our economy is greater than ever before and is highlighted by the recent government reports 'Higher Ambitions', 'New Industry, New Jobs' and 'Going for Growth'; and of course a great deal of teaching and research across STEM subjects is fundamental and central to the pursuit of new knowledge.

'Encouragingly, more students want to study science. Following a dip in the earlier part of the decade the trends are now very encouraging. Sixteen year-olds studying GCSEs today are the labour force for the industries of tomorrow. That's why we are introducing a £30 million scheme to support universities in shifting the balance of their provision into STEM subjects. This is on top of the £20 million we are committing to support the National STEM programme.'

Peter Saraga, Chair of HEFCE's SIVS Advisory Group and former Managing Director of Philips Research Laboratories UK, said:

'It is very encouraging that the trend of improving demand for these crucial subjects is continuing. We know from talking to employers that they greatly value students who have studied STEM subjects. HEFCE and the higher education sector should continue to work with the learned societies to encourage young people to study these challenging and rewarding subjects.'

Minister of State for Higher Education, David Lammy, said:

'The report shows some very encouraging trends for the take-up of subjects like chemistry, physics and maths. These are subjects that will continue to underline and boost our country's prosperity.

'We have set out in Higher Ambitions how we plan to build on this success.'

The report was undertaken by HEFCE's SIVS advisory group (note 4), comprising leaders from HE, Government and representatives from industry. The group was also tasked by Lord Sainsbury's review of Science and Innovation with understanding employer demand for science subjects. The group found that it is difficult to make accurate forecasts about future demand for graduates in these subjects, but that employers consistently identify a demand for STEM graduates, and for a broad range of skills they associate with the most employable graduates.

The SIVS advisory group plans to report again in 2011. In addition to updating student number data the group's next report will consider postgraduate supply and demand, and review the vulnerability of strategically important subjects. The group will also work closely with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills to understand labour market trends, and any related skills gaps that might be filled by co-funding between employers and universities (note 5).

HEFCE's continued support for vulnerable subjects

Following HEFCE's grant letter from the Secretary of State in December 2009, HEFCE will be inviting applications from universities and colleges that wish to shift the balance of their teaching provision towards vulnerable STEM and modern foreign language subjects. HEFCE is making up to £30 million available over three years for this initiative to support the transfer of around 3,000 undergraduate full-time equivalent students per year from non-SIVS into SIVS subjects. This builds on the targeting of SIVS within the allocation of 10,000 additional student places for 2010-11.


Notes

1. Subjects considered to be strategically important and vulnerable are defined as:

  • chemistry, engineering, maths and physics
  • area studies and related minority languages
  • quantitative social science
  • modern foreign languages.

STEM subjects comprise: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

2. These include the National Science Learning Centre and the National STEM Centre.

3. See our web pages on strategically important subjects.

4. The SIVS advisory group has begun to address a task set by Lord Sainsbury's review of science across Government. This asked the group not only to consider the availability of provision in HE and the supply of graduates in vulnerable subjects, but also to explore how this relates to demand from employers. Research into demand for skills and subjects in English HE finds that it is very difficult to predict the labour market, but employers consistently value STEM graduates, and they prize those that are able to communicate effectively, can work well in teams, and are able to adapt their skills to new environments and technologies.

5. HEFCE is also providing funding to support additional student places for SIVS provision. In January 2010, the Council announced the final allocations from the 10,000 additional student numbers available for 2010-11, within which SIVS were a priority. It also recently announced that 6,000 employer co-funded student numbers were available to meet employers' skills needs. HEFCE also currently allocates £25 million per year to reflect the particularly high cost of vulnerable science subjects and £31 million per year to mitigate the effects of the policy of not funding equivalent or lower qualifications in these subject areas.