This report sets out the advice and conclusions of the thirdSee note 1 HEFCE chief executive's Advisory Group on Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS). With this new group, the remit has been expanded beyond that of earlier groups in response to Lord Sainsbury's Review of Science and Innovation, 'The Race to the Top', which asked it to produce an annual report that would identify shortages of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates.
This is the new group's first annual report. It outlines HEFCE's policy and approach towards SIVS (broadly, these are STEM plus Modern Foreign Languages and quantitative social science), alongside an analysis of the predicted future demand for STEM. In line with its predecessors, it also sets out the evidence on the current and future supply of graduates in SIVS subjects.
The SIVS advisory group, via this report, seeks to do three things: influence policy across HEFCE, government and other stakeholders; influence student choice by communicating its work on the supply of and demand for different subjects; and provide an authoritative voice on subjects of strategic importance to the nation.
Looking forward, the group will work with HEFCE and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to review and align SIVS policy in light of the government's New Industry, New Jobs; Higher Ambitions; and Skills for Growth agendas.
Key conclusions and recommendations
1 – The dynamism of English higher education (HE) is a great strength and interventions should continue to be kept to a minimum. The sustainability of subjects deemed strategic by government and vulnerable by HEFCE should continue to be addressed by measures that raise student demand and attainment, and that sustain and re-shape provision whilst this takes effect.
2 – The policy adopted by HEFCE to date is supported by the latest data on admissions to HE. A decline across SIVS in the first part of the decade, influenced to a degree by the growth of competing disciplines such as Medicine and related studies, has been reversed during the last three years. The latest data on A levels and entrants to HE suggests that this will continue. Given current and anticipated pressure on HE finances, however, universities and colleges can be expected to focus their investment on their areas of greatest strength, which may require HEFCE to continue to take action to secure the sustainability of provision.
3 – The position within individual SIVS is as follows:
- During the last three years, the number of students in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics 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 latest data on A levels and entrants to HE suggests that this trend will continue. A significant increase in students taking Mathematics A level can be expected to have a positive impact on HE admissions throughout science and engineering.
- In Engineering, the number of students in HE programmes has been declining for some time, but the pattern varies between sub-disciplines. During the last three years, the number of Electrical Engineering students has declined, albeit from a large base, whereas Civil Engineering and Chemical Engineering numbers have increased at a rate well beyond the average for all subjects. Other areas of engineering appear to be more stable, although a significant decline in entrants to Minerals, Metallurgy and Materials Engineering programmes suggests that numbers in this area will decline during the coming years. In collaboration with the relevant professional institutions, the Advisory Group will seek to develop a better understanding of the causes of these trends, and any actions that may be needed in response to them, during 2010.
- In Modern Foreign Languages (MFL), there has been consistent growth in the number of students in Iberian and Asian languages programmes, and consistent decline in German. Most language disciplines have experienced growth at A level, but overall numbers in HE have declined during the last three years and can be expected to remain variable during the coming years. As Professor Michael Worton's recent review of MFL makes clear, there is a need for continued strategic intervention to increase student demand and sustain provision, but also for language departments and centres to develop and communicate a compelling identity to students, employers and government, and within their own institutions. The Forum proposed in the review report, to be chaired by the Minister for Higher Education, will provide a platform on which this can be developed.
4 – Across SIVS, and particularly in Engineering and MFL, the number of part-time students and the number in post-1992 institutions has declined. Students in these categories are more likely than others to be mature, in work, studying locally and from neighbourhoods with a record of low HE participation. This suggests a limit on the diversity, and in some locations the availability, of graduates in these subjects. This should be a concern for HEFCE's student demand raising programme in STEM and in MFL, and also for the Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, which will be undertaken during 2010.
5 – Demand from employers can be articulated in terms of broad graduate attributes, individual or groups of subjects, or specific skills acquired within subjects and programmes. These requirements may be associated with graduates in identified subjects or programmes, levels of performance or qualification, with highly selective institutions or aspects of the HE experience such as work placement and time abroad.
6 – There are two areas in which the views of employers are consistent enough to inform national policy on the level and nature of HE provision. Firstly, evidence commissioned by the group and in numerous other reports suggests that employers consistently identify a demand for STEM graduates, which arises from a broad requirement for numeracy aligned with specific technical skills. Secondly, employers are concerned about broad employability skills. In both cases, this perception derives from an expectation that there will be a particular premium on these skills in the advanced and rapidly changing labour market of the future.
7 – Evidence from employers suggests that concerns about graduate unemployment arising from the current economic climate will be short-term. Given the consistent message from employers about STEM and changing student aspirations in this area, it will be essential for government and HEFCE to establish a means for ensuring that the upturn in student demand can be accommodated by an increase in provision. Employers will also need to provide clear signals of the subjects, skills and attributes they particularly value, and that will position graduates most effectively in the labour market, and to engage in the development and delivery of provision, for example through staff and student placements.
8 - There are some immediate areas of shortage, which can be identified at the level of skills required by specific employers and attributable to specific programmes in HE, such as in-vivo techniques in the pharmaceutical industries and engineering skills required for the nuclear industry. It should be possible for immediate skills requirements to be addressed through close working between individual and groups of employers, universities and colleges. This will, however, require responsiveness from HE providers, underpinned by public funding incentives, and employer funding at a level appropriate to the specificity of their requirements.
1 Previous advisory groups, chaired by Professor Sir Gareth Roberts and Professor Sir Brian Follett respectively, established and reviewed HEFCE policy towards strategically important and vulnerable subjects, and provided information on the flow of students in these subjects. Their reports are at www.hefce.ac.uk/aboutus/sis.