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We can’t screw this up

Imran Khan

It is a popular misconception that the coalition has given science and engineering an easy ride. Hundreds of millions of pounds are being cut from research spending despite the technical ‘freezing’ of the science budget, and now higher-education proposals might nudge top universities into prioritising arts and humanities subjects over science and engineering ones.

The higher education White Paper proposes that universities be allowed to recruit an uncapped number of top students with AAB grades at A-level. The only limiting factor for institutions will be how attractive they are to students, and whether they have the capacity to accept them.

That capacity will be dependent on the courses being considered. By taking on more students, universities may be able to significantly increase their ability to invest—but only if the courses are profitable.

It costs institutions far more to teach many science, technology, engineering or maths subjects than it does to offer arts and humanities—think of the cost of a physics laboratory versus a philosophy library. In the market for international students, where universities have the freedom to charge what they wish, engineering degrees are sustainably priced at thousands of pounds more per year than history degrees.

The government’s fee proposals caused alarm in the arts sector about the scrapping of central funding for non-STEM subjects, leaving universities entirely reliant on student contributions. Yet the latest Higher Education Funding Council for England estimates, revealed in the new funding consultation, are that non-clinical lab-based subjects will receive just £1,500 a year on top of student contributions.

Institutions charging the highest fees will therefore receive £9,000 with which to teach non-STEM subjects, and, at £10,500, only slightly more to teach significantly dearer STEM courses. Faced with augmenting AAB numbers in profit-making humanities degrees, or doing so in potentially loss-making STEM departments, what would your choice be?

There will be a knock-on effect on other universities. Institutions charging less than £7,500 have a chance to compete for 20,000 extra student places. This capacity will be generated by an 8 per cent year-on-year reduction in the number of non-AAB students allowed at each university.

So universities charging more than £7,500 but unable to compete for the top AAB students may face new financial pressures as their potential market diminishes.

If the most expensive institutions are unable to expand places for AAB students in STEM departments, the ‘squeezed middle’ of universities will need to supply the less profitable, but strategically critical, STEM subjects.

Year after year CBI surveys show UK employers’ concern about shortages of science and engineering skills in the workforce. Figures from the OECD show that, in 2008, just 14 per cent of graduates in the UK studied STEM subjects. For Germany, the figure was 17 per cent, while India is producing more STEM graduates than the entire European Union.

The UK simply cannot screw this up. Higher education is under pressure to become more efficient. But this must not be at the expense of the scientists and engineers who will lead us into the future and drive the UK’s economy as they go.

If uncapped AAB student numbers and the new competition model are here to stay, HEFCE needs to rethink its funding proposals. At present, lab-based subjects receive 1.7 times as much funding as their less resource-intensive counterparts, and are still thought to be under-funded.

There may be no perfect funding model, but any bias must be in favour of STEM instead of against it. AC Grayling has shown that private institutions could step up to the challenge of offering a quality education in the humanities, but not for science and engineering. This is why the state has to be proactive.

The myth of STEM’s special treatment may be partly our fault. The Campaign for Science and Engineering was credited with helping to secure the ring-fenced science budget, and a boost for scientists and engineers in the immigration queue. However, the fact is that the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council benefit from the science budget just as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences and Engineering and Physical Sciences research councils do, while the changes secured in visa rules will benefit any researcher with a PhD, not just scientists and engineers.

This issue is too important to leave to one side. The government must put science and engineering and hi-tech industry at the heart of its economic strategy, or risk jeopardising our long-term prosperity.

Sustainably funding our university departments will be an essential first step.

More to say? Email comment@ResearchResearch.com

Imran Khan is director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering.