Short on skills: Part 4


Dick Evans continues his series looking at issues associated with a number of strategically important subjects, for example engineering, manufacturing, construction and mathematics.

The difficulties with the subjects above reflect many of the issues associated with the fundamental problems that this country is experiencing in terms of competing successfully in a global economy, producing and sustaining a highly qualified workforce and improving productivity.

The previous articles have shown that a number of the difficulties are associated with the education and training programmes, whether at school or post-school stages. This article focuses on science as, along with mathematics, it is the foundation of many of the other key strategically important subjects. It also possesses many of the problems already highlighted in the previous articles, whether it be recruitment, retention and ultimate achievement of scientific qualifications and whether or not graduates progress into science and science related areas of employment. Also there are bit issues about the quality of teaching and most certainly a major problem about teacher recruitment and retention which could further cause difficulties for science and most certainly many other disciplines that depend on scientific knowledge and understanding.

It hardly needs to be said that science and technology already dominate what people take for granted in this world. Increasingly scientific and technological influences will have an even greater prominence in daily life and in the products and services which will be in demand worldwide. Science education, in terms of its process and content must be reviewed and planned so that people are better prepared for involvement in a science and technology based workforce or for a more informed understanding about their application in society. A scientifically literate society and workforce must be central to lifelong learning and a learning society.

However, having said this, there are still major problems in increasing the participation post-16 of people who wish to become more scientifically qualified, particularly at the technician and support level. This is in spite of successive Governments acknowledging the contribution that the science base makes to the wealth creation and industrial competitiveness of the country. A number of research projects have shown that most of the productivity gains in the twentieth century have arisen from the successful implementation of scientific ideas and the management of subsequent technologies.

Science, more than any other subject in this country, presents a somewhat perplexing paradox as, on one level we seem to be doing very well internationally – a DTI report in 1997 using the internationally accepted method of analysis showed that with only 1% of the world’s population this country conducts 5.5% of the world’s scientific research, produces 8% of the world’s scientific publications and receives 9.1% of all citations. The issue around citations is an interesting one but it does give an indication of the visibility of UK scientific publications. The same study showed that the country’s science, engineering and technology base is the most cost effective amongst the world’s major economies as measured by citations per unit of expenditure. Therefore it would seem that the majority of our scientific knowledge output is of the highest quality so this country is good at scientific creativity but (and this is where the paradox becomes apparent) it cannot transfer this knowledge economically. Practically all the technological innovation arising from scientific discovery comes from or is developed in America or in East Asia. Many technological ideas initialed in Ihis country come back after being taken up by some American company, because apparently companies in this country have no confidence in the creations or inventions of scientists and engineers. This country appears to be strong in terms of scientific production but much weaker in terms of its application and exploitation.

Successive reports have drawn attention to the fact that many companies in this country are reluctant to explore the possibilities of research findings and this might be due to a lack of market relevance to the research. Many people have argued that there is a tendency in this country to value pure science to a much greater degree than applied science and therefore that the country’s relative lack of successful innovation in science and engineering has cultural and historical causes and connotations and many other countries recognise and celebrate the dignity of ‘applied knowledge’. This reluctance and hostility to applied research is reflected in the declining expenditure incurred by industry and government in carrying out research and development activities within industrial facilities.

In 1970 this country was second, after America, in its investment in domestic business R & D. Since 1970 this country has declined and now ranks fifth amongst the other G7 nations. Sadly this decline has not been offset by an increase of investment in higher education institutions and public sector research organisations. This country’s industry now funds a smaller percentage of research and development than any other G5 country, being significantly lower than America. Germany and Japan. There are a few exceptions, pharmaceuticals for example are very much at the top of the international league tables for research and development investment. In other sectors the picture is very mixed with some companies investing in R & D comparable to their international competitors. However, the aggregate R & D investment is lower as shown in figure 1.

fig01: Aggregate Research & Development Intensity (%)

fig01: Aggregate Research & Development Intensity (%)

Despite the mixed picture shown above, there is now doubt that this country s overall expenditure on business research and development has declined both absolutely and in comparison with our major competitors and again science is very much at the heart of this activity and the position is not getting any better. A joint study between the DTI and the CBI as far back as 1992 found that only 10% of companies in this country were exploiting scientific ideas and discoveries and could be seen as being truly innovative. Since then, despite successive and significant efforts by governments and industrial groups to promote and encourage innovation, the country continues to lag behind all our main international competitors.

Could it be that one of the main reasons for this is this country’s basic hostility to vocationalism or anything that is seen as being applied. Too often the educational system of this country has been pre-occupied with producing people for the professions (medicine, accountancy, the law) and the more technical aspects of education and training have always seemed to be somewhat secondary. I know this is somewhat of a generalisation but there could be. within this, the roots of the difficulties that we are now experiencing. Even when people graduate with Maths, Science and Engineering degrees many of them go into the City and into the other professions. This is possibly no bad thing as perhaps these individuals bring the scientific ways of thinking and problem solving with them. However it does not directly add value to the scientific base of the country.

Clearly one of the major elements of producing a successful economy based on science and technology is the education and training. The supply of well trained scientists, technicians and engineers is essential and yet again there are paradoxes here when one looks at the statistics. 29% of 25 – 34 year old graduates hold degrees in science and engineering. This is well above the average for other OECD countries, namely being 23%. So, as far as this country is concerned there seems to be an adequate output of scientifically trained graduates and post-graduates. However, employers argue that quantity is not an issue, it is the quality of the graduates. Many employers have concerns over the number of quality, well trained scientists, engineers and technicians being produced by universities and entering into industry. Many top companies like Hewlett Packard and British Aerospace have argued that it is not so much the quantity of graduates per se but the number of quality graduates. Already there is evidence that these companies are recruiting engineers and scientists from outside the UK. The Institute of Professional Managers and Specialists have spoken openly about the supply and demand for scientists being in a ‘low level equilibrium’ a slowly-sinking balance of weakening effective demand and a remorsively weakening supply. Figure 2 shows the declining number of personnel engaged in R & D activities, both in the public and private sector.

Figure 2: Total Personnel Engaged on R & D in the UK 1986-1996 (FTEs)
Research Councils14,00012,000-14%
Government Dep'ts24,00016,000-29%
Private Non-Profit7,0005,000-28%

As already mentioned, many science and engineering graduates do not pursue careers in these areas and have argued that this is partly due to poor career prospects and low salaries. This results in a vicious downward spiral as the reduction in numbers attracted to science in universities then makes it more difficult for industry to recruit sufficient quantities of high quality science graduates into science and other important related areas such as engineering and manufacturing.

However, there is an even greater problem with the number of support staff in science, namely technicians. The number of technicians employed by businesses has fallen from 46,000 FTEs in 1986 to

32,000 in 1996, a reduction of some 30%. These technicians are as equally important as the graduate scientist. For every researcher there needs to be a number of highly qualified technicians to support them, particularly in the elements that this country has manifestly failed on in terms of design, development, production and then marketing and sales. The technician is central to completing the whole process from the original idea to the final product or service and the number of people being recruited in colleges and universities for technician level qualifications continues to decline, particularly in the areas of science and engineering. Two valuable awards in this area are Higher National Diplomas/Certificates and the enrolments in science and technology have significantly declined since 1990, in some cases in excess of 50%.

The problem is exacerbated by (he pressures being placed on universities to reach their targets on science; degrees which are often, at (he beginning of the year, below target. The universities, over the past lew years, have ‘poaehed’ístudents who have enrolled or begun study on HNDs. Sadly, in this case, institutional priorities have subverted the ethics of honest recruitment. Too often the students who would have benefited and achieved an HND have been accepted on to a honours degree programme with all the attendant difficulties that that would cause. The HND did produce very much a graduate with technical knowledge. It is often argued, by many companies, that graduates have to be retrained once they begin employment, not having the appropriate skills and understanding of processes and often being too theoretical and possibly feeling practical things beneath them. HNCs too have suffered and this is even more worrying as they are individuals already in employment who are being released to their local colleges or universities to increase their level of knowledge, understanding and skill. Because of the difficulties in the 1990s, companies changed their recruiting and training policies in science and science related industries. Many companies had significantly reduced their workforces and. where they were recruiting, were taking graduates directly into technician level. These trends sadly continue.

Post-16 science is not particularly strong. In schools, colleges and universities science continues to decline and lose in real terms its overall share in student numbers post-16, in sixth forms, schools, FE colleges and universities. Fewer students are electing to study science at A Level and AS Level both in colleges and schools. Fewer able students are also opting to pursue A Level science programmes, preferring to move to humanities or mixed economy combinations of awards. For A Levels there was a 40% decline in numbers of student on specialist science courses between 1983 and 1993 when there was a 28% increase for humanities and a 31% increase for those electing to do a mixed economy programme.

Figure 3 attempts to show the trend in A Level subject combinations that students elected to do between 1962 and 1993.

fig03: A-Level Subject Combinations

fig03: A-Level Subject Combinations

This mix continues today, where students still prefer to do a mixed economy programme of A Levels or ASs and science and maths are most certainly losing out. A Level enrolments for Physics, Chemistry and Biology remain relatively constant as Figure 4 shows.

fig04: Percentage Taking Science A-Levels

fig04: Percentage Taking Science A-Levels

Biology shows an increase, but this reflects the interest in biological/medical sciences and green issues.

Other awards in science also struggle. GNVQs in science remain relatively low, particularly when compared with A Level sciences. Hopefully the new structures under Curriculum 2000 will give greater opportunities to further increase the number of students pursuing the GNVQ science awards, or as they are now becoming known ‘vocational A levels’. Enrolments for awards on the third curriculum pathway, namely the occupationally specific route, also continues to decline but hopefully the continuing reforms to the national curriculum framework will improve the situation. Hopefully QCA will now address what in many ways is the most important curriculum framework and put as much effort into that as they have done with the A Level and GNVQ reforms. This is, after all, the route that is about employment and employability. Hopefully there will be a tidying up and rationalisation of the awards offered on this particular pathway and this will be greatly assisted by the development of the Foundation. Advanced and Graduate Apprenticeship.

Colleges, I know, will wish to play their part in the development of these programmes of study in science and science related subjects. Many science departments have been closed or significantly reduced in size, following the difficulty in maintaining viable student groups over the past ten years. This, coupled with the greater cost, ol delivery of science, has meant that much science has vanished in the FE sector, particularly in the vocational area. Indeed a number of university departments of science have closed or have been significantly downgraded or merged with other departments or faculties. It surely does not make sense to allow this decline to continue. Science is a key element in modem economies and it is important that all sectors of education and training are supported in sustaining and further enhancing its provision.

So therefore, there are not only problems with provision and the quality of the programmes and the recruitment of students to them, but the really big issue that is beginning now to become more apparent is teacher shortage. Fewer and fewer people are wishing to enter the teaching profession. In spite of government initiatives, numbers taking post graduate certificates of education (PGCEs) remains dangerously low, particularly in shortage subjects like maths, science, information technology, foreign languages. Students on a PGCE do not pay university fees and those in the shortage subjects get a ‘golden hello’ of £5,000 and are paid £6,000 training salaries. Before this, there was a 13% drop in applications for PGCEs. Now PGCE applications have risen again but there are still worrying concerns about recruitment to key shortage areas like maths, science and information technology. Big city and industry pay packets still look far more attractive than these gold hellos.

It clearly is important to significantly increase the recruitment of teachers into schools and colleges to teach in these subject areas. The current teaching force is relatively old and many of them will retire within the next ten years and therefore the flow of new recruits is essential to maintain a healthy teaching force within schools, colleges and indeed universities. However, worrying trends continue and it is almost impossible to get statistics that indicate the current state, particularly within the schools area. Recent research by the National Union of Teachers found that, of the 20,000 first year teachers who started in 1999-2000, 400 had resigned during their probabtionary year. A further 800 did not complete their induction and about 100 failed to obtain their qualified status. A survey by the NUT found a dropout rate of 7% amongst newly qualified teachers against an official government figure of just 0.1%. The Union blamed poor support for new teachers in some areas and the stresses associated with the job.

Whatever the reality is, there are some very worrying messages in terms of teachers in key strategic areas both in schools and colleges. It is a problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of great urgency. Otherwise these key subjects will continue to decline and ultimately this will impact further on the manufacturing base of this country which will further dilute its global competitiveness in key areas of science and technology.


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