WHEF: Westminster Higher Education Forum Keynote Seminar: Priorities for STEM subjects in higher education: employability, female representation and engaging industry in course design

I’m in Henry VIII’s private bed chamber: the Tudor Wing of Whitehall Palace, opposite 10 Downing Street and close enough to the Houses of Parliament that at least one politician should show up. I’m here for the Westminster Higher Education Forum, Priorities for STEM subjects in higher education: employability, female representation and engaging industry in course design.

The Westminster Higher Education forum is open to “policymakers in Parliament, Whitehall and government” and looks to connect them with university and college leaders. First up is Professor Sir John Holman, who works at the Athena Swan Gold charter holding Department of Chemistry in York. Holman is here to talk about three things, trends in STEM, teaching and employability. Why is he here? Well, it’s not just hard to recruit into STEM at university, but in 2015 UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) showed that there were 43% vacancies in due to a shortage of applicants with the required skills. The lack of creativity in undergraduate teaching and reluctance of universities to advertise anything other than academic positions means that the university system is creating a generation of technicians without graduate skills.

Trends: year-on-year science-related subjects are becoming more popular, with ‘STEM’ related disciplines making 6/10 of the most popular degrees in 2015/16. But since 2014/15, physics has gone down 1.1 % and chemistry 1.6 % – sixth form colleges are closing and there’s big cuts across science departments across the land.

Teaching: Polman was shocked when he first entered higher education and realised how little homework the academics did before they taught. The value of the UK university system is that undergraduates are being taught by people who are active in research, but they might not always be great at teaching. For UK schools to shine at an international level they’ll have to excite some STEM graduates into becoming specialist subject teachers.

Employability: The UKCES report shows just how bad the situation in the UK is. If you look at graduate career destinations 6 months after leaving university, the majority are working in retail and catering. We need impartial career guidance from school to university, with placements and experience open to everyone, not just those with well-placed parents. England’s got the narrowest pre-university options in the world, with the majority stopping maths aged 16 and never studying again. “Frankly, it can’t go on”. We hear first from four speakers, working in or closely related to student recruitment, before the questions are opened to the floor.

Amy is the head of recruitment at Framestore, the multi award-winning UK image creating agency who do the VFX for films like Gravity and Harry Potter. “At over £2 billion in global sales, the UK’s video games sector is bigger than either its film or music industries, and visual effects, the fastest growing component of the UK’s film industry, grew at an explosive 16.8 per cent between 2006 and 2008”.  The creative industry is the fastest growing part of the UK industry, but schools and universities aren’t directing people toward it. To create the graphics in Amy’s films you need to be able to generate the real world within a computer, which means you have to know science. Where does Amy have to go to get her recruits? Well, Framestore and other visual effects industries are having to recruit overseas. Framestore and Nesta’s 2011 Next Gen report list 20 recommendations for schools, universities, the government and industry. Framestore want university students in STEM subjects to be directed to the VFX world. She lists the university degrees of the forty people who contributed to the dramatic effects in Gravity- physicists, chemists and computer scientists indeed pop-up, but there could be lots more.

Michael Gallimore runs the school of engineering at the university of Lincoln, which saw a problem in underemployment for his graduates and partnered with Siemens. Gallimore is determined to equip them with the skills for industry, integrate them quickly into their first positions and keep them there when they’re in. An outcome of the partnership with Siemens is that 95 % of his graduates (and 100 % of his MEng graduates) are employed and the integration time- the time until the engineers become ‘useful’ for their company- has been cut from 24 to 3 – 6 months. He’s hoping the teaching excellence framework recognises industry partnerships.

Tim Smith is the CEO of Thames Valley Berkshire’s Local Enterprise Partnership. The local enterprise partnership boats 6,300 tech companies which makes up 14 % of their workforce- this is 3 x higher than what happens on a national level. He’s invited £ 36 million (inc £5 million from EU) funds into the Thames Valley Science Fund. The new lab will generate jobs, promote innovation and stimulate young minds. The Thames Institute of Technology is working with sixth form colleges, Microsoft, CISCO, Vodafone and AWE. The big problem for Berkshire is that they don’t have enough STEM teachers- and good ones can’t afford to live there.

Johnny Rich from Push talks about the social capital of STEM graduates. Whilst universities are pretty good at delivering knowledge and ‘hard skills’, they’re not very good at delivering soft skills, appropriate attitudes or impressive social capital for their students. Soft skills are incredibly hard to teach, but it’s not impossible. Retired chemist from Imperial speaks about the business challenge IC set chemical engineers in their final year, creating and presenting a business pitch to a ‘board of investors’. They brush-up their business skills and tidy their attitudes and outfits- because no one is impressed by shabby suits in a board room.

  • Character education is a popular topic with the floor, too, with everyone agreeing it’s probably the right thing to do but it’s very hard and very time consuming. What I’ve realised is that employability doesn’t necessarily mean employment. How can lecturers promote soft skills?
  • The panel all agree that work experience placements in technical and scientific industries work better when it’s nepotistic: because the none of these top recruiters trust their top employees to inspire children for a week. Polman’s seen it work, in Finland, where there work experience is mandatory and state supported.
  • The Royal Society of Biology make the bold claim that we ‘overplay STEM skills’ and ‘underplay arts and humanities’- the majority of graduate careers will involve collecting, analysing and articulating data, all skills you learn on an arts degree. We’re doing pretty good at the breadth of our STEM subjects, but we’re not doing great on the depths of the characters we produce.

The next discussion, Women in STEM: education, careers and retention. David Lakin, the director of development at STEMNet, talks about their ‘work’ sending 33,000 (untrained) volunteers into 95 % of UK state schools. He recruits from 3,000 volunteers and women make up 44 % of his science communicators (but we’re doing 50 % of the work). STEMNet have joined with the WISE campaign to offer People Like Me with their mandatory ‘don’t touch kids’ talk..  Katie Hassell is a space system engineer who works for Airbus. In between designing parts for space ships, Katie’s been trying to work out how to reach the schools that aren’t within coach distance of their Mars rover. She’s seen an increase in the number of women working at airbus, and now she wants women in management positions. The “Tomorrow’s Engineer”’s schools’ database allows engineers like Katie to avoid the schools that are already well-resourced, targeting those where they may not be much science capital. Lucy Jones is the Vice Dean of Education at Kingston University, where she oversees courses like nutrition with 85 % women and aerospace engineering with 5 %. She’s imminently awaiting delivery of a new mobile lab, allowing her outreach ambassadors to take portable NMR machines across the UK. She’s the first to bring up the detrimental affect of wonderful role models, whose stellar CVs often put their audience off. Finally, Charles Tracy speaks on behalf of his Improving Gender Balance team at the IOP. Charles (and his great team) know that it’s not a problem of the girls in physics classrooms, but the classrooms the girls are in. The biggest factors that affect a girl studying physics are the school culture, ‘enjoyment’ of physics lessons, future ambitions, perceptions of careers with a physics degree, and the relevance of physics study to life. The Stimulating Physics Network’s support for physics teachers saw an increase of 17 to 23 % girls in physics classrooms, so equipping the teachers was good, but it wasn’t the whole story. The IOP’s work show that it’s often not the unconscious bias of teachers and parents, but the bloody conscious bias we’re inflicting upon the younger generation. It starts are primary level, when we “churn out pink girls and blue boys”, a generation risk averse young ladies who don’t know how to toughen up. Their projects worked with years 9 and 10, the physics teachers and the whole school. The Drayson project, combining the three approaches, saw a 170 % increase of girls in the physics classrooms, and have left a legacy of Peter Main’s JUNO mark for schools.

The audience are switched on here too:

  • Shaaron from the Science Discovery Centre asks what we do to best support young white men.
  • Role models are regularly put on a pedestal as the answer to everybody’s problems- they’re either the parachuted experts or the exceptional occasion- “we’ve got a female physicist coming in today!”. It’s also a massive time commitment on their behalf- we keep pointing out how few ‘women in STEM’ there are. Whilst some role models may be great when you’re at university (lecturers and professors), the same ones might not work on a class of eight year olds.
  • The IET recognise that disconnected parents promote the male-dom of science.

Finally, we hear the beginnings of The Wakeham Review of STEM Degree Provision and Graduate Employability. Wakeham’s review was commissioned in 2014/15 and due late last year. Whilst we preach about the lack of ‘STEM graduates’, lots of them are unemployed or in low paid, non-graduate roles 6-months out of university.

  • This is particularly true for subjects like computer science, where a massive 90 % of graduates can’t find work. At universities like Oxford and Imperial, Computer Science boasts the highest starting salaries (£45,000), whereas at low-tariff institutions grads can’t find jobs.
  • The HESA report also revealed that 40 % of biological science graduates are in non-graduate jobs and chemical engineers are mainly unemployed all together. Wakeham puts this down to the lack of maths and stats training, which is likely what attracts biology undergrads in the first place.
  • Some subjects look like they’re struggling: pharmacology graduates do year-long placements fresh-out of graduation and bioengineers largely go in to post-graduate study.
  • Some subjects have big disparities between courses: take design engineering, where there is either too much engineering or too much design.
  • Aerospace Engineering has a heavy component of aerodynamics, which is an industry we ‘buy-in’ from France and don’t do in the UK, incorrectly skilling their graduates for careers in their own countries.

PlacementSkillsHis findings show that graduates are not engaged with their careers. He wants graduates to leave university with both hard and soft skills, with appropriate levels of career guidance and work experience. For those that want to work in a particularly industry they should seek accreditation within a learned institute or society. On a work placement you learn an awful lot of skills, from hard and project specific knowledge to maths and analytical skills, adaptability, communications and team work. To support these work placement networks the universities will have to capitalise on their current alumni networks.

A quick trip on the Bakerloo line leaves me in Paddington, where I make moves for Oxford Community School in Reading, for a bit of #PriSci.

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