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Engineering Students

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 29 June 2006

5. What assessment he has made of changes in the number of students studying engineering at university in the past 10 years; and if he will make a statement. (80883)

In the 1990s, the total number of engineering students in our universities was falling. Since 2002-03, there has been a 6 per cent. increase. We are committed to continuing that trend. Our 10-year science and innovation investment framework sets out our strategy to develop a strong supply of engineers, scientists, and technologists.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Has he seen the report that the Royal Academy recently published, called “Educating Engineers for the 21st Century: the Industry View”? It concluded that university undergraduate engineering education needs to be completely overhauled. The academy has also asked for stronger collaboration between industry and universities as well as schools so that we can have engineers in the 21st century. I ask my hon. Friend to take those recommendations seriously and implement many of the ideas in the report.

I thank my hon. Friend for his detailed interest in these issues. The report is interesting; we are already responding to a number of the issues raised in the research and I know that the academy welcomes many of the steps we are taking. Links and collaboration between the education system and companies are important to ensure that the needs of industry are understood and reflected in the curriculum. In particular, the establishment of the sector skills councils, the move on specialised diplomas and the establishment of foundation degrees are helping us to change the situation.

But of course the number of first degrees in engineering has fallen from 21,000 in 1996-97 to only 19,500 last year. The Minister will be aware of his Department’s report, “An Assessment of Skill Needs in Engineering”, which concluded that one of the main reasons for that reduction is the limited number studying maths and science subjects at school, where there has been a drop in entries for A-level maths, for example, from 56,000 in 1997 to just 46,000 last year. What steps are the Government taking to boost the uptake of maths and science at A-level? Will they allow the state sector to opt for the IGCSE in maths and the three sciences, which many schools in the independent sector are adopting because of their dissatisfaction with the new curriculum?

However the hon. Gentleman plays with the figures, it is a fact that since 2002-03 there has been a 6 per cent. increase in the number of students of engineering. That increase is on the record and it is important. Undoubtedly, we need to stimulate greater interest and demand at school in the stem subjects. A range of initiatives is in place to achieve that, and there is some evidence of improvement. However, we also have to enthuse young people about the importance of science, and some of the changes that we are developing in the curriculum to get young people to look at the processes of science rather than just learning by rote will be important. We need to get some practical issues across, too, such as the fact that in terms of the graduate earnings premium a person with a stem degree will earn a third more than someone with a non-stem degree. If we start getting those facts across to young people, I think we shall be able to shift the trend.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the opportunity for schools, such as Ridgewood school in Scawsby, Doncaster, in my constituency, to apply for specialist engineering status will have a positive impact on the number of students who will study engineering at university in future?

My hon. Friend is correct. The specialist schools programme has helped us to take the agenda forward. In addition, our commitment by 2008 to ensure that all pupils achieving at least level 6 and over at key stage 3 will be entitled to study three separate science GCSEs, if necessary through collaboration, is an important step forward.