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Universities: STEM Subjects

Volume 716: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

Question

Tabled By

To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills what action he is taking to give priority to STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at higher education level in the light of the possibility of spending cuts affecting universities.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lady Wall, and at her request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in her name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills are crucial in securing future prosperity. Last summer, I asked universities to provide an additional 10,000 places on courses that contribute most to our high-level skills needs, including STEM subjects. All of these places have been filled. Higher Ambitions, the Government’s higher education framework, will deliver further skills needed for new industry and new jobs, notably in STEM subjects.

My Lords, I trust that my noble friend is aware that there is considerable support, particularly on these Benches, for the views that he expressed yesterday in his article in the Guardian about the future of university funding. Will he reassure the House that the Government will continue to work to encourage young people, and more women, to take science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses at colleges and universities? We know that such courses open the door to STEM-related careers. Will he further tell the House what he is doing to strengthen the ties between research and business?

My Lords, the Government are investing in encouraging more young people to take up and study science. We are working with schools to promote interest in, and the study of, STEM subjects; and we are opening up opportunities in universities and beyond. I am glad to say that the uptake of STEM subjects at GCSE and A-level has been rising steadily since 2005. The Government announced a £140 million strategy in January 2008 to secure the next generation of scientists and mathematicians, and provide more and better STEM teachers. This is exactly the sort of investment that we must sustain, and exactly the sort of investment that would be in peril should those in the party opposite have the opportunity to make the swingeing cuts that they are already alluding to.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the number of applications by young people to go to universities this year is already 12 per cent higher than last year? Few of those extra people will go to universities. Every vice-chancellor now agrees that there will be a fall in numbers as a result of his cuts. Sarkozy increases higher education expenditure, Mandelson cuts it. How does he reconcile that with the theme of the election, which is investment in the future, and hope and aspiration for the young?

My Lords, this is pure hyperbole. In reality, the savings that we have set out amount to a reduction of under 5 per cent over the next three years. The Government have made it clear that higher education needs to shoulder its fair share of the burden of reductions in public spending—but not more than its fair share. I will make sure that that remains the case.

My Lords, the recent HEFCE grant letter showed a reduction in unit funding for teaching of around £200 per student, with a figure of £3,950 for 2010-11. Would the Secretary of State indicate whether that is a one-off measure linked to the current economic climate and the need to rebalance the books, following the overspend in student support, or is that rebalancing likely to continue next year? Also, is the cut across the board and will it therefore impact on those students studying STEM subjects and other subjects?

My Lords, universities are aware of the Government’s requirement for that rebalancing, and for them to grow their intake at a pace and on a scale for which the resources exist to support it. We have always made that clear. However, tighter budgets right across the public sector, including in higher education, can be a spur to further diversifying British universities’ funding. That can also focus minds on teaching and research excellence, and on new ways of delivering higher education. Those trends are already part of the picture in higher education; both trends need to become more so in the coming years.