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Higher Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Science and Technology Committee Report

Volume 744: debated on Thursday 21 March 2013

Motion to Take Note

Moved By

That this House takes note of the Report of the Science and Technology Committee on Higher Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects (2nd Report, HL Paper 37).

My Lords, I begin by thanking the members of the Science and Technology Committee for their superb contributions to this report, and the clerk and policy analyst for their excellent support. In particular, I thank Professor Sir William Wakeham, our specialist adviser, for his wise and expert advice, and David Willetts, the Higher Education Minister, for giving his time to meet the chairman and me to discuss a number of key issues arising from the Government’s response.

In their 2011 report, The Plan for Growth, the Government describe education as,

“the foundation of economic success”.

The report emphasised:

“Our economy needs to be … much more dynamic … and retooled for a high tech future, if we are going to create the jobs and prosperity we need for the next generation”.

As a committee, we agree, but the success of this strategy, as the Social Market Foundation report echoed last week,

“will depend crucially on the available STEM skills base”.

That is why we focused our efforts on examining whether the Government are using the available levers to support the higher education sector to meet the UK’s STEM skills.

We did not seek evidence on the recent higher education reforms, as we felt that it was too early to assess their repercussions. However, the committee recognised, in the absence of the expected higher education Bill, that there was an urgent need for the Government to set out their vision and priorities for higher education and for Parliament to have an opportunity to debate them. We hope that that will happen.

We start from a very strong base. We have an outstanding higher education system, with nine of our universities in the Times Higher Education top 100 world university rankings. In research, we are world-leading or a partner of choice in most areas of STEM, but there is evidence that we are not producing sufficient STEM graduates of appropriate quality to meet the challenges of economic growth.

Therefore, we began by attempting to define what was meant by a STEM graduate and we then considered the balance between supply and demand. Both proved to be very challenging tasks. The most common definition for STEM arises from the Joint Academic Coding System, or JACS. This is owned by UCAS and HESA and is a subject coding system across the whole of the higher education sector. However, the problem with the JACS system is that several subjects with little hard science, such as nursing, psychology, sports science, architecture and archaeological science, fall within the highest STEM bands and are given equal weighting to subjects such as chemistry, physics, engineering and maths, which are considered by most employers as the core STEM subjects.

The Government rightly claimed that there has been an overall increase in STEM qualifiers. However, despite modest increases in core STEM subjects, the majority of the increase has arisen from the popularity of so-called soft STEM courses. For example, forensic and archaeological science increased by 349% between 2003 and 2009, while engineering reduced by 3% and computer science by 27%. This trend towards soft STEM helps to explain why on analysis many STEM graduates face employment challenges in traditional STEM careers as core components of their degrees, particularly mathematics, have been studiously avoided.

The committee called on the Government to work with HESA and other stakeholders to apply a standard definition to STEM based on the competencies and skills a STEM graduate should possess and a STEM course should contain. Although the Government accepted the possibility of confusion, they proposed little action other than to discuss this with HEFCE and other stakeholders. Confusion over what constitutes a STEM course or degree is compounded by a lack of reliable data on supply and demand for STEM graduates. There is, of course, no shortage of data but they are often irrelevant, badly co-ordinated, difficult to interrogate and out of date. The principal source collected by HESA is difficult to access and expensive and confusing to interrogate.

LGC, a STEM employer, commented:

“We are not aware of any government-facilitated mechanism to feed our demands for graduate skills into the education system”.

The British Computer Society described HESA data as “misleading” and that,

“degrees with … little computer science content are bundled with true computer science degrees when calculating the statistics”.

The Academy of Medical Sciences commented that the,

“rules for collecting data on postgraduate students make no sense at all”.

Even the Home Office Minister, Damian Green, expressed surprise that it took HESA 18 months to provide statistics of degree starters. The Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, embarrassingly conceded:

“I accept that this is a problem; at the moment everybody is unhappy”.

Disappointingly, the committee’s recommendation for a single body to assume responsibility for the collection and analysis of data was dismissed. Perhaps the Minister could explain just what action is being taken to make data collection and analysis more effective.

The same confusion abounds as regards demand, with the committee reliant on non-governmental sources for analysis. STEM shortages in IT, computer gaming, visual effects, the power electronics sector and nuclear engineering, as well as more specific in vivo technologies for the pharmaceutical industry, were presented to the committee. The 2011 CBI survey on mapping the future of growth reported that 43% of employers were having difficulty recruiting hard STEM staff and forecasted a demand for a further 600,000 professionally trained STEM staff by 2017, requiring a 40% increase in STEM graduates. Just a month ago, a Royal Academy of Engineering report, Jobs and Growth: the Importance of Engineering Skills to the UK Economy, again emphasised the mismatch between supply and demand. The recent SMF report estimated a need for an additional 40,000 STEM graduates to meet demand, adding, quite chillingly:

“Given the home-grown STEM skills shortage, it is inconceivable that the Government’s planned rebalancing can take place in the short-term without substantial levels of migration”.

These are serious demand-side issues, so can the Minister tell the House what steps are being taken more accurately to predict demand needs in order that HEFCE and our HEIs can plan provision?

Inevitably, any discussion of STEM involves addressing provision in our schools. However, investigations into that were being undertaken by the Education Committee in another place so we confined our discussion to the role of mathematics in preparing students as potential STEM undergraduates. Despite the laudable attempts of successive Governments to improve maths provision, we have insufficient numbers studying maths beyond the age of 16, and the levels required, even at A-level, are inadequate to meet the demands of academia or industry. The recent PISA study demonstrated just how far behind our competitors we are, with the UK 28th in the international league table for maths for 15 year-olds. However, despite this lamentable performance, 85% of students give up maths at the age of 16. Our children do not have some defective maths gene problem; this is a problem with our schools. The recent Institute of Education Report, published last month, found that:

“The highest-achieving pupils in England can almost match the most able children in Taiwan and Hong Kong in maths tests at the age of 10. But by the time they take their GCSEs they have fallen nearly two years behind their Far Eastern counterparts”.

We recognise that much work is needed to raise standards pre-16, but given that maths is a fundamental building block for STEM careers, the committee recommended that all children should study an appropriate maths course between age 16 and 19. For students wishing to study hard STEM subjects in higher education, maths to A2 should be compulsory. The Government’s response was disappointing, to say the least. Simply requiring students who did not achieve a GCSE at the age of 16 to continue with that failed pathway misses the point. To be fair, Michael Gove said in the Commons on 7 February that his reforms to the national curriculum are intended to ensure,

“that the building blocks of a mathematical and scientific knowledge will be there in order to ensure that higher-level engineering qualifications can be enjoyed and achieved by a wider group of pupils than ever before”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/2/13; col. 447.]

Hallelujah. Sorry, I should not say that.

Will the Minister explain what Mr Gove meant by this, and whether maths will, after all, become a mandatory component of all post-16 education programmes? Perhaps she can also clarify what progress is being made following Mr Gove’s announcement that he is committed to involving HEIs in the planning of the A-level curriculum. Again, I say hallelujah. That was a key recommendation in our report and resulted from a criticism by universities of the dumbing down of A-level maths standards which led Brian Cantor, the vice-chancellor of the University of York, to state,

“we have to give … remedial classes, often even to triple-A students”.

However, the recent Ofqual report concluded that there was a reluctance by HEIs to lead on any development of A-levels, so a clarification from the Minister would be helpful, as would an update on Professor Nigel Thrift’s discussions with universities in this key area. Our HEIs must also become more demanding about what they expect from students at entry. It cannot be in their interest to dumb down entry to hard STEM courses by removing the requirement for A-level maths. However, our report showed that in 2009 20% of engineering, 38% of chemistry and 60% of computer science undergraduates did not have A-level maths, while according to the ABPI 92% of bioscience undergraduate programmes do not require maths beyond GCSE. That is not acceptable.

Of course, the quality of what is on offer at our HEIs in STEM is not exclusively determined by mathematics, but it is a crucial ingredient in virtually every single STEM course. The committee was anxious to look at where other levers for quality lay and where the Government and the sector could do more to enhance quality.

On a positive note, there was significant support for the introduction of the KIS, the key information set, which, with continued improvement around areas such as data on destination, career paths, quality of teaching and skill acquisition, has the potential to help drive up standards and give students better information. We recommended that the KIS process be urgently extended to postgraduate study. Can the Minister say what progress HEFCE has made following its discussions to give postgraduates better information about courses and universities?

Two issues were constantly raised during our inquiry—postgraduate STEM education and immigration. STEM postgraduates play a significant role in driving innovation, undertaking research and development and providing leadership and entrepreneurship, and yet the Government have failed to convey to students or indeed employers the importance and the value of postgraduate study. It appears that postgraduate education has been the casualty of the higher education reforms, has resulted in a decline in STEM qualifiers in some key subjects, a decline in funding arrangements, particularly for taught masters, and confusion in the minds of many HEIs about the future of their postgraduate programmes, a situation compounded by uncertainties caused by perceptions over immigration.

While we were disappointed that our recommendation to set up an expert group to co-ordinate a postgraduate strategy with key stakeholders was rejected, we noted that HEFCE has been asked to consult stakeholders, including employers. Can the Minister say what progress has been made with those discussions and what outcomes have been agreed, particularly with regard to taught masters degrees, which appear to be being phased out despite their importance in up-skilling and retraining the UK work force.

However, the committee was supportive of the move to establish doctoral training centres and the research councils are to be warmly congratulated on maintaining and, in several cases, enhancing their support for doctoral training. There was some concern about a possible negative impact on the breadth of research, and in particular research that takes place outside DTCs. We also received evidence that there were problems in areas where no DTCs existed. For example, there is not a DCT for physics in the south-east and only one DTC for synthetic organic chemistry in the whole of the UK. How do we get round that and ensure that universities work together? What advice does the Minister have for HEFCE and to RCUK.

The committee was deeply concerned about the negative impact of the Government’s immigration policy, in particular the perception that the UK was hostile to overseas students, particularly from India and the Far East. There has been welcome movement. We welcome the support for our recommendation to make a distinction in the immigration statistics between HE students and other immigrants and the improved ONS methodology that will now allow a rational debate about student numbers, their programmes of study and their impact, although we were disappointed that they are not to be fully disaggregated.

We welcome the recognition that a lack of reliable statistical data, particular in-year data, is hampering both the effectiveness of the Border Agency to do its job, which creates some of the problem, and the higher education sector to promote and monitor good practice. We welcome the acceptance of our recommendation for the Migration Advisory Service to review its tier 2 codes and to consult employers on appropriate rates of pay rather than the £20,000 minimum level. The Prime Minister’s letter to Select Committee chairs still maintains the £20,000 figure. Can the Minister clarify whether we are going to consult employers about appropriate rates or stick to a £20,000 limit which, frankly, is nonsense in a number of areas?

However, we welcome the statement made by Mike Harper in another place when he confirmed that changes will be made to tier 4, which is what we had asked for in our report, to allow,

“talented graduates to stay and work after their studies. All completing PhD students will be allowed to stay in the UK for one year beyond the end of the course to find skilled work or set up as an entrepreneur”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/3/13; col. 24WS.]

That is a very welcome addition and we should support it.

Following the Prime Minister’s visit to India, the battle to reverse the perception—we accept that a great deal of this is about perception—that the UK is unwelcoming to students is now under way. However, it will take more than a charm offensive to correct the current perception. While David Willetts’s pledge that there is no cap and that there are no plans to introduce a cap on student numbers is extremely welcome, the tough language coming out of the Home Office to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands continues to give the impression that, while students may be welcome to study here, they are not welcome to work and settle.

I am sure that noble Lords will wish to explore other aspects of the report in greater detail. Meanwhile, I commend it to the House. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for introducing this debate and I thank the members of the Science and Technology Select Committee for the very substantial report that we are considering today. The Government have responded to the report at length, which suggests that they fully recognise its importance.

The reason so few students pursue the STEM subjects in universities is that they are unpopular. Given that students have the freedom to choose and the lack of incentives that might direct their choice, this amounts to a mere tautology. A vicious cycle which has diminished the popularity of these subjects has been operating for many years. A lack of knowledge or experience of the STEM subjects among adults limits the perspective of students. A lack of teachers who are properly trained in science and technology prejudices the quality of STEM education in schools, which exacerbates the problem. One could ask how this vicious cycle has developed, but it is more important to think about its consequences and to wonder how it might be broken.

Britain has a peculiar cultural and social history that has militated against the survival of its scientific and technical competence. The members of the managerial classes in the UK have rarely been educated in science and technology, and often they have shown a palpable aversion to such matters. Even in the early post-war years, after Britain’s prowess in science and technology had done much to contribute towards the Allied victories, managers and workers were endeavouring to place restraints on technological innovation. Such innovation threatened the power of trades unions in entrenched positions. On the managerial side, the logic of cost accountancy demanded that in order to spread the overheads of investment in fixed capital, production should proceed without the seemingly gratuitous interruptions that tinkering technologists are liable to cause. The deleterious consequences of this managerial attitude were becoming all too apparent in the 1960s when one after another of our industries that ought to have been at the forefront of technological innovations were overtaken by foreign competitors.

The problems associated with a lack of industrial investment continued throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, which was the era of mass destruction of British industry as well as a time of severe economic recession. The lack of opportunities for technically trained graduates was exacerbated by the growing tendency of firms to resort to contracting out when in need of technological or scientific services. The inevitable consequence of the lack of technically trained employees within business organisations was a failure to perceive the opportunities for technological innovation. The closure or curtailment, during this period, of many government scientific research establishments also had a negative impact on the pursuit of technological innovation in industry.

The 1960s had seen a marked increase in the number of students graduating from British universities as a consequence of the so-called Robbins expansion of higher education. However, the expansion was spearheaded by the liberal arts and social studies. This emphasis accorded well with the ethos of the time, which was decidedly libertarian. It was to a gentlemanly education that many of the recruits to universities aspired rather than to a technical education. This was doubtless a reflection of the way in which education has served, in this country, to signal and buttress social status. The continued relative decline of British industry also diminished the attractiveness of a technical education.

The University of Sussex, which was the first of the new Robbins universities, embodied the ethos of the times, and it adopted a novel multidisciplinary approach to the social sciences. It placed each of them in a wider context that was provided by one of several schools of studies: African studies, American studies, European studies and so on. However, it is perhaps ironical, given the emphasis the university has placed on social sciences, that it developed a greater reputation in the mathematical, physical and material sciences. The mathematics department in the University of Sussex was under the guidance of Walter Ledermann and led the way in a programme of applicable mathematics. Ledermann had developed a liking for concrete mathematics and a distaste for abstraction for its own sake. His attitudes were a reaction to what had gone amiss in the teaching of mathematics at the undergraduate level. Abstraction for its own sake had been the hallmark of much of European mathematics throughout the second quarter of the 20th century.

That tendency was exemplified by the work of a priesthood of French mathematicians who compiled a mass of literature working under the collective pseudonym of Bourbaki. The Bourbakistes were aiming at a completely self-contained, axiomatic treatment of the core areas of modern mathematics, based on set theory. In the main, they despised applied mathematics. Their rigorous approach, which is greatly impressive to professional mathematicians, permeated the discipline in a way that rendered many of the undergraduate courses virtually inaccessible to their students. It is this legacy that has been responsible, in part, for the demise of undergraduate mathematics in Britain. Noble Lords can imagine my dismay when, on visiting the University of Sussex a few years ago to give a lecture in the maths department, I discovered that the department had been virtually reduced to two men and a boy, who were housed in a broom cupboard. That this department should have suffered in the general demise of university mathematics in Britain seems to be singularly unfair, given the manner in which it had championed accessible mathematics.

Nowadays, departments of mathematics in universities treat their students in a very emollient way that differs greatly from their practice in the past. They need to do so on account of how ill prepared the students are on arrival at university, which is largely the fault of their education at A-level. I am not sure who has been teaching them but, in the main, they have learnt their mathematics in a way that is seriously lacking in conceptualisation. At school, the students are taught mathematics in an operational manner as opposed to a conceptual manner. That is to say, mathematics is taught as a series of recipes and, instead of learning a language, which is what mathematics is, they are learning the content of a phrasebook. Their memories are overburdened and, for most of them, the distinction between learning and understanding is lost. Examples of recipe-book mathematics are provided by the courses in statistics that are nowadays taught to many A-level students. This part of the syllabus has replaced the traditional diet of kinematics and dynamics, with the effect that many students are ignorant of Newton’s laws of motion, which renders them scientifically illiterate, in my opinion.

I welcome the proposal to make the study of maths compulsory for all post-16 students but am wary of a proposal that higher education institutions should introduce more demanding requirements for students intending to study STEM subjects. The fulfilment of that particular nostrum would require an enhancement of the maths education in schools, which is of course a primary objective. An enhanced provision of in-service training for maths teachers via colloquia and seminars would be helpful in this respect. It has been asserted, in particular by our colleague, Professor Winston—the noble Lord, Lord Winston—that children should be exposed to good mathematics teaching in their early years. That claim warrants some serious investigation.

Mathematics taught as an adjunct to a scientific subject tends to be unpopular with undergraduate students. It is seen as difficult and demanding and it gives rise, invariably, to what is nowadays described as a “bad student experience”. It should be clear that, when great emphasis is placed on the quality of the student experience, and when the testimony of the students themselves is how such experiences are assessed, the teaching of mathematics is under severe threat. It is in this connection that I find some of the things being proposed in the report which fall under the heading “Quality, standards and benchmarks” to be misguided and unhelpful. The report has repeated many of the nostrums of the Government’s higher education White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System. In order to mollify students who will be paying for the costs of their education, the Government have proposed to put them in the driving seat. The degree of their satisfaction will be measured in respect of all their taught courses. If this satisfaction is insufficient, sanctions will be applied to teachers and their departments. An inevitable consequence of this will be the curtailment of the unpopular technical modules that form an essential part of many undergraduate courses. Given that the discretion in such matters now resides with the administrators of universities as opposed to the academics, little attention will be paid to the circumstances that explain this unpopularity.

The report is most effective, in my opinion, when it is describing the hazards that have arisen from recent government policies. The effect of their policies on student visas will be to knock away the props that support many postgraduate courses in technical subjects. The lack of substantial financial provision for British postgraduate students to address the effects of the heightened university fees threatens to diminish their numbers even further. It would be difficult to exaggerate the deleterious effects that these policies will have if they are allowed to prevail for any length of time.

It is difficult to be optimistic when one believes that the effective remedies have little chance of being applied. The remedies would require raising the status of education and employment in science, technology, engineering and maths to a level that has not been reached for at least a generation. This would entail some generous expenditure. First, substantial bursaries should be granted to university students to pursue STEM courses, at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Employers could also sponsor their technical employees to attend university courses, as many did in the past. It should be acceptable to them to indenture the persons whom they have sponsored in this way for a significant period so that they could derive a benefit commensurate with their outlay. They might thereby acquire the in-house expertise that has hitherto been lacking.

The Government could set terms for such arrangements that would be applicable to all industries, and they could give subventions to ensure that the arrangements will be profitable to the companies. The Government could also flout the laws of the European Union by giving favourable tax breaks to companies undertaking investment in new or enhanced technologies. Many other inducements of this sort could be described. They should go hand in hand with a programme aimed at spreading the message regarding the importance and the fascination of science and technology.

What will happen if we do nothing along these lines? Our economy will suffer a further decline. The extremes of wealth and poverty that we are already witnessing will be exacerbated and our society will be ruptured. The ownership of our national assets will pass into foreign hands. We will become a nation of helots, as we were in the darkest days of the Industrial Revolution, but this time it will be for reasons of our deindustrialisation.

I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Willis, on obtaining this debate and on his excellent opening speech. I also thank the clerks for their support, and Professor William Wakeham for his invaluable and insightful advice. He knows as much about this field as anyone.

I will address my brief remarks to the issue of ensuring that science-based industries are supplied with the outstanding creative scientists and engineers they need to produce competitive, up-to-date products, across a full range: pharmaceuticals, automobiles, aeronautical components, IT and software-based systems, et cetera. These researchers are almost always postgraduates. Without them, modern technology companies cannot survive. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, has talked about this. The Government seem to have a blind spot when it comes to postgraduates.

The Select Committee report contains a number of recommendations that relate to postgraduates. I am going to concentrate on just one, recommendation 15, which suggests that,

“the Government set up an expert group to consider the supply and demand of STEM postgraduate provision in the UK and to identify weaknesses and areas of skills shortage”.

This recommendation was rejected by the Government. I believe this was a mistake.

Universities and industry have traditionally developed an understanding of their mutual interests by being members of the same international research communities. It was at conferences or through publications that industrial researchers met academics whose work was relevant to their products. This frequently led to companies retaining these academics as consultants and, as a consequence, their research students became aware of the interests of industry. Industrialists got to know who the most talented students were and could approach them to join their company or to support them through CASE studentships et cetera.

A striking statistic is that 76% of doctoral students are studying STEM subjects, of which I would expect at least 40% to be working in applied science or engineering. In today’s difficult financial times, the most relevant way to measure the success of their applied research is to find out how many of these postgraduate students have ended up working in industry in the field of their postgraduate studies. The best time to assess this is probably five years after they graduated. Many just leave and never come back to research, let alone research for industry. Technology transfer is most easily achieved through the transfer of people, and this is also an accurate measure of whether the technology has actually been transferred. I doubt that such data are available, but they should be. We have to know how much of our research is having an impact on real products in the real market. We keep boasting about our science base, but it is increasingly clear that it is placing only a few of our industries in a competitive international position. Let us find out what is actually the situation. If we are doing really well, 20% of our applied science and engineering research should be influencing products. I recall that in the US research laboratories I worked in for 20 years we regarded a laboratory as very successful if 20% of its research influenced new product development. Mind you, I am talking about research and not development; we always conflate these two, just showing how ignorant we are of that world. Research and development are different. Ten per cent was the cut-even point; let us find out how we are doing.

Regrettably, ever fewer companies today carry out research, as opposed to development, with the consequence that fewer UK industrial researchers are reporting state-of-the-art research and that the traditional meeting place for industry and academia is disappearing. Several of our successful companies have developed alternative ways of bridging to universities. They have the knowledge and skills to understand how to operate in the new environment, where academic research must play a much more important role than in the past.

This issue will not be solved by HEFCE consulting industry by using existing mechanisms as the Government’s response to the Select Committee report hopes. We need to understand better how we compare with others in the employment by industry of postgraduates in STEM subjects. A specialist group, headed by successful entrepreneurs and senior industrialists, needs to be formed and asked to determine whether we are internationally competitive in having our government-funded research taken up by industry and, if so, why we appear so low on the table of R&D spend as a fraction of GDP. As I have said, it is widely acknowledged that the best way to succeed in technology transfer is through the transfer of people. We need to know how many of our postgraduate students are working in industry and whether they have carried with them the research expertise and results that they gained while pursuing government-funded research at universities. We then need to reinforce the methods that the most successful companies have used to make up for a shortfall if that is what the data show.

As far as I can see, these data, and an understanding of what is influencing them, are not going to emerge using present mechanisms for interactions with industry. I therefore recommend to the Minister that means for obtaining these data be put in place and that the Select Committee’s recommendation be accepted. I ask the Government to reconsider their decision.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Willis for an excellent report. I am a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology at the moment, but I was not a member when this report was produced, nor was I a contributor to it.

It is timely for us to have this report now given that we have just considered the Budget and the need for growth has become very apparent. Yet one of the key elements that we see in growth these days—this was spelt out at some length in the Government’s growth strategy, which was produced by BIS in the past year—is the need to depend upon science and technology industries. However, we need to rebalance the economy away from consumption and towards investment, away from services and towards manufacturing, and away from low-tech areas and towards high-tech areas. In their strategy for growth, for example, the Government have given considerable emphasis to sectors such as aerospace, advanced manufacturing and life sciences.

Sustainable growth is also going to mean more for less. It will mean that we have to increase productivity substantially, and if we are going to increase productivity then we will have to increase the number of skilled and highly qualified members of the workforce; it is well known that the higher the skill level, the higher the levels of productivity. Yet the CBI skills survey estimates that around 42% of employers are reporting shortages in STEM skills. The survey by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Big Innovation Centre, mentioned by my noble friend, estimated that by 2020 the UK would need around 104,000 new graduates in STEM areas every year. This compares to around 80,000 being produced at the moment, so there will be a shortfall of something in the region of 40,000 graduates every year with regard to needs.

Similarly, a recent study from MORI shows that we need around 87,000 graduates each year with at least level 4 skills, the HND level, in engineering. This compares with the figures that we have for 2009-10—incidentally, this is interesting with regard to what my noble friend Lord Willis said about HESA—because the most up to date figures that we have for the number of graduates that we are producing in the area of engineering are around 21,000. It became clear from the report that one can argue about the precise figures, but the general message is that we need more young people to take up science and technology subjects in our universities. That in turn means that many more young people have to think about science and technology when they are in school.

One of the most appalling statistics that I came across in the documents that I looked at in preparation for this debate was that only 20% of those who get good grades at GCSE in science pursue science through to A-level. If we are going to increase the number of those moving on to university, we have to increase the numbers at A-level, and there is a large number of people who could do that. Why do so few of those taking science as part of their GCSEs go on to take those subjects at A-level? One reason has already been touched upon by my noble friend: mathematics. Many students in our schools, for some reason or another, find mathematics difficult. In particular, our teaching of mathematics at secondary school seems to be deficient. At the age of 10, our best young people are as good as their international comparators, but by the time they get to 16 they have fallen behind by something like two years.

My own feeling is that the Government’s response to this by introducing the EBacc, and therefore putting a lot of emphasis not only on maths at GCSE but on having a reasonably broad range of subjects, including science, is helpful, and perhaps will help to get more young people taking science at GCSE level. However, I have great reservations about the reforms at the advanced level. While I welcome the rigour of mathematics at that level, I have great reservations about the dismissal of the AS-level. Quite a few students at the moment take AS-level maths as an intermediate qualification but do not go on to pursue it to A2-level. By getting rid of the A2-level in maths, we may find that those students do not try to take any maths at all at a further level.

I know that the Secretary of State is anxious to have an intermediate level maths examination, and I would certainly welcome that. However—this echoes something that I have heard the noble Lord, Lord Broers, say from time to time—I would welcome it if, instead of narrowing down specialisation at the age of 16 to just a few subjects, making it difficult to pursue both mathematics, science and an arts subject, we went down the route of the international baccalaureate, or something equivalent, whereby students keep a much broader range of subjects right through to 18. With our raising of the age of participation from 16 to 18, there was an opportunity to do that. It is an opportunity that we have missed.

The table on page 17 shows how out of line we are in not requiring continuing study of mathematics post-16. The table on page 23 illustrates how few students in the science and social science field take mathematics through to that level. It is not just about maths education. Another point touched on by the committee is careers advice. At the moment, if young people at the age of 13 or 14 do not make the right choices, they often cut off options later. Schools need independent careers advice from people who have knowledge of the world outside. Recent changes have changed the position of information, advice and guidance on careers, and schools are supposed to have independent advice, but, too frequently, they are now relying merely on a website and a telephone hotline, not providing that advice in person.

Many young people aged 13 or 14 have no idea what they want to do. It is very important that they can keep their options open. That is why I favour the wider route. They are unaware of the flexibility that there is later. It is important for them to have proper careers advice and information about universities where they can study different subjects in flexible ways at that stage.

My other point about schools concerns girls. One reason why those who get good science results do not continue is because they are girls. We know that relatively few young women go on to pursue science. There again, how important careers advice is. I would like more professional advice to go to those young women so that they know the careers that they could go into. At the moment, their own views are much too stereotyped. It is important that they should experience some of the wider options available.

I pick up two other important issues. It is not mentioned in the report, but it is significant that about 60,000 of the 300,000 young people entering higher education come not by the A-level route but by the BTEC route, the more vocational route. We need to put that alongside the academic A-level route.

It is important that as well as the more vocational route there is also progression to higher-level apprenticeships and the higher levels of BTEC, that progression is recognised and we develop not a two-tier system but a dual-track system so that it is possible at any moment to move across and upwards rather than feeling that there is a single-track ladder that takes you upwards. We need a dual-track system to higher qualifications. In the past, and even today, many of those who lead our leading engineering firms came up through the apprenticeship route rather than the academic route.

Finally, I shall say a word about postgraduate provision. Here I should declare an interest in that I was a member of the all-party Higher Education Commission that last year produced a report on postgraduate provision. I shall pick up two aspects of financial provision for postgraduate training. The first is that those who pursue taught master’s courses largely in order to develop the professional skills that are now needed in many of the more professional careers need a proper form of career development loan. The current system is not working, and it is vital that some new guarantee, perhaps, is given. It is reasonable that we could look to the private sector to provide the loans, but we need to get a much better mechanism for making them work. When the Government are prepared to put £5 billion behind mortgage guarantees, surely they could put some money behind this sort of guarantee. I would like to see it.

It is vital that we see proper funding of masters and PhD research studentships, which is up to the research councils. Like my noble friend Lord Willis, I think that the development of the doctoral research centres has its point, but it is also important that basic financial support for young people in studentships is there to encourage people from this country to go into postgraduate careers. As the noble Lord, Lord Broers, emphasised, postgraduate training here is a vital means of technology transfer.

This report raises a lot of important subjects for this country if we are to pursue the wishes that many Ministers have expressed to become a high-tech country dependent on science-based technologies and to develop our knowledge-based industries. The response from the Government has been disappointing in many respects, not least in relation to visas. In the past, because we have not been producing enough STEM graduates, we have been filling vacancies with migrants from overseas. Now we are shutting the door on those coming in from overseas. As far as we are concerned, however, it will be too late if we cannot grow our own graduates to fill those places. This message has been before successive Governments over the past 30 years but it has not had an impact. This time, I hope the Government might be rather more responsive.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of Cambridge University and as this year’s president of the Association for Science Education. I add my tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for introducing this debate and for his superb chairmanship. His earlier incarnation as a headmaster not only gave him familiarity with the topic but skills in keeping order.

I shall highlight three distinct reasons why STEM subjects are so important. The first, and the prime motivation and focus of our report, is that an ever-growing fraction of jobs needs specific skills at levels ranging from basic technical confidence through to researchers, medics and engineers with the highest professionalism. Surveys show, as we have heard, a continuing undersupply of such people which will be hard to remedy without welcoming immigrant talent. We have heard about the own goals which this Government have scored on that front.

We are mindful also of the surging numbers of scientifically qualified young people in the Far East. That is, in itself, a welcome development for that region and for the world. What should genuinely worry us is whether we are matching their quality and level of achievement. The noble Lord, Lord Willis, reminded us of a recent study of competence in mathematics, which showed that our best 10 year-olds were level-pegging with those in the Far East, but that by the age of 16 they were two years behind. At university level, we should worry about whether students in other countries are working more intensively and achieving higher attainment levels. Sustaining the international standing of our degrees is a serious matter for colleges and universities. Our committee therefore addressed issues of accreditation, kite-marking and so forth.

The quality of secondary education, as opposed to higher education, was not the focus of our inquiry. However, it is of course crucial in preparing and motivating those who will embark on higher education in STEM subjects. However, science education is not just for future scientists, engineers and technicians. There is a second reason why it is important. Today’s young people, all of them, will live in a world ever more dependent on technology and ever more vulnerable to its failures or misdirection. To be at ease in this fast-changing world, and to be effective citizens participating in democratic debate, they will all need at least a feel for science, enough to prevent them being bamboozled by propaganda or over deferential to experts. Of course, they need a feeling for numbers to be comfortable in assessing probabilities, risk and uncertainty.

Therefore, school-level education should not be geared solely towards the training of specialists. Our committee, as we have heard, deplored the fact that so few young people study any maths beyond the age of 16. Some press comment berated us by asking whether it would really be appropriate for everyone to do A-level maths in its present form. Of course, it would not. We were not suggesting that. However, an appropriate curriculum, focusing on mathematical fluency and relevance, could be devised. We should therefore welcome the proposals from ACME, the Nuffield Foundation and, indeed, from my eminent Cambridge colleague Professor Tim Gowers.

To my mind, this downplaying of maths is just an instance of a chronic problem to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, has already alluded: the UK’s unduly narrow post-16 curriculum. We should surely keep pushing for more breadth. Back in the 1980s, the widely supported Higginson proposals were killed off by Margaret Thatcher with a mantra about not jeopardising the gold standard of A-levels. Tomlinson was likewise stymied, this time by the previous Labour Government, because it was perceived that his proposals would play badly electorally.

The post-16 overspecialisation is bad for the would-be scientists and engineers, too. They would benefit from language skills just as much as their humanities counterparts need more numeracy. However, in any broadening of the curriculum in the schools, the universities need to be supportive and not obstructive. At the moment, they are justly blamed by the schools for discouraging breadth by favouring applicants who have had a narrow focus. Indeed, our universities should follow the example of American universities in broadening their own degree courses and in introducing a more flexible system of credits to facilitate transfer between institutions and offer a second chance to those unlucky in their pre-18 education. A large fraction of young people have options foreclosed simply because they are unlucky with the teaching that they secure at the sixth-form level.

Even with the current narrow undergraduate curriculum, it is clear that a bachelor’s degree is not in itself a sufficient qualification and must be topped up for many purposes by a masters-level course. That is why it matters so much that masters courses are under special threat, in particular through a lack of funding sources for home students. Given that money is tight, what is the best solution to this problem? Distance learning and online courses have a huge role across all higher and further education, at least as a supplement to traditional methods, but it is surely at the masters level that MOOCs and the rest offer the most unambiguous benefits in terms of cost-saving and rationalisation. At that level, the students are more mature and motivated. Many would prefer to work part time to enhance their vocational credentials. There is surely huge scope for expanding the options and enhancing efficiency through use of IT by consortia of universities and colleges.

As the noble Lord, Lord Broers, pointed out, it is at the postgraduate level that we need to identify strategic areas. Having identified them, we need to offer incentives, from government or the private sector, to boost expertise in them. But let us not forget that it is no good educating more students in strategic areas if the relevant industries cannot attract and retain them and they are eventually seduced into the financial sector.

Finally, we should not overlook a third reason why STEM education is important right through the system. Science is part of our culture. More than that, it is the one culture that is truly global; protons, proteins and Pythagoras’s theorem transcend all boundaries of nation and faith. It is a real intellectual deprivation not to understand our natural world, and the insights stemming from Darwin, Watson, Crick, and so on. The BBC audiences for David Attenborough, Brian Cox and many other excellent expositors demonstrate the genuine hunger for such knowledge, even if it is as seemingly irrelevant as dinosaurs and the cosmos.

The modern world will feel bewildering, even frightening, unless people have some grasp of the basic principles underlying it—the biosphere and climate, and the artefacts that everyday life depends on. Achieving this understanding of the everyday things that we depend on is genuinely harder today. Fifty years ago, inquisitive children could take apart a clock, a radio set or a motorbike, figure out how it worked, and even put it together again. But it is different today. The gadgets that now pervade young people’s lives, smart-phones and suchlike, are baffling black boxes, pure magic to most people. Even if you take them apart, you will find few clues to their arcane miniaturised mechanisms, and you certainly cannot put them together again. So the extreme sophistication of modern technology, wonderful though its benefits are, is, ironically, an impediment to engaging young people with the basics, with learning how things work. Likewise, town-dwellers are more distanced from the natural world than earlier generations were. That is why an earlier report from our committee expressed concern about a decline in practical work, field trips and the like. So the issues addressed by our committee are crucial not only to the UK’s economy and environment, but also to education and well-being in the widest sense.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for his chairmanship of this inquiry. When we started out, it seemed such a broad topic that we did not know how we would focus on key issues. However, the skill, discipline and good humour of the noble Lord, Lord Willis, enabled us to focus on some important issues that affect the future of STEM in higher education.

Other noble Lords have set out the importance of STEM graduates, both at first and second degree level, to the future of the UK economy. Therefore, I will not dwell on that but remind noble Lords en passant of the Social Market Foundation report, to which the noble Lord, Lord Willis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, referred, which estimates an annual shortfall of 40,000 STEM graduates. Filling that gap implies a 50% increase in UK STEM graduates, if we are to rely on home-grown talent. It seems to me highly unlikely that the gap, whatever its size, will easily be met by UK students. Why do I say that? It is because we simply cannot turn on a tap to produce more STEM graduates because the supply chain is a long one that starts at school. For example, with an estimated shortage of 4,000 physics teachers, according to the Institute of Physics, and with no fewer than 500 state secondary schools having no qualified physics teacher at all, how can we hope to produce more graduates in the core hard STEM subjects? Going back further in the supply chain, it is estimated that less than 5% of primary school teachers have STEM qualifications. In this context, can the Minister tell us how many applicants per post there were last year for teaching jobs in physics, chemistry and maths in state secondary schools? We will rely on importing talent from overseas, as we have done in the past.

I recently took part in a Radio 4 programme called “Premiership Science”, which drew the analogy between the premiership in the Football League and the UK’s position in science. The premiership is deemed by many to be the best football league in the world because it draws on the best talent from all over the world. The programme argued that we should aim to do the same in science, taking account of our natural advantage of language and the reputation of our leading universities. Will we be able to continue to do this after the Government shot themselves in the foot a couple of years ago by making it appear to be much more difficult for overseas students to come here to study STEM subjects as undergraduates or postgraduates and then to stay on to work?

The inquiry heard of the dramatic impact of the changes in the Immigration Rules: for example, a 39% decline in applicants from India to the University of Aston, a leading university in engineering and technology. Together with a number of other Select Committee chairs, I recently wrote to the Prime Minister, ahead of his visit to India, to express concerns about both the reality and, as the noble Lord, Lord Willis, emphasised, the perception that the UK no longer welcomes overseas talent. In his reply, the Prime Minister was upbeat about recent changes to immigration policy that he believes will encourage students to come here, and reverse the damage—although he did not acknowledge that there was damage—done by earlier announcements.

However, the evidence from my own university—the University of Oxford—where there are nearly 4,000 students on tier 4 visas, indicates that there are still significant problems. I will enumerate some of them: first, the administrative burden and cost associated with attendance monitoring by the university; and, secondly, the bureaucratic complexity of the post-study work options. For instance, the proposal to allow PhD students to stay on and work for 12 months after completion by issuing a confirmation of acceptance for studies extension requires specifying the exact date of completion of the PhD ahead of time, and for the university to maintain contact with the student for 12 months after completing the course. As anybody in higher education will confirm, the inherent nature of completing a PhD means that it is often very difficult to specify in advance the exact date of the end of the course. Thirdly, as regards visa processing times, student visa extensions take three months or more to process. The UKBA held the passport of a senior overseas academic in my Oxford college for 27 weeks, and it was only after intervention by a Minister that action was elicited from it. This really does not encourage people to think of the UK as a welcoming place to work after they have studied here.

Fourthly, the UKBA’s tendency to change the rules frequently makes it difficult for overseas students to navigate the processes. Does the Minister agree that whatever the rhetoric, the reality is that the Government are still not doing enough to make it easy to draw in top talent from around the world to study and work here? Does she also agree that this country, for the foreseeable future, will be dependent on overseas talent to fill the STEM deficit?

I turn briefly to the subject of postgraduate provision, to which other noble Lords have already referred. Our inquiry highlighted the fact that too little attention has been paid to the funding and quality of postgraduate STEM education and training. The funding of master’s was not addressed by the Browne inquiry. Yet, as we have already heard, increasingly employers demand master’s or PhD level qualifications for entrants to the job market.

Sir Adrian Smith’s 2010 report, One Step Beyond, highlighted the funding shortfall for postgraduate provision at that time, with 60% of those on taught master’s and 30% of those taking postgraduate research degrees having no public or charitable funding. In my own university, survey results show that across all disciplines 45% of those turning down a place for graduate studies at Oxford cite lack of funding as the reason. This is exacerbated by the fact that our major competitors, in the United States and elsewhere, typically offer 100% funding for postgraduate studies. The withdrawal of funding for taught master’s by the research councils, which has already been referred to, is making the situation worse. I note that the research councils’ funding for STEM postgraduate research posts in 2010-11 is at its lowest level since 2004-05. Does the Minister agree that lack of funding for graduate studies in STEM subjects in particular will be a threat to the nation’s ability to generate sufficient numbers of educated and trained people to meet the demands of industry?

Finally, I turn briefly to the topic of maths education, which has had a thorough airing in the comments from previous noble Lords in this debate. In referring to a recent report from the Nuffield Foundation, Towards Universal Participation in Post-16 Mathematics: Lessons from High-Performing Countries, I declare an interest in that I am a trustee of that foundation. This report reveals that the UK has the lowest participation rates in post-16 maths out of 24 comparable countries. The Nuffield report goes on to suggest that a qualification based on mathematical fluency, modelling and statistics, which should be built into the requirements for higher education, would be suitable for those who do not wish to go on with specialist subjects requiring high-level maths education. Does the Minister accept that post-16 maths is a priority for producing future generations of STEM graduates and, more widely, for the future prosperity of the country?

As the noble Lord, Lord Willis, mentioned, we were somewhat disappointed by the Government’s lack of enthusiasm for many of our recommendations, although he and I appreciated the fact that the Science and Higher Education Minister, David Willetts, made time to discuss with us how many of our points could be taken forward. I very much hope that the Minister will reassure us that, as a result of our inquiry and this debate, we will see the Government taking the issue of STEM in higher education as a serious challenge for the future prosperity of this country.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Willis of Knaresborough, for introducing the report in such a good way and for giving us an insight into the thinking that went into it. I also thank the noble Lord and his colleagues for the report itself. This has been a very high-level debate indeed and one that will live long in the memory. However, I still never get answers when I raise this so I have to ask: why has it taken since July 2012 for this debate to come forward today? These are important and crucial issues. As was mentioned, they are also rather timeous in the sense that they stem out—sorry for the pun—from the debate earlier today in your Lordships’ House on the Budget. There are points in the report that could have been picked up earlier by the Government, but in the way that this has been handled, we will be unable to see what has happened because the timing has been so long.

The question that I shall focus on largely comes from an interest that I must declare, which is that I am a STEM graduate. I studied chemistry at university and two of my three children are about to go to university to study STEM subjects, and one is about to complete an HE course. That does not, sadly, follow me into the sciences but she opted for a social science degree. Her case is exemplary in terms of what has been said in this debate. She had strong GCSEs, including triple science and maths, and then switched at A-level to maths, further maths, economics and history. However, she then decided to take economics and politics at university, and will graduate this year with a degree in those topics.

The context to the report, as has been said, is the Budget debate in your Lordships’ House today and the Budget yesterday. UK economic output is flatlining, with GDP still below 2007-08 levels. In addition, projections of future growth look anaemic, raising questions about where future growth is to come from. In the wake of the financial crisis and subsequent recession, the coalition Government set out to “rebalance” the economy away from financial services and the south-east towards other sectors and regions, including manufacturing, life sciences and green energy. However, as the committee’s report makes clear, this path to growth is heavily reliant on building and sustaining the health of the STEM industries in this country. It is common ground that the success of this strategy will depend crucially on the available STEM skills base, and it is on this issue that I wish to centre my remarks. How will we ensure that there will be sufficient home-grown talent to satisfy the employment requirements in this sector?

According to the report by the Social Market Foundation, which has been referred to by several noble Lords, there are already shortages in the supply of UK-domiciled STEM-qualified labour. STEM-qualified individuals are in demand across the core STEM sectors, but also across the wider economy, which means that the supply of STEM-qualified individuals actually has to be higher than the number of STEM jobs to ensure that demand from the STEM sector is met. The UK has a long-running home-grown STEM skills deficit and in recent years has tended to rely on migration to make up the shortfall in domestic supply. This has effectively been stopped by the current Government’s immigration policy.

So, how many new workers do we need out of the system? The key message on the numbers seems to be that if we are to fulfil the estimated employment requirements and make progress in rebalancing the economy, the UK will need to increase substantially the number of individuals taking STEM subjects at school. It was therefore worrying to read in the report, and to see in the Social Market Foundation report, that there are several points at which potential future STEM employees are lost to other subjects and sectors. Of those who have achieved good science GCSEs two years earlier, only around one-fifth go on to take science A-levels. Just under 60% of those who take science A-levels actually graduate in STEM subjects. Even of those who graduate in STEM, between 18% and 29% go on to work outside STEM occupations.

One way of addressing the shortfall is for policymakers to focus on reducing the proportion of students lost to non-STEM subjects at each educational transition point. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s views on that point.

As we have heard, there may be some scope to increase A-level STEM take-up among those who do well at GCSE and by reducing disparities in GCSE achievement between different groups of students. Raising the performance of all groups to the level of the best could help make some inroads into the shortfall across STEM. Bearing in mind my personal experience, it was interesting to read that if boys did as well as girls at science GCSE, and girls took up A-level science at the same rate as boys, the number of pupils doing A-level science in England and Wales in recent years would have been higher by an average of between 11,000 and 13,000 each year, or between 14% and 16% higher per year. If the proportions of A-level students taking science in England and Wales had been as high as that in Northern Ireland in recent years, the number of pupils doing A-level science in England and Wales would have been higher by between some 13,000 and 17,000 each year, or between 16% and 22% higher per year. To change tack slightly, but still on the same point, if those on free school meals in England had done as well in GCSE science in recent years as the rest of their cohort, the number of pupils doing A-level science in England would have been higher by an average of between 3,000 and 4,000 each year, or between 4% and 5% higher per year. If you do the maths, I think you will find that the numbers will increase substantially if all these matters come to pass.

However, even those measures, taken together, will do only a modest amount to close what appears to be the gap. The SMF report estimates that there could be an increase of about 18,000 STEM graduates per year, but the shortfall is at least 40,000 and may be as high as 100,000. This means that the real solution to the UK’s huge STEM skills deficit lies in starting much earlier to boost GCSE STEM attainment across the board. At the moment, too few students achieve good GCSE grades. We need to do more on that, we need to do better in the EBacc, and we need to make sure that the transition across to A-levels is sustained and made permanent.

The broader challenges that that raises have been addressed by the committee and there have been a number of initiatives which we have woven into the report and which I should like to bring together. Obviously, teaching has a major impact on achievement. Therefore, as has been mentioned, expanding the supply of science and maths teachers is vital if we are to avoid a vicious cycle of self-perpetuating skills shortages. The Government should therefore explore methods to make the teaching profession much more financially attractive relative to the other employment options that are open to science and maths graduates. For instance, the number of STEM teachers on the Teach First programme could be further expanded, perhaps building on support from the STEM industry. More radical measures might include relaxing the initial eligibility criteria for teacher training and encouraging more international recruitment of science and maths teachers in the short term. It would be interesting to get the Minister’s views on those proposals.

Turning to other points in the report, it was right for the committee to pick up the continuing failure to sort out the postgraduate course in STEM areas. It is important that this is tackled. It was also right to recognise the difficulty of projecting future employment requirements, but this is absolutely crucial to developing policy in this area. Therefore, I strongly commend the recommendations in the report concerning the importance of gaining a lot more understanding of what influences students’ course choices; the quality and consistency of the independent careers advice that they have access to—or, increasingly, do not have access to; the need for longitudinal studies of careers and flows in and out of the STEM industries; and the holding and analysing of data on postgraduate entry and take-up. I particularly echo the call in the report for a,

“robust, long-term tracking system for postgraduate provision and destination data”,

and draw attention to the rather limp response from the Government to recommendation 10, which has already been mentioned.

Other areas where the Government’s response to recommendations is less than satisfactory are quality assurance and standards and scrutiny, as well as how they are going to afford Parliament a chance to take a view on their radical reforms to the organisation of our HE system. Certainly, the report did not go into very much detail on this but, time having moved on, the case for it is now rather urgent. Can the Minister confirm whether there is to be an HE Bill in the Queen’s Speech this year? If not, we will wait even longer for what is obviously a very important issue. It is noticeable that whenever we have a higher education issue on the agenda, we have a very high-quality debate, and this is obviously something where your Lordships’ House would like to make a contribution. We cannot get information on that at the moment but, in the interim, the committee has made a very good job of pointing out what little power the department has to shift the focus and direction of the higher education institutions now that HEFCE has effectively been sidelined and students have been placed at the heart of the funding system.

Finally, there is the question of funding. As the noble Lord, Lord Willis, said, recommendation 29 invites the Government to explain their thinking in this area. However, in their response, they do not give much detail and they certainly do not come up with a good explanation of how they intend to protect STEM subjects. Indeed, this whole section seems to be unnecessarily defensive and in no way rises to the challenges presented in the committee’s report. You know that the game is up when you read in the response that the only thing that the Government can come up with is to trumpet rather vacuously that the HE sector,

“will continue to receive substantial direct public funding ... both for teaching and research”.

Well, that is good.

However, one phrase, in particular, caught my eye. Perhaps the Minister can explain, either today or in writing, what precisely is meant by the concluding phrase in this section of the government response. It says:

“Putting together HEFCE teaching, research and capital grants and the BIS upfront costs of graduate contributions, total BIS investment in HEIs in England could rise from around £9.7bn in 2010-11 to around £10.3bn in 2014-15, while broadly maintaining existing levels of participation”.

Well, well, well. Isn’t that interesting? I suppose the sun could rise in the west tomorrow, but that might be considered a little unlikely. So let me try another tack: are we really hearing here that more students could fail to repay their student fee loans than is currently planned? That would certainly raise the BIS RAB charge. Of course, the HEFCE teaching grant will also be disappearing. There seems to be a bit of a double whammy here.

Therefore, will the Minister explain what this sentence precisely means? Will she confirm that it is the Government’s intention that the levels of funding to institutions, net of the upfront cost of graduate contributions, will increase, as implied by that sentence, in real terms by the suggested 6.2% by 2014-2015, or can we assume that this is just a coded warning to higher education institutions with significant STEM subject courses that the cuts are on their way?

My Lords, I am pleased to wind up for the Government in this debate. I thank the sub-committee and its chairman, my noble friend Lord Willis, for a thoughtful and incisive report on a very important subject. The quality of the debate reflects the expertise in this House. I note the regret of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, at the delay in debating such an important report.

The Government are well aware of the importance of skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They are vital for growth and are highly valued across all areas of the economy. Work is in hand to address many of the areas outlined in the report. Despite the backdrop of significant financial crisis and difficult decisions on priorities for funding, the Government have ensured that we have supported the teaching of STEM subjects. We have ensured that our universities have a sustainable income stream. We have protected the £4.6 billion science and research programme budget, and have announced almost £1.5 billion additional capital funding for science and innovation projects. That is in addition to the £1.9 billion capital announced in the spending review. In partial response to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, I should say that we have increased and safeguarded the money going into these subjects.

Activity in school is the beginning of the STEM pipeline, and much activity is taking place to stimulate interest and excitement among children, an issue that was raised in a number of the contributions today. The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, mentioned maths as being an impossible subject and trying to make maths more accessible. A number of initiatives are going on on this. The See Inside Manufacturing campaign has been a very successful way of opening young people’s eyes to the career opportunities available in engineering by showing them around some of the UK’s leading industrial companies.

Complementing this, we have programmes such as STEM ambassadors, apprenticeship ambassadors, Make It in Great Britain, and the exciting Big Bang Fair. The fair has grown year on year since 2009, attracting more than 60,000 people last week at ExCel and inspiring the very youngest. In 2009, my noble friend Lady Sharp and I went tearing across the road, having eventually been released from here, to witness some of the activities going on in the QEII centre. Certainly, it was an inspiration to see very young children getting so excited about science, technology, engineering and maths.

UCAS data show that STEM and clinical subjects held up well in 2012-13. That follows eight years of rising A-level entries in STEM subjects and six years at undergraduate level. The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned that we need more girls and those from disadvantaged backgrounds choosing STEM. The types of initiatives that I have mentioned are the very ones that will encourage them into those subjects. My noble friend Lady Sharp also mentioned the dearth of girls in some areas. However, 40% of STEM ambassadors are women.

On the teaching of maths, the Department for Education is funding Mathematics in Education and Industry to devise a new course, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Broers, working with Professor Tim Gowers of the University of Cambridge. We are also funding the maths department of that university to create a first-class curriculum for advanced maths with an emphasis on ideas such as complex numbers and trigonometry. Imperial College, too, is getting money to develop and pilot a one-year course for A-level maths teachers to bolster their knowledge. I shall say something about teachers later.

At key stage 5, of course it is important that A-levels in general are fit for purpose and continue to match the best education systems in the world. They should also be responsive to the needs of the higher education sector and industry, which my noble friend Lord Willis made very clear in his contribution. Universities and employers tell us that they want highly numerate people with an excellent facility with words and first-rate analytical skills. So it is important that students have access to courses and qualifications that do just that.

The Secretary of State for Education has set out an ambition that within a decade the vast majority of students should be studying mathematics up to the age of 18. Again, a number of noble Lords have pointed out that there is a desire to make this happen. However, research suggests that the current A-levels do not adequately prepare students. It shows that the modularisation of the current A-level has left many students unable to demonstrate deep understanding and incapable of making connections between topics. These skills are crucial to success in higher education and employment. This was echoed in Ofqual’s public consultation, which found strong support for greater university input into A-levels.

We are strengthening both curriculum and qualifications to ensure that they set expectations that match those in the highest-performing education jurisdictions in the world and that they better prepare students for further study.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education wrote to Ofqual on 22 January setting out changes to A-levels. In recognition of concerns about timing raised during Ofqual’s consultation, the Department for Education has delayed that timetable to 2015.

From September 2015, the A-level will be linear, with all assessment coming at the end of two years’ study. This will lead to students developing a deeper knowledge of their subjects. Research suggests that students benefit from the greater intellectual maturity that will be developed over two years.

My noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned the AS-level and that it has performed a very useful service. It is to be decoupled from the A2, but it will be retained as a standalone qualification to help encourage breadth of study. My noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Broers, mentioned the need for a widening of school subject areas. The international baccalaureate, which has had such a successful take-up in certain schools, still remains a fairly small part of the sixth-form provision, but has always had that breadth of science, humanities, languages, and so on.

Universities will be more involved in reviewing the subject content of A-levels and assessment where appropriate. An advisory committee established by the Russell Group will advise Ofqual on A-level content. Awarding organisations will develop new A-levels in the facilitating subjects such as mathematics and the sciences, drawing on the expertise of these university academics.

Your Lordships are aware of the importance of academic freedom and university independence. Our universities are regarded as the most autonomous in Europe, and I am sure that the House would want to maintain that position. The UK has specific legislation—the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 and the 2004 Act—which forbids the Government from directing institutions’ admissions criteria. While I absolutely support the importance of high standards, government cannot intervene in specific entry requirements.

Moving on to postgraduates, the noble Lords, Lord Broers and Lord Willis, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs—in fact most noble Lords who have participated in this debate—have mentioned postgraduates, which formed a very significant part of the report. The Government recognise that postgraduate education is an important element of higher education provision in the UK. The Minister for Universities and Science attended a roundtable on postgraduate taught provision on 23 January chaired by Sir Alan Langlands, the HEFCE chief executive. This confirmed the importance of taught postgraduate education. The sector has grown and thrived on a mixed economy of private, public, charitable and employer finance and on limited regulation, but there are concerns about sustaining this position in a highly competitive international market. The roundtable’s conclusions will inform the next stage of work. HEFCE will review participation in postgraduate study, working closely with BIS, and will publish a report later in the spring that will provide new evidence on progression to postgraduate study and an overview of the postgraduate landscape.

HEFCE’s allocation for taught postgraduate provision is now being maintained at similar levels to 2011-12, at around £135 million. HEFCE will provide £240 million for postgraduate research degree supervision support, and research councils will invest £340 million in postgraduate research provision. However, your Lordships will understand that in the current difficult economic climate we should encourage universities, banks and employers to come up with their own solutions to supporting postgraduates, not just look to government.

The noble Lord, Lord Willis, and other noble Lords, have noted the absence of a higher education Bill. A White Paper, Students at the Heart of the System, was published in June 2011 and sets out the Government’s plans, and we are moving our higher education reform agenda forward primarily through non-legislative means. We will, of course, keep the situation under review. We are aware of how many times higher education is debated, in one way or another, in both Houses. It is an important aspect of our lives, and if there is not a Bill, that is not because there is no interest but because these matters are being dealt with in other ways.

On student tuition fees, we are operating the broad structure of the previous Government’s changes of 2005-06, which both Houses agreed. As we know, eligible undergraduates do not now pay up front. Government loans cover tuition fees and students repay only after graduation when they earning a reasonable salary and at a rate of 9% of their income. It is affordable. However, I acknowledge, as many do, that this has not been very well communicated to the student population. It is disconcerting to discover how many people still think that it will be students who are in debt or, indeed, parents. We need to get the message across, loud and clear, that no student now pays fees up front and that no parent needs to pay either at that stage. There is consensus among political parties that you can reasonably expect graduates to make a larger contribution but it has to be done on a fair and progressive basis. On this we are ahead of the debate than many other countries.

A number of other questions have arisen, which I will take not in as logical an order as I would like as it has been a very full debate. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, asked why recommendation 15 for an expert group to consider the supply and demand of STEM postgraduate provision in the UK had not been taken up. Our view is that it probably does not need a new body. With the current stakeholder landscape the UK has a wealth of expert employer advice from business. We have set up the National Centre for Universities and Business—that was in the Government’s response which was criticised by the noble Lord—and the Government are asking it to provide strategic advice periodically on industry’s needs and perceptions of graduates and postgraduates. We take the point that it is invaluable to have the views of entrepreneurs and industrialists and from all sides on how that can best be achieved.

A number of noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Willis, bemoaned the lack of data. The possibility of improving and changing the HESA data collection and publication timetable is under active consideration within the context of the information landscape programme that has identified the importance of the timeliness of data. My right honourable friend David Willetts also bemoaned the fact that data are not available, timely or sufficient, but HESA is looking at the problem in the hope that we will have a better collection of data that can influence debate.

My noble friend Lady Sharp mentioned careers advice, as did the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson. We have, of course, given schools legal responsibility for securing access to independent and impartial careers guidance for year 9 to 11 pupils on a full range of 16 to 18 education and training options, including apprenticeships and vocational routes. We will certainly be monitoring the situation to make sure that those routes are sufficiently addressed in careers advice. We noted in the recent statement on apprenticeships that the Government are working to have apprenticeships as a valid career alternative to university and are aiming to increase apprenticeships across a range of new professional areas as well as vocational skill areas. If we can get the mix correct, we hope that the cross-fertilisation between the vocational field and the academic field will serve our country well.

The National Careers Service works through its website and also operates a one-to-one service with careers advisers to provide young people with information on science and technology-based careers. That imperative is made very clear to those who advise. On girls in science, technology and engineering, 54% of the young visitors to the 2013 Big Bang Fair were girls, while 52% of the 412 finalists in the National Science and Engineering Competition were girls. The BT Young Scientist of the Year this year is a girl and the Young Apprentice 2012 is a female mechanical engineer with BAE Systems. We are acquiring some inspirational role models for girls and young women who will encourage them to take up studies in these areas.

Noble Lords mentioned the take-up rates at A-level. The figures I have show that in maths, for instance, male take-up was 46,800 and female take-up 31,200. In chemistry, male take-up was 23,634 while female take-up was 21,093. There are some areas of science, technology, engineering and maths where the gaps are closing, but for these purposes I will not quote the figures for physics, because they are not going to help my argument.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, commented on the decline in the number of applicants for university generally. We know that by the January deadline this year, just under 480,000 applications were made to study the STEM subjects, which is a rise of 7% on the number of applications made in 2012. We must hope that this is going in the right direction, and with the exciting developments available to young people at earlier stages, we hope that that enthusiasm will be taken forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Rees, talked about the importance of science and the part it plays in our culture, as well as how international it is. People should understand the relevance of science to act as empowered citizens. We absolutely agree with that. Science is a vital part of our national skill set and heritage. Young people will miss out on a great deal if they are not taught the sciences as well as the humanities as they progress through school and carry them through into higher education.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, mentioned the STEM students lost to non-STEM subjects. We do not like to think of these people as lost, but that they are bringing their STEM skills to bear in many other sectors and enhancing them in ways that will be good for the economy in one way or another. That echoes the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rees.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, talked about initial teacher training and he asked particularly about the number of applications per post. I do not have those figures, but I know that in 2012-13 we have been offering training bursaries of up to £20,000 for mainstream postgraduate maths, physics and chemistry trainees, and we have seen some very encouraging figures as a result. For instance, in physics we have seen the best levels of recruitment since 1979, with 900 trainees. The figures are rising and I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that the best way to foster enthusiasm in young people at school is to provide people who are trained in the subjects and are themselves really enthusiastic. That builds a virtuous circle so that people genuinely want to study these subjects because they find them fascinating. That has to be a good thing.

I turn now to student visas. A number of noble Lords mentioned the problems in this area. We have said and continue to say that we recognise the enormous contribution that international students make to the UK economically, culturally and socially in terms of international relations and friendships. They are vital to our country and we need to put the message out that the UK is open to all genuine students. There is no cap on the number of genuine students who we want to welcome to the UK and we have no intention of introducing one. There are issues around the amount that students can work, but those are also being addressed at the moment so as to make quite sure that as few barriers as possible are put in the way of getting genuine international students into this country. We recognise the setbacks of what happened earlier. There was a perception, which several noble Lords mentioned, that we were not welcoming to international students. However, we are now striving hard to reverse the trend, particularly from India where we have seen a decline in numbers. We want to make sure that Indian students know how welcome they are in this country.

I am conscious that there has been a great wealth of questions that I may not have covered. I shall look through the debate and try to find any answers that have not been included in my speech today. It is encouraging to see that the study of STEM subjects is increasing in our higher education institutions. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are vital components of our learning infrastructure. Application of the knowledge and skills learnt is not only part of driving growth in the economy but fully enhances the social and cultural fabric of our society. The UK remains a world leader in the field, with 85 Nobel Prizes for science and technology, rather a lot of which I think have come from the college of the noble Lord, Lord Rees, in Cambridge. Only the USA achieves more citations. We have a great deal to encourage us but we still have a great deal to do. The committee set out a compelling vision. We share that vision. We shall be looking at all the recommendations that the committee made and considering them. I thank the committee for a valuable report and I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this fascinating and valuable debate.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and, indeed, for the very comprehensive way in which she has dealt with many of the core issues. We look forward to having individual responses to some of the specific questions which were laid down. I also thank all noble Lords for their contributions this evening. It was a late debate, and I am very conscious that Members wish to get away to other engagements, so will be particularly brief.

Having spent 13 years in the Commons, I can say that one of the great joys about this House is that when we have a debate about higher education, particularly on science and technology, the number of Members who come along not simply with great intellect but with great insight into the way in which science, technology, engineering and maths can really impact on society as a whole rather than a very narrow field is really quite inspirational. Although I hear what the Minister says in terms of there being no higher education Bill, the importance of the Government being able to set out their plans and to analyse the impacts of their current reforms is fundamental to us moving forward. I trust that the Minister will take that on board and that we will have an opportunity to have not simply a debate tagged on at the end of business on a Thursday evening but a full debate, where we have a whole day to look at this key issue of how we generate growth through science, technology, engineering and maths.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 7.17 pm.