Does the UK Economy really need ‘10,000 extra science graduates’?

The Royal Academy of Engineering report, Jobs and Growth: the Importance of Engineering Skills to the UK Economy, published today, calculates that the UK needs an annual minimum of 100,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) just to maintain the status quo in UK industry.

According to the THE, the report says more would be needed if the sector were to expand and help grow the economy. However, currently only 90,000 STEM graduates are produced each year – around a quarter of whom go on to work in non-scientific careers.

The skill shortage complaint has been heard a million times over, over many decades, but does the UK economy really need these graduates?

We took a look at the report.

The section of most interest is entitled ‘Forecasts of demand for SET occupations’ (p.23). The evidence for the claim that 10,000 more STEM graduates will be required and that 100,000 will be required in total is based on UKCES forecasts of employment growth in broad economic sectors for the period 2010–2020.

We took a look at these forecasts and the UKCES Working Futures home page.

What the RAENG report didn’t mention was that “As with all projections and forecasts, the results presented in Working Futures should be regarded as indicative of likely trends and orders of magnitude given a continuation of past patterns of behaviour and performance, rather than precise forecasts of the future.

And also: “At a time of great uncertainty about the short to medium term prospects for the economy, it is important to stress the value of Working Futures in aiding understanding of likely prospects for employment in the longer term (i.e. in 2020). The reader should therefore focus on the relative position of sectors, and occupations in 2020 and treat the projected values as broad indicators of scale rather than exact predictions.”

In other words, the RAENG report is based on imprecise forecasts and inexact predictions. Not a particularly strong evidence base.

What about the other evidence for the 10,000 or the 100,000 for that matter?

The report writes that it has analysed the 2009 Labour Force Survey data and been ‘carefully matched’ to the same economic sectors by the Big Innovation Centre under commission from the Academy.

Now we’re not told what ‘careful matching’ is as no methodology – as far as we can see – is included here or anywhere else in the report. A number of pro-rata forecasts are made but the only hint at how they were calculated was that the author did them.

To back up the forecast employment demand for the period 2012–2020 of 830,000 SET professionals, and 450,000 SET technicians, the author cites another report of the Technician Council.

However, the problem with the Technician Council report and that of this and the other RAENG report is that there is the quite considerable suspicion of vested interest. Why would reports from the “UK’s national academy for engineering…to advance and promote excellence in engineering” and the council looking to “generate the momentum needed to build the new professional technician identity, increase the pool of home grown technical skills and ultimately help bridge the skills gap in the UK…provide increased focus on the value and shortage of technical skills” say that we DON’T need more STEM graduates – 10,000 or 100,000?

We’re not claiming that these reports are deliberately painting a rosy picture – although it would look like they are – rather we are simply saying that consumers of such reports need to tread carefully when it comes to the claims made by social research reports and that only independently commissioned research will satisfy the demands of impartiality and fair reporting.

Moreover, by reporting in this way organisations perpetuate the idea that it is STEM graduates rather than non-STEM graduates that are required when the only evidence for this is a set of imprecise and inexact predictions and a set of rather mysterious calculations.

If politicians and the public are swayed by the STEM graduate headlines, it has a real impact on future policy yet this may make the UK economy worse, not better, given the fact that the reports that promote STEM graduate growth are based on seemingly such flimsy evidence.

Such research also has an impact on schools and universities whose funding has conditions attached. Non-STEM departments lose out not only in terms of funding however but also jobs. If academics and teachers are going to lose their positions, it would seem essential that the reasons for doing so are based on good research and not the kind of research that lacks rigour and objectivity.

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