Give us more science graduates, beg British bosses

2007

Britain needs to double the proportion of science and engineering graduates leaving university within the next seven years if it is not to risk serious damage being done to its productivity and competitiveness, captains of industry have warned.

At the moment some 12 per cent of graduates leave university with a science, engineering and technology degree, but this needed to be more like at least a quarter if the UK was to match the predicted growth in jobs, the Confederation of British Industry said.

Failing to do would mean Britain struggling to maintain, or even losing, its world-leading position in industries such as pharmaceuticals, aerospace and bio-technology, the CBI predicted.

It would also undermine the ability of Britain to compete with other countries in the global economy, meaning companies might be more likely to relocate to areas with a ready supply of employees with these skills.

The business group has identified four weaknesses that are holding back the flow of students into university science courses.

These are, first, poor science laboratories in schools, with one in four unsafe or inadequate, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry, and four in ten basic and uninspiring.

Second, a lack of teachers with specialist knowledge to teach science, with a quarter of secondary schools at the moment without a specialist physics teacher, for example.

Third, the stripped-down school curriculum does not devote sufficient time to science, the CBI argued, citing findings that just one in five state schools offers separate GCSEs (at age 16) in physics, chemistry and biology and that too few students step up to study science at A Level at age 18.

Finally, poor careers advice was failing to stimulate young people's interest in the well-paid and cutting edge careers available in science and engineering, it argued.

At the moment around 45,000 graduates emerged from UK universities with a degree in science, engineering or technology each year.

Based on figures from the Institute of Employment Research on expected growth in such jobs by 2014, the CBI calculated that this would need to jump to 97,000 a year just to fill new positions.

And this calculation was based on every graduate pursing their vocational career rather than, for example, a job in financial services which many currently choose to do so the reality could be even worse.

The CBI also pointed to a pledge by the British government to spend £200 million improving science facilities in schools.

Although the money had been allocated it, as yet, remained unspent, it added.

John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said: "Britain has a world class science base and many world-beating companies but we must build on these strengths, not allow them to wither on the vine.

"Our future success will depend on our ability to compete not only with our traditional international rivals but new ones too, particularly India and China.

"These two emerging giants are producing hundreds of thousands of engineers and scientists a year, all ready to fight for a slice of the pie in business sectors which the UK has traditionally done so well in," he added.

"If we are to meet their challenge head-on, and take advantage of the opportunities their growing economies provide, we need to ensure our education system can give young people the skills they need," he said.

"If we don't step up to the plate then the companies which have helped build up the UK's science base will be faced with no alternative but to go overseas. They are increasingly recruiting from abroad and the danger is they may relocate altogether," he concluded.