Brit graduate study ‘well behind’

Alys Brown 9 February 2008

Alys Brown

Doubts have been cast on Britain’s abilities to stay at the top in industry and technology this week, according to two reports suggesting that UK graduates do not have the right skills.

A report by the Royal Society has shown that the subjects most sought by industry and necessary for innovation are becoming increasingly unpopular.

While the numbers of postgraduates taking psychology, biology and sports science has soared, physics, chemistry, engineering and technology subjects have not seen the same benefits from the overall boost in doctoral degrees.

The report calls for the government to work harder with universities and industry to reverse this trend.

One suggested solution is the introduction of reduced fees or bursaries for students studying science, technology, engineering and maths, as well as a normal eight-year study period from the start of a first degree to the completion of a PhD, with a national strategy for funding.

More emphasis on the benefits of studying these unpopular subjects might also be helpful; chemistry and physics graduates earn an average of 7% more than the most graduates.

The society called for a detailed review of employers’ needs to inform study in these subjects. The report suggests that employers should play a greater role in curriculum development and provide more opportunities for work experience as part of higher education qualifications.

This is supported by a different report out this week. The association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) predicts graduate vacancies to rise by 16.4%, despite current economic fears. But two-thirds of the employers surveyed expect to find it difficult to fill all their vacancies.

According to more than half of them, not enough candidates held the right skills. A quarter of employers are now actively marketing their UK vacancies to overseas graduates in order to “recruit the very best talent that is available”.

AGR’s chief executive, Carl Gilleard, said:

“The fact that employers are beginning to widen their recruitment field outside of the UK may have wider long-term implications for the UK economy.”

Prof Judith Howard, chairwoman of the Royal Society’s working group, agreed.

“While postgraduate study in the UK is very successful in terms of the overall numbers of people studying and the income generated, the skills base our economy needs is still well behind our competitor economies,” she said.

“The technological breakthroughs that are required to keep us competitive will come from our labs, but only if they have enough people with the best education and skills”, she continued. “Any investment now will pay dividends in the long term.”

But the reports showed that marketing and targeting by employers has paid off, with increasingly ethnically balanced workforces. Last year nearly a quarter of graduates employed were from an ethnic minority.