Solutions to the skills gap
Apr 17, 2002
A shortage of science and engineering graduates with good transferable skills is holding back the British economy, according to a review carried out for the Treasury by Gareth Roberts, past president of the Institute of Physics. The review says that employers are finding it hard to recruit numerate graduates because fewer people are studying the physical sciences, maths and engineering. It says that this shortage could also affect the biosciences, which are "increasingly reliant on people who are highly numerate and have a background in the physical sciences".
The review makes 37 recommendations on how to increase the supply of trained scientists and engineers throughout the education system. It says that the problem starts in schools, where pupils should be encouraged into science through more inspiring curricula, better equipped labs and improved careers advice. It says that science teachers should be paid more, and calls for better training to help new teachers in areas outside their speciality.
The review also proposes a scheme that would pay undergraduates and postgraduates to help school science teachers in practical classes. "Rather than stacking supermarket shelves, students would be able to develop their transferable skills," Roberts told PhysicsWeb. "The scheme would expose youngsters to the possibilities of a career in science and engineering, and may even encourage more students to become teachers themselves."
At universities, the review calls for new "entry support courses" that would help students bridge the gap between A-level and degrees. It calls for the government to refurbish undergraduate teaching labs and says that degrees should be updated to make graduates more attractive to employers. It wants the government to make it easier for science students to access hardship funds because they have less time than other students to supplement their income with part-time jobs.
The review also contains proposals for improving PhD degrees. It says that PhD grants should be increased to the tax-free equivalent of the average graduate starting salary in the UK – currently just over £12 000. It says that the research councils should fund students for three-and-a-half years to encourage them to tackle innovative, rather than "safe", projects. The review also wants universities to ensure that all PhD projects "test and develop the creativity prized by employers".
Finally, the review says that universities should ensure that all post-docs have a career development plan and receive at least two weeks careers training a year. It calls for at least 200 five-year academic fellowships to be set up by the research councils to give post-docs a clear path to permanent academic jobs. Employers, meanwhile, should make R&D careers better paid and more interesting, for example, by allowing staff to take part-time PhDs or make links with local universities.
About the author
Matin Durrani is Deputy Editor of Physics World