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Higher Education in STEM Subjects

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has launched a report on Higher Education in STEM Subjects. You can read the terms of reference for the inquiry at The Geological Society made a written submission, jointly with the Committee of Heads of University Geoscience Departments (CHUGD) and the British Geological Survey (BGS).

Submission to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee select committee inquiry: Higher Education in STEM Subjects

Submitted 19 December 2011

  1. a. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for geoscience, with over 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant geoscience, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences

    b. The Committee of Heads of University Geosciences Departments (CHUGD) is the subject association of Geoscience (geology, applied geology, earth science, geophysics, geochemistry and some environmental science) departments/schools based within universities in the British Isles. It promotes discussion and exchange of information between departments and provides a point of contact between these and professional, government and quality control agencies

    c. The British Geological Survey (BGS) is a world leading geological survey and the United Kingdom's premier centre for earth science information and expertise. The BGS provides expert services and impartial advice in all areas of geoscience. Its client base is drawn from the public and private sectors both in the UK and internationally.

  2. We have not attempted to address all the questions raised in the call for evidence. Below, we offer some general comments, followed by responses to some of the questions raised.

  3. It is vital that current and future national skills needs and education policy are considered together. Significant numbers of trained geoscientists in a wide range of specialisms will be needed to ensure future wealth generation, economic innovation, and the delivery of resources and services to the UK population. Geoscience is inherently interdisciplinary, and as a result its practitioners are particularly adept at working across tribal boundaries, be those boundaries academic, commercial or political. Geoscientists are also crucial to meeting known policy challenges over the next decades, particularly as we seek to decarbonise the energy system and the economy. In recent months, we have sought to alert ministers, parliamentarians and other decision-makers to the concerns of senior geoscientists from both academia and industry that the UK’s ability to meet existing and future geoscience skills needs is in jeopardy. This situation may be exacerbated by recent and prospective Higher Education (HE) policy and funding decisions, in the context of global undersupply of trained personnel. As our organisations and others work to encourage talented young people to study geology and to pursue a career in geoscience, we have urged Government to ensure that students are not deterred from doing so and that universities are not disincentivised from offering geoscience courses, both at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

  4. The Committee’s call for evidence highlights the fact that while there are reports from industry that they are struggling to recruit suitable graduates, many STEM graduates end up in jobs which do not require a STEM degree. There is undoubtedly real concern in many areas of geoscience industry about the difficulty of recruiting suitably skilled and qualified employees (though at present our evidence for this is largely anecdotal), even though the number of geoscience graduates each year exceeds the number who take up geoscience jobs. The problem appears therefore not simply to be one of undersupply in the total number of geoscience graduates. Rather, factors which may affect the ‘pipeline’ of skilled graduates supplying industry include: how effective the geoscience community is at attracting the most talented school students; how closely industry expectations about graduates’ skills align with the content of university degree programmes; industry demand for postgraduate training through higher degrees (discussed below); and the attractiveness of geoscience careers to high-achieving graduates compared with other career options.

  5. The Geological Society, working with others, has recently established a Geoscience Skills Forum, bringing together representatives from industry, academia and government. An early priority is to gather information about current and future skills needs, the concerns and expectations of educators, and students’ drivers and choices in selecting their careers, so that our future actions and advice in this area are founded on a robust evidence base.

  6. As in the wider STEM community, there is profound uncertainty among geoscientists about the intended and unintended consequences of multiple significant changes currently underway in HE policy and funding. This is disruptive, and makes planning at a departmental and university level very difficult. Consultations (for example, those being undertaken by HEFCE regarding implementation of policy set out in the recent HE White Paper, starting with that on transition arrangements for 2012-13) are understandably piecemeal. It is difficult for implementing bodies, HE institutions and other stakeholders to see the big picture, and to respond in an informed and coherent way to the significant changes now underway.

    General questions

  7. Regarding the definition of a STEM job, we note the valuable analysis recently undertaken for the Science Council (available at on the UK science workforce, which distinguishes primary and secondary science workers; and core and related science sectors.

  8. As noted above, our understanding of the demand for geoscience graduates is currently partial, and largely anecdotal – a matter we intend to address through the Geoscience Skills Forum. Our impression is that a clear evidence base is lacking in other scientific disciplines too.

    16-18 supply

  9. Departments offering undergraduate geoscience degree programmes seek students with good science A-levels (not necessarily including Geology). The recent upturn in the number of students taking science A-levels is therefore welcome.

  10. Recognising that Geology is not taught as a separate subject in most schools, it is important that pupils are introduced to geoscience within mainstream curriculum subjects, to complement the careers information and advice provided by our organisations and others, so that students are aware of geoscience as a degree option, and of the employment opportunities this opens up.

    Graduate supply

  11. As noted above, while there does not appear to be an undersupply in absolute numbers of geoscience graduates, there is anecdotal evidence of serious shortage of those who are considered suitably skilled, particularly in some sectors of geoscience industry. (Being ‘suitably skilled’ may depend on the content of undergraduate programmes, graduates’ ability to apply this knowledge, having a postgraduate degree or other training, etc.) This is supported by inclusion in the UK Border Agency’s revised March 2011 Shortage Occupations List of geoscientist, geophysicist, hydrogeologist, engineering geologist and a range of related geoscience and engineering specialisms. Applicants in these occupations for Tier 2 migrant status are to be assigned high priority under the new immigration regulations. However, the UK cannot rely on importing these skills. Despite the large number of geoscientists being produced in emerging economies, there is not expected to be any surplus. According to recent work undertaken by the American Geosciences Institute, China is undersupplied by 30% in comparison to its projected needs, for example, and India is neither importing nor exporting trained geoscientists. It is therefore essential that we ensure sufficient domestic supply of geoscientists.

  12. In light of the multiple changes underway in HE policy and funding, there is widespread uncertainty and considerable disagreement about the aggregate effect (both in geoscience and more widely) on the number and diversity of applicants; the number and range of undergraduate degree programmes available; and number of student places available. (HEFCE noted this uncertainty and disparity of view in its letter to Vice-Chancellors following its consultation on transition arrangements for student funding and numbers for 2012-13, available at Nevertheless, some particular concerns have been identified.

  13. It is essential that the funding of undergraduate teaching continues to recognise the greater cost of teaching STEM subjects compared with most other subjects. It is also important to recognise that some science subjects are more expensive than others to teach. We therefore welcome HEFCE’s maintenance of the differential in teaching funding allocation between subjects in Bands A, B and C in 2012-13, and (since not all Band B science subjects cost the same to teach) the continuation of the additional funding stream for some very high cost science subjects. The continuation of this additional funding is important, recognising that some subjects are more expensive to teach than others. Were it not for additional funding, the level of provision would be at risk, as vice-chancellors are more likely to prioritise subjects which attract the same level of funding per student but which are less expensive to teach. This would be likely to lead to the closure of programmes and departments, and a reduction in the number of graduates in such subjects, to the detriment of future national skills needs.

  14. We are also pleased that HEFCE has recognised that there is widespread support for an overall review of both the price group system and the additional support for very high cost science subjects from 2013-14 onwards, including the method for deciding which subjects should receive additional funding. A particular concern is that the simple allocation of additional funds to broad subject areas on the basis of aggregate cost data, as has happened in recent years, may fail to take account of key information, particularly regarding smaller subject areas which are nonetheless vital to meeting future national skills needs. For example, TRAC data for 2009-10 show that the mean full teaching cost per student FTE per year in ‘Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences’ is £9,298 across all 57 universities offering degrees in this broad subject classification. However, at the 13 Russell Group universities, where courses in this area are more likely to be in Geology or Geoscience, rather than less costly Environmental Science courses, the average cost is £11,279. This is over £1,000 more than the average cost of teaching Physics (both at Russell Group universities and at all universities). These data suggest that the costs of providing high quality geoscience degrees, even compared with other mainstream science disciplines, are not fully recognised within the current regime.

  15. There is particular uncertainty in the science community about the likely impacts of Government’s proposal to remove students achieving AAB+ at A-level (or equivalent) from student control numbers, particularly in combination with other planned policy changes. (HEFCE noted the variety of views expressed on this subject in its letter to vice-chancellors.) For many, a concern is that this may cause the number of students undertaking science degrees to decline, or that geoscience in particular may be adversely affected in comparison with other science subjects.

  16. We welcome HEFCE’s decision, in light of its recent consultation, to exclude STEM and other SIVS student numbers when creating the margin of 20,000 student places in 2012-13 for competition among lower cost institutions, recognising that these institutions are less likely to teach higher cost SIVS subjects. We also welcome HEFCE’s implicit recognition that uptake of STEM subjects may be at particular risk as a result of HE policy changes, as they say they will monitor this.

  17. Fieldwork is regarded by both industry and universities as an essential part of the training of geoscientists and its inclusion as a mandatory element of undergraduate programmes is a requirement for their accreditation by the Geological Society. Many university departments require students to meet some or all of the costs of field study themselves, meaning that the total cost to students of studying geology is often higher than that of other subjects. This trend is likely to continue with increasing pressure on departmental budgets. Furthermore, the fact that fieldwork usually takes place during vacations makes it more difficult for students to secure paid employment to subsidise their costs. This is a potential disincentive to students who are considering studying geoscience. (Those elements of fieldwork costs which are not met by students contribute to the high cost to universities of teaching geoscience.)

    Postgraduate supply

  18. The loss of public funding for the support of taught applied Masters courses is a major concern for our community. (We note that this concern is shared by others, as indicated in HEFCE’s letter, referred to above.) Such courses are not intended to be preparatory to a PhD or a research career, but constitute applied training which is highly valued by industry, particularly in certain sectors including petroleum geoscience, hydrogeology and engineering geology – indeed, many employers in these areas require applicants to have an MSc. Emerging evidence from the Geoscience Skills Forum suggests that shortage of those with suitable applied Masters training is the main concern in some sectors, rather than the supply of undergraduates. It was very disappointing that the recent HE White Paper paid almost no attention to postgraduate training.

  19. Because they do not principally constitute part of a research career, funding for such taught Masters courses should not be weighed against that for PhDs. Public funding to support the delivery of taught MSc courses has historically been delivered through the Research Councils. This is rapidly being withdrawn, with the abolition of NERC MSc studentships from 2011, and the phasing out of EPSRC Collaborative Training Accounts by 2013. Many MSc students are already funded by industrial sponsors, predominantly large oil companies. However, the loss of public funding is not likely to be substituted by further funding from industry. Individual graduates may not be retained in employment by their sponsoring company for long enough to justify the investment. This financial risk is relatively greater for smaller companies, for which the loss of investment in one employee is relatively greater, and which in addition do not benefit from the smoothing effect of employing more graduates. With others, we have undertaken to use our best efforts to stimulate more collaborative industry funding, but this is unlikely to meet the shortfall. Most students will only be able to complete an applied geoscience Masters course if they fund it themselves, usually through a commercial bank loan (since student loans are not available for postgraduate study), on top of increased debts for undergraduate degrees. A number of MSc courses are already closing, and this trend is likely to continue. (Increasingly, these are dependent on independently-funded overseas students.) Numerically small specialisms which are nonetheless vital to industry are particularly vulnerable. For example, micropalaeontology has a key role in locating hydrocarbon resources, and while even large oil companies will only employ a few micropalaeontologists, their community represents a valuable element of national capability.

  20. There is a strong case for modest government expenditure to support taught MSc courses, in order to avoid this market failure which could risk huge long term losses and jeopardise our ability to meet known policy challenges. Efforts on the part of the geoscience community to persuade NERC to reconsider its decision to withdraw MSc funding have been without success, and at a time of increasing budgetary pressure it is understandable that taught Masters courses are not considered the highest priority within Research Councils’ portfolio of research funding responsibilities. Government should therefore provide dedicated funding to support Masters courses, and make HEFCE responsible for its allocation. In specialisms where there is demonstrable risk of skills shortage, HEFCE should provide protection for Masters training, as for SIVS at undergraduate level. It would be logical to ensure that such support is consistent with the UK Border Agency’s policy regarding shortage occupations (where these require postgraduate training).


  21. As noted above, industry pays for significant numbers of MSc places, particularly in petroleum geoscience, and with others we will seek to stimulate further industry funding. These efforts would be more likely to meet with success if they were supported by incentives from Government, such as tax breaks or fund matching.

  22. Industry partners are closely involved in benchmarking the skills and competencies to be taught to undergraduate and graduate students, through the Geological Society’s degree accreditation scheme. They will also be key stakeholders in the Geoscience Skills Forum. We would be happy to refer the Committee to industry contacts, if it wishes to explore further the needs and interests of any particular sector.

    International comparisons

  23. We have no comment to make on international comparisons.

  24. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.