Access to science and engineering, whether through employment or simply understanding and engagement, should by the same for everyone. At CaSE, we also believe that improved social diversity leads to a more innovative and responsive science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) workforce. With the price of Higher Education rising, it is especially important to ensure that social background does not effect opportunities to pursue STEM study. Access to STEM – and all – subjects should be entirely merit-based.
Unfortunately, lower socioeconomic status may still be a barrier to STEM education. In a new report (see full version here), we used data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), to investigate the socioeconomic diversity of UK students taking STEM degrees between 2004 and 2010. We’ve summarised our findings below.
The good news…
There has been a promising rise in the social diversity of young students (i.e. aged under 21) entering Higher Education as a whole, as well as in STEM.
A major contributor to this improvement has been the increasing social diversity of those studying both Biological sciences and Computer sciences. These subjects which consistently showed greater than average (across all HE subjects) levels of socio-economic diversity.
…and the bad
However, the diversity of young students studying Physical and Mathematical sciences was consistently lower than average, and moreover did not appear to be rising. The diversity of young students enrolling in Engineering and Technology subjects was largely in line with (though sometimes lower) than the average across all subjects.
Limited data were also available for mature students (aged over 21). Again, Biological and Computer sciences performed better than average. However, in contrast to the results for young students, the diversity of mature students studying Mathematical, Physical, Engineering and Technological sciences was in line with, or greater than, the average across all subjects.
We’ve speculated that one reason for the improved diversity amongst mature entrants is that older students who missed out first time round better recognise the potential of these subjects than their younger counterparts.
Although we found the social backgrounds of Biological and Computer sciences UK undergraduates to be fairly diverse, Physical, Mathematical, Engineering and Technological sciences showed lower than average levels of diversity. Possible reasons for this underrepresentation of young students from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds include:
- the UK’s shortage of specialist science and mathematics teachers is more pronounced in socially-disadvantaged areas[i]
- ‘triple science‘ GSCE courses are more commonly available to pupils in independent than in state schools[ii], and state school pupils are under-represented in science and maths A-levels
- students from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds may be more likely to study at local universities while living in the family home for financial reasons. A restricted choice of university may lead to a restricted choice of STEM courses. For example, whilst 116 UK universities offer degree courses in the biological sciences, only 58 offer some variety of Physical sciences degree.
Science and engineering are essential to the UK’s society and economy. It is important that everyone with the ability and inclination is given the opportunity to study STEM subjects. We hope the Department for Education’s 2011 pledge to recruit more specialist science and mathematics teachers will be fulfilled[i], and will specifically target the neediest areas. Although the number of pupils studying separate sciences at GCSE has risen recently, this is largely due to an increase in specialist science schools, a model which has now been discontinued. We hope the Government will understand how vital it is that all pupils in all schools have the opportunity to have a strong science education at GCSE level.
With tuition fees set to rise, UCAS figures have shown a slight decrease in university applications this year. However they did not show a disproportionate drop in applications from disadvantaged individuals or in STEM subjects, which bodes well. Most universities offer bursaries, with some specifically aimed at STEM subjects. To maintain and improve current levels of diversity, it is crucial that students are well informed about financial assistance before they consider undergraduate study.
We further recommend research is conducted to understand why the differences between STEM subjects exist, and what can be learned from well-performing subjects in terms of improving socio-economic diversity in weaker areas.
[i] Mathematics and Science in Secondary Schools. The Deployment of Teachers and Support Staff to Deliver the Curriculum (2006). National Foundation for Educational Research & DfES.
[ii] Parliamentary Question written answer, Brian Iddon, 141487, 11 June 2007.