Most mentions of academia these days are framed by references to the twin problems of rising tuition fees and the shortage of university places. Indeed, the recent A-level results day in England, Wales and Northern Ireland was dominated by the plight of tens of thousands of students who were left disappointed amid the stampede to win a place on a degree course before the new fees regime kicks in at the end of next year. You had to feel sorry for those left to fight their way through the chaotic clearing system.
But amid the doom and gloom was a shaft of light that could have profound implications for engineering. Figures from exam awarding body the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance showed an astonishing resurgence of interest in science and maths subjects at A-level. Over the past five years, maths exam entries have risen by a whopping 40.2%, making maths one of the most popular subjects. In the science field, chemistry entries saw a 9.2% increase on last year, with biology entries up 7.2% and physics up by 6.1%.
So what’s going on here? Why are maths and science subjects suddenly flavour of the month? And what are the implications for engineering?
Several factors appear to be coming into play. First, the global recession and the contraction in the job market seems to have focused many students’ minds on the need to attain a “proper” degree. For years, universities have turned out graduates with qualifications in subjects that had no relevance to workplace requirements. But in the current jobs market, employers can afford to be picky. And students have realised that not all degrees are seen as equal. That has led to a resurgence in popularity of “classic” A-level subjects that enable students to make more informed choices at university. Science and maths are also enjoying an improvement in perception – they have almost become fashionable again. Television programmes such as Professor Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe series have caught the public’s imagination, creating a thirst for scientific knowledge that appears to have filtered through to the academic subject choices being made.
Whatever the reasons, the greater numbers of students studying maths and science is excellent news for British engineering. The dearth of young people taking the subjects needed for an engineering career has created a skills shortage that has held the sector back. It might take several years to take effect, but the increase in students taking maths and science at A-level should lead to a healthier supply of engineers.
The challenge, though, is to ensure that these statistics are not just a blip. One means of keeping the momentum going would be to actively encourage students to consider careers where there are recognised skill shortages. Sixth-formers studying the toughest subjects could be rewarded with more points, under admissions rules dictating entry to degree courses. The tariff system operated by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service ranks all A-levels as the same. But there is a strong argument for A-levels such as maths and physics to be given higher ratings.
Newer subjects, such as dance and travel and tourism, are useful to students who want to focus on those areas. But they are not core academic subjects. A system that weights subjects in terms of their usefulness might be controversial, but it should be progressed if we are to produce students with the skills the country needs.
- What should we be doing to encourage more young people to choose to study science and maths subjects? Share your thoughts by commenting below.