Too many students are starting science and engineering degree courses without having studied maths at A-level, according to a House of Lords science and technology committee report.
Figures reveal that 20% of engineering course entrants in 2009 had not studied maths past GCSE level. The report also found that 38% of chemistry and 70% of biology undergraduates do not have A-level maths.
Committee chairman Lord Willis said he was “absolutely gobsmacked” by the figures.
The report said: “We are concerned that the number of pupils studying maths post-16 is insufficient to meet the level of numeracy needed in modern society, and the level at which the subject is taught does not meet the requirements needed to study Stem subjects at undergraduate level.”
The report also said that the level of maths required by universities to study science-based courses is not demanding enough, and this is deterring pupils from taking the subject at A-level.
The committee said it was concerned that the modularisation of exams made it possible “to avoid whole subjects in maths, like calculus – and still find yourself in an engineering discipline where maths is essential”.
The report urged universities to toughen up their maths entry requirements for science and maths-based degrees.
A number of university vice-chancellors told the committee that their institutions are being forced to offer remedial maths classes for those who have not studied the subject at A-level – and even for those who have.
Meanwhile, the committee has also found that the number of students taking “softer” science courses has soared. For instance, figures reveal that 8,120 students graduated with a degree in sports science in 2009-10, up 122% from 3,650 in 2002-03.
Similarly, the number of students awarded a degree in forensic and archaeological science has risen from 360 to 1,615, up a massive 349%.
However in the same period the number of UK students qualifying with a degree in engineering has fallen by 3%. Computer science is down 27% and chemistry has remained static.
The committee said it was concerned that “softer” science subjects were being included as part of Stem: science, technology, engineering and maths. The committee warned that there was a danger that growth in the number of students studying Stem subjects could be put down to increasing interest in courses “with little science content”.
Lord Willis said that there had been a rise in the number of students doing subjects like maths and physics at university, but added that these increases had been “really quite small”. He said: “When you compare it with what has happened in other soft science subjects, particularly areas like sport science, which is topical at the moment, it pales into insignificance.
“In terms of the overall numbers of students graduating from Stem, such courses are then given the same value and weight as subjects such as engineering or chemistry, even though they may not be considered by many to be Stem and graduates from these courses may not have sufficient skills to satisfy the demands of the employment market for Stem graduates.”