From education to employment

20 years of rising tuition fees has increased STEM uptake to 50% of all graduates

Aaron Auld, CEO at Exasol

Since the introduction of tuition fees, the proportion of students graduating in science degrees increased by a third and women now make up 50% of STEM degrees for the first time

As students are starting their university courses across the country, it marks 20 years since tuition fees were introduced. In September/October 1998, grants were scrapped, and students were required to pay up to £1,000 a year for tuition. 20 years later, tuition fees are over nine times this level at up to £9,250 per year.

Analytic database vendor, Exasol, looked at the data to see what impact this has had on the subjects students are studying, and then looked into data around the STEM gender gap. Researchers at Exasol compared HESA data over twenty years, comparing subject choices made by students who graduated in 1997 with those who graduated in 2017.

Key findings in graduation data

  • The numbers of students graduating from their first degree has increased six-fold, from 255,620 in 1997 to 1,597,825
  • In 1997, 34.7% of students graduated with a Science degree. This increased to 44.5% in 2017 – an increase of almost a third
  • The biggest increase proportionally is in entries to “Subjects allied to medicine” – an 86% increase above the proportional expectations of students studying these subjects in 2017, closely followed by Biological sciences (85%)
  • The biggest decrease proportionally in mainstream subjects is in Education – down 34.5% on expected entries for 2017, based on the six-fold increase of students

Exasol also looked at how the STEM gender gap has changed in 20 years, and found some fascinating trends, with a big increase in women taking STEM degrees – up from 39% in 1997 to 50% in 2017 (an increase of 27%).

However, the headline figure belies the details, in some subjects little has changed and in others there is a stark change. For instance, the sharp increase in women taking computing at A-level – as found in previous Exasol research – does not translate into computing degrees. On the contrary, in medicine, women now completely dominate.

Key findings in the STEM degree gender gap

  • The proportion of women choosing STEM degrees has increased significantly from 39% in 1997 to 50% in 2017
  • In traditionally male-oriented subjects, almost nothing has changed. Engineering & technology degrees were 86% male dominated in 1997, in 2017 the figure is 84%. Mathematical sciences and informatics (Computer science), was 78% male dominated in 1997. In 2017, it is still 78%.
  • The biggest change in 20 years is in Medicine and related subjects, which is up from 64% female in 1997 to 75% female in 2017.
  • Other changes, where significantly more women are taking degrees, are in Agriculture which is up from 54% female to 70% female, and in Architecture which is up from 21% female to 36% female.

This research investigated the change in degree choices since the introduction of tuition fees 20 years ago. Student choices have changed significantly, their focus has shifted towards future career choices and as a result, students are now much more likely to choose science degrees. Also, government initiatives to encourage women into STEM subjects are seeing some success.

Women finally make up half of STEM degree entries, an increase of 27% since 1997 – however the positive headline statistics belie some fundamental challenges. Women are still a small minority of entries in engineering, maths and computing, and little has changed at degree level in these male-dominated disciplines.

Clearly more needs to be done to encourage women into traditionally male-dominated disciplines of engineering, maths and computer science. Promising changes we saw at A-level, where the number of women taking computing A-levels has doubled in five years, are not flowing through to degree level.

Inspiring the next generation of female talent to take up STEM careers is critical to plugging the skills gap in science and technology. STEM-related jobs are outpacing all other industries and with Brexit on the horizon, this is set to increase. 

At Exasol, we pride ourselves on providing an inclusive environment for everyone. High-performing teams are non-negotiable for an organisation to be successful, and I fundamentally believe that these teams have to be inclusive of all ages, genders and ethnicities. Without that level of diversity, an organisation simply cannot achieve its full potential. 

There is still plenty more to be done to help improve the gender balance in the tech industry, let’s encourage women to break the mould an enter the male-dominated degree subjects – the future of the technology industry depends on it.

Aaron Auld, CEO at Exasol

About ExasolPassionate about data and enabling organisations to do more with it, Exasol prides itself on having the most powerful and agile database, built for the future– delivering the most advanced in-memory database technology and connected services to enterprises for business-critical analytical processes both on-premise and in the cloud. Exasol aims to be the global number one database technology for data-driven enterprises as business-critical decisions and operations become increasingly dependent on smart data analytics.

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