Government efforts to improve the quality and take-up of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills have yielded some positive results. There remains, however, an urgent need for departments to set out a shared view of what they are trying to achieve and a co-ordinated plan for achieving it before government can demonstrate that it is delivering value for money, according to today’s (17 Jan) report from the National Audit Office.

Since the early 2000s there has been growing concern, including from the government, about how to achieve higher productivity and economic growth in an era of rapid technological change.  Over time, this has generated the widely held belief that one of the UK’s key economic problems is a shortage of STEM skills in the workforce.

Current estimates of the STEM skills problem vary widely and typically focus only on individual sections of the workforce. Existing evidence indicates that there is a STEM skills mismatch rather than a simple shortage. A mismatch can include many types of misalignment between the skills needed and those available in the labour pool. The NAO’s research indicates that there are particular shortages of STEM skills at technician level, but an oversupply in other areas, such as biological science graduates, who are then often underemployed in an economy in which they are not in high demand. Some major science and engineering bodies also believe that exit from the European Union could reduce the availability of STEM skills in the short term.

Today’s report finds that a number of the individual initiatives aimed at boosting take-up and provision of STEM education have had a positive impact, and participation levels have grown in most areas of the STEM skills pipeline. STEM A Level entries have grown by around 3% since 2011/12. Starts on STEM apprenticeships have grown by 18%, driven mainly by starts in apprenticeships covering: engineering and manufacturing technologies; and construction, planning and the built environment. Enrolments in full-time undergraduate STEM courses grew by 7% between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

However, despite the progress being made in expanding the supply of STEM skills, a historic lack of coordination across government creates a risk that the overall approach is not cohesive, and that individual initiatives intended to boost STEM skills do not add up to a coherent programme of intervention. The success of individual initiatives also masks some ongoing problems. There is a consistent participation gap in terms of gender: in 2016/17, women made up only 9.4% of A Level examination entries in computing, 21.2% in physics, and 39% in mathematics, and just 8% of starts on STEM apprenticeship courses. The areas where participation in higher education STEM courses has grown most strongly also appear to reinforce reported skills mismatches.

According to longitudinal research, of the 75,000 people who graduated with a STEM degree in 2016, only around 24% were known to be working in a STEM occupation within six months. The NAO finds that in the schools sector, better training and attempts to attract former teachers back to the workforce show some positive results, according to early stage research on the £67 million maths and physics teacher supply package.

Key Facts:

additional STEM technicians the Gatsby Charitable Foundation estimates  will be needed to meet employer demand in the decade to 2024
STEM apprenticeship starts in 2016/17
of STEM apprenticeships started by women in 2016/17, despite women accounting for over 50% of all apprenticeship starts
£80 million
government investment in national colleges, including in high-speed rail; nuclear; onshore and gas; and digital
rise in the number of STEM A level examination entries in 2016/17 compared with the previous year
rise in the number of STEM A level examination entries in 2016/17 compared with the previous year
fall in the number of enrolments in part-time undergraduate STEM degrees between 2011/12 and 2015/16
£200 million
government capital investment in higher education STEM provision in 2015/16

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:

“The government faces a complex challenge in encouraging the education pipeline to produce more people with the right STEM skills. Some initiatives are getting positive results but there is an urgent need for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to coordinate plans and set out what they are trying to achieve. A more precise understanding of the challenge would allow the Departments to better target and prioritise their efforts to deliver the STEM skills the economy needs.” 

“Whilst responsibility for upskilling the current and future generations has historically been placed on education institutions and the government, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. As a nation seeing exponential growth in digital innovation, if we want to build the best possible society, policymakers, public and private organisations, and especially parents, all have an equal part to play in encouraging the uptake of STEM subjects among the next generation."

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:

“It is all very well saying we need more STEM skills. But as the NAO’s report shows, the government hasn’t done its homework. It doesn’t understand what specific skills businesses really need, and it doesn’t know what the most effective way is of making sure people develop them.

“Until government sorts out its muddled thinking, we risk wasting taxpayers’ money on the wrong initiatives, and hindering our ability to compete on the global stage.” 

Regina Moran100x100Regina Moran, VP, Head of Industry Consulting and Software Solutions, EMEIA BAS, Fujitsu, said:

“It is important that organisations across the board join forces to encourage all students to take up STEM subjects, helping them understand the positive impact this knowledge will have on their lives and future careers. Studying computer science can lead to a career in design for example – or even technology marketing or management of a business division.

“And we must remember that, to truly make the most of this digital age, education is key across all ages – from school to those of us already in the workplace. Our ‘Tech in a Transforming Britainreport revealed two-fifths of the UK’s public believing tech companies are responsible for reskilling those impacted by technological change. Clearly, there is an expectation for technology companies in particular to work harder to educate the whole nation on how they can adapt to this transformation in the long run.

“As we fast progress towards a fully ‘digital first’ world, we need all stakeholders in our digital future to work together and ensure we are investing at the very beginning of the digital journey. It is no longer a nice-to-have; technology is absolutely core to the future of the UK economy – particularly as we move into the age of IoT and smart cities.”


A Government spokesperson said:

As the NAO report recognises, the government has a number of initiatives in place which are boosting participation in STEM subjects, with the number of entries to STEM A-Levels by girls increasing by 17% since 2010.

The Industrial Strategy also committed an additional £406m to improving skills – including substantial investments in maths, digital and technical education to help ensure we are producing the highly skilled workforce that UK employers need. STEM skills are a vital part of this which is why we are developing a cross-government board to help address the issues faced by industries across the country. Last month, we held the first Skills Summit which brought together leading businesses such as Google and Rolls Royce to drive major skills reform.

The report mentions the number of girls studying STEM subjects at A level and is positive of the efforts taken by the government to improve the quality and take-up of STEM skills.

The latest figures from the Higher Education Stats Authority demonstrate improvements in the number of women studying STEM subjects.

We are looking to make sure even more numbers of boys and girls take up the study of STEM subjects through the STEM ambassadors programme which is creating a network of Maths Hubs and Science Learning Partnerships to attract top talent. As well as this, we are investing £84m in improving computer science teaching.

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