STEM Education and Skills at Westminster

Posted on August 14, 2019   by Rachel Exley

On 8 July, Rachel Exley attended her first Parliamentary and Scientific Committee discussion meeting, at Portcullis House in Westminster. The title of the meeting was 'STEM education and skills' and provided a forum for discussion between Members of Parliament and representatives of scientific bodies, industry and academia on how to inspire and engage young people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in order to address the skills shortage in the future UK workforce. The focus was particularly on engineering, and members of a diverse panel of speakers were invited to share their perspectives. I attended the meeting to gather information and identify ways the Microbiology Society might contribute to this agenda.

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After introductions from the Vice President, the session stared with the first of the four invited speakers, Paul Jackson from the communications consultancy Jasia Education Ltd. He spoke about the Talent 2050 programme from the National Centre for Universities and Business, which aims to create an ‘impactful roadmap for change’, to ensure that Britain has a workforce with the necessary engineering skills to compete globally in the future.

The summary of results from a recent review of existing studies and workshops around the UK on current and future engineering skills development also made for interesting listening. Findings included identification of recruitment bottlenecks and barriers and the need for a broader skill set required to increase employability – and overall highlighted a need for change.

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Potcullis House

The next speaker was Dr Hilary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK, who described the severe shortage in UK engineers and highlighted some of the major challenges facing the profession. She presented some striking figures, showing how under-represented women are in engineering, and how only one in ten first-year engineering undergraduates are from low income backgrounds. To address these issues, EngineeringUK aims to inform and inspire the next generation of engineers and increase the talent pipeline into engineering,  with programmes such as 'The Big Bang Fair' and ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers Week’ (#TEWeek). This year #TEWeek19 runs 4-8 November and will focus on the impact engineers have on health and wellbeing. A toolkit of ways to get involved will be available from early September and interested parties can register in advance.

As a microbiologist, I was particularly interested in the idea that, by raising awareness of the key roles for engineers in sectors beyond the traditional medical and life sciences sectors, we can also help foster interest in engineering and STEM. This was reinforced by Andrew Croydon, the Director of Skills and Education Policy at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), who reminded us of the great need for engineers in manufacturing pharmaceuticals. He also spoke about skills and education needs across the pharmaceutical sector and the numerous ongoing projects ABPI have developed to help address future unmet needs, including projects to encourage women into STEM, developing and promoting apprenticeship standards and undergraduate courses, as well as designing and delivering resources for schools. In addition, ABPI have performed skills gap analyses since 2005, and the latest priorities were identified as immunology, clinical pharmacology, bioinformatics and genomics. Of these, genomics was defined as a crucial priority area and Andrew went on to highlight the need to attract students with digital skills to the pharmaceutical industry.

The final speaker was Josie Frasier, Deputy Vice-Chancellor from the Open University. She re-visited points raised in the first talk about the challenges of encouraging and retaining women in STEM careers. For example, while there has been a 48% increase in girls taking computing, this still only equates to 12% of total students taking this subject. She also spoke of the gap in digital skills mentioned by Andrew Croydon. Quoting from an OU report, she revealed that 94% of SMEs suggest they are struggling to find a digitally-skilled workforce and discussed how with the recent rapid increase in data acquisition comes the urgent need for a workforce with the skills to store, analyse and interpret the information effectively. She ended by proposing three key focus areas for the future. Firstly, we need to inspire people to choose STEM subjects from a young age, developing the curriculum from primary school level. Second, we need to encourage and educate employers to help address issues of retention. Finally, as the STEM skills gap cannot be filled by young people alone, adult retraining should be facilitated by changing policy, costs and access to university education.

Overall, it was an interesting session. I left with a better understanding of the current problems and future challenges we face in delivering STEM skills for the economy. I also now have increased awareness of the fact that, regardless of our own specialisation, we all have a part to play in encouraging and inspiring young people across different STEM disciplines