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Rise In Stem Subjects Disproportionately Due to Overseas Students

Universities are educating 6,000 fewer British engineers a year than 10 years ago

British universities are adding fewer STEM subject graduates to the labour market than total student figures suggest, according to a new Civitas report. The STEM subject push by Stephen L. Clarke finds that the number of overseas students attending British universities to study engineering increased by 12,308 from 1997 to 2007, but that the number of British engineering students declined by 5,769. [p. 3] As a result, the British economy will struggle to find the skills necessary to drive a production-led recovery.

The new brain drain?

The report shows how an increasing proportion of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) courses are taken by non-UK nationals:

  • 9.7 per cent of computer sciences students in 1996/97 were overseas students, in 2006/07 this figure was 19.7.
  • 23 per cent of engineering and technology students in 1996/97 were overseas students, in 2006/07 this figure was 30.7.

Compared with other subject areas, overseas students account for a disproportionately large amount of the STEM subject increase as places in British universities have expanded:

  • Overseas students accounted for 41.7 per cent of the increase in student numbers between 1996/97 and 2006/07 in computer sciences.
  • Overseas students accounted for 34 per cent of the increase in student numbers between 1996/97 and 2006/07 in the physical sciences.

In fact, overseas students accounted for more than 100 per cent of the increase in student numbers between 1996/97 and 2006/07 in engineering and technology. This means the total number of British engineering and technology students fell during the period. [p.4]

The report also outlines the way in which non-EU students are coming to dominate in these subjects:

  • In 1996/97 56.1 per cent of overseas students in the four STEM subjects examined came from outside the EU. In 2006/07 this figure had risen to 70 per cent.

Students from outside the EU do not have an automatic right to stay in the UK and are therefore more likely to take their skills back to their country of origin. This means that while Britain is successful at exporting key skills to the rest of the world, it is not effectively utilising this knowledge-base at home. [pp. 4-5]

Why the economy needs STEM grads

These findings emerge as Britain struggles with record levels of youth unemployment and as graduates are forced to spend longer searching for good job opportunities. While the UK had over 600,000 more students in higher education in 2007 than 1997, student growth in STEM subjects has lagged behind the rest. These subjects are known to command high income premiums in the labour market. [p. 1]

As the Government tries to rebalance the UK economy to reduce reliance on finance and allow more growth in manufacturing, it is crucial that this imbalance in higher education is addressed. Stephen Clarke comments:

If a growing number of overseas students from outside the EU are filling an increasing proportion of STEM places in British universities and a significant proportion of them return home, the British economy will not get the long-term benefits of these students… The Government needs to ensure that British students see the long-term benefits of taking STEM degrees and have the prerequisite A-levels so that they can do so. [pp. 5-6]

The Government needs to re-evaluate how effectively it is encouraging British students to take STEM subjects, as well as how it monitors progress towards getting more STEM graduates into the British labour market.

For more information contact:

Stephen L. Clarke, Research Fellow, on 07707 233188

Civitas on 020 7799 6677

Notes for Editors

i. The STEM subject push by Stephen L. Clarke can be downloaded below.

ii. Stephen L. Clarke is a Research Fellow in economics and industrial policy at Civitas.

iii. Civitas is an independent social policy think tank. It has no links to any political party and its research programme receives no state funding.

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