Annual shortfall of 40k grads in STEM subjects is a key collaboration challenge

While universities have dropped down the scale of political interest, probably to most people’s relief, there is a persistent worry among some businesses about whether graduates are ‘work-ready’.

I’ve recently been at each of the three main party conferences and this came up time and again, from individual business leaders as well as the directors of business representative bodies such as the British Chambers of Commerce. Three years ago I was the lead civil servant on the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and businesses spoke frequently about ‘work-ready’ then as well.

What do businesses mean by ‘work-ready’? In one sense, it might be very inconvenient for them if graduates arrived ready for work. It would mean that they had acquired a general set of skills or interests in higher education but those might be the wrong ones for any particular business. After all every business has its own competitive distinction, which is specific rather than general. Making its employees ready for their own particular business should be an important part of retaining the distinction. If every business needed identikit work-ready employees, then they would be identikit businesses.

But what business leaders are getting at is in fact usually one of two things. Sometimes they are talking about a ‘softer’ set of skills, a facility for the workplace, confidence, the ability to work in a team. Then, at other times, they are referring to specific skills shortages, such as those in engineering areas.

On the first of these, universities are taking big steps. Every Vice Chancellor can speak at length about the employability programmes they have on campus and typically businesses are getting involved in designing and delivering these. Sometimes business leaders just need to be as well informed by their HR teams as to what is going on as Vice Chancellors tend to be.

The second though is a major issue. I’ve just started running a think tank called the Social Market Foundation. Earlier this year we published a report called‘In The Balance’which suggested that there was an annual shortfall of 40,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Filling that gap means increasing graduate numbers by 50%, and that’s before we consider any wider ambition to rebalance the UK economy towards science- or engineering-led industry sectors.

There’s a social dimension too, in that it’s inconceivable that this gap could be made up without substantially increasing the numbers of girls who take up STEM courses, first in school and then in higher education.

This issue is becoming increasingly well known. The educational, economic and political challenge it represents is a big one, for universities and businesses to work on together.