More young people are taking science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects at university than ever before, according to statistics published last week by UCAS.
Since 2011, there has been an unprecedented growth in students opting to take on STEM subjects such as Computer Science, Engineering, Chemistry, Physics and Biology. This includes a 400% increase in acceptances for students wishing to go on to study Artificial Intelligence courses at university.
Acceptances into computer science courses have risen by almost 50%, from 20,420 in 2011 to 30,090 in 2020; and acceptances to engineering courses are up 21% from 25,995 in 2011 to 31,545 in 2020. This is driven by an increase in demand from UK 18-year-olds, suggesting the impact early STEM uptake in schools is having on higher education.
This is good news, especially as STEM subjects have a positive impact on the economy and society. Improving the quality of science teaching and increasing the number of young people that study science subjects is important if we are to address the STEM skills shortage and support the UK economy to grow.
UK graduates from STEM degrees are typically able to access a higher starting wage, with research showing that achieving 2 or more A Levels in STEM subjects adds more than 7.8% to earnings, when compared to just gaining GCSE level qualifications. In addition, recent forecasts have suggested that increasing the number of women working in STEM sectors can increase the UK’s labour value by at least £2bn.
In the past, STEM subjects have been harder for children and young people to access, particularly among girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of women accepted into full-time STEM undergraduate courses increased by 49%. In the same 10-year span, the number of UK 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds accepted into full time undergraduate STEM courses increased by 79% - from 7,265 in 2010 to 13,040 in 2020. These new results suggest that young people are benefiting from increased support in these subjects, with potential barriers to access based on gender, race or class gradually being lifted.
Measures undertaken by the Department for Education to support STEM teaching include Isaac Physics (an online platform materials designed to support students transition from GCSE through sixth form to university), a range of support for teacher CPD (Science Learning Partnerships, Stimulating Physics Network), an £84 million programme to improve computing teaching and participation, and the Teaching for Mastery programme in mathematics.
We have also asked the Office for Students to reprioritise funding towards the provision of high-cost, priority subjects, including high-cost STEM subjects and those that support the NHS and wider healthcare policy such as medicine. These subjects are particularly important to the country and economy and will receive an uplift to funding.
Together, these programmes seek to enhance the next generation’s mathematical and scientific skills in STEM.
Clare Marchant, Chief Executive at UCAS, said:
There are a lot of factors that go into what subjects students choose. It is pleasing to see that they are responding to economic cues with increased demand for subjects like engineering and, inspired by the work of the NHS, with more mature applicants and 18 year olds applying for nursing.