Universities have flexibility to recruit more STEM students but need capacity to do so

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Engineering degree applications vs. acceptances

When talking about increasing the number of people studying engineering at university we often tend to focus on applications but what is important is to look at acceptances also, and explore the differences between these two figures. There is after all little benefit in significant increases in engineering degree applications if universities aren't accepting them.

If we look at engineering degree applications against acceptances we can see a gap has emerged in recent years (See Chart). This suggests that whilst we may be increasing the number of learners applying to study the STEM disciplines at university, this does not always translate into STEM learners, or indeed STEM qualifiers.

Applications and acceptances for engineering degrees

Source: UCAS

To an extent, this gap is likely to reflect the previous student number controls applied to universities, as well as other factors such as prospective students not meeting the criteria.

Universities now have flexibility to recruit more students

At the end of 2013, the government announced that it would remove student controls. Whilst this decision received a number of positive commentaries from stakeholders, Universities UK (UUK) expressed some concerns over the cost of relaxing student number controls. Whilst UUK has said it is confident that higher education providers would be able to cover the cost of provision, significant increases in student numbers would require additional capital infrastructure and this is where cost could become an issue.

Recent STEM capital funding is welcome, but is not enough

Government has recognised the need for more places to serve demand from STEM applicants. In September 2013, the government announced £200m STEM capital funding for the 2015-16 academic year, acknowledging that the cost of delivering courses such as engineering is far greater than other disciplines.

The Engineering Professor's Council (EPC) estimates that it costs around £12,000 per student to deliver undergraduate engineering programmes, yet HE institutions are able to charge up to £9,000 in fees. The EPC has argued that he Band P premium will continue to play a key role in ensuring the future sustainability of engineering programme; however this is still only around £1,500. The maths doesn't quite add up.

One would think then that universities would jump at the chance to access additional funding. But let's have a think of what it entails.

To take advantage of this funding higher education institutions must match-fund any allocation on at least a one-to-one basis resulting in the total STEM capital investment being at least £400m.

However, will this really be enough to supply the number of STEM students demanded by industry (remembering that 66% of manufacturers plan to recruit an engineering graduate in the next three years).

Moreover, the funding has only been allocated for a single year (2015-16) and therefore some universities may not expand engineering and science departments on this basis of such time-limited funding.

The investment from the government is to be focused on infrastructure to support the teaching of STEM subjects. The resources and facilities used by HE learners must replicate those of industry as closely as possible. Limitations to funding may prevent this from becoming a reality.

University-business partnerships will become more crucial

Higher education providers may then need to seek alternative capital finance, either provided from within their organisation or from external sources, which could include businesses.

Universities may find themselves relying on business partnerships, such as those that already exist such as Coventry University's partnership with Unipart, which saw the creation of a faculty on the factory floor.

But these are fairly few and far between. As we blogged previously only 5% of small firms are able to fund faculties.

Government must take a long-term approach

Whilst increased investment from industry may support universities in their bids for part of the £200m funding allocated for 2015-16 – this is still a short-term win.

Government must take a longer term view on how to ensure universities have sufficient capital funding to deliver the high quality STEM courses demanded by industry.

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Head of Education & Skills Policy

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