NPC/01/08/A: Review of the Supply of Scientists and Engineers

HM Treasury

Review of the supply of scientists and engineers

Key issues consultation paper

Sir Gareth Roberts review

Submission by the National Postgraduate Committee

On behalf of the National Postgraduate Committee we are pleased to make a submission to Sir Gareth Roberts review of the supply of scientists and engineers. In preparing this submission we have been guided by comments and suggestions from Tim Brown of the University of Surrey, Chris Neville-Smith of the University of Durham and Stuart Purdie of the University of St Andrews, who wed like to thank. I hope the review team finds our comments helpful.

James Groves, General Secretary
Peter Campbell, Project Officer
National Postgraduate Committee


Executive summary

Businesses often do not recognise the higher levels of experience and skill postgraduate students have. Many completing postgraduates find their skills are not rewarded by higher positions in companies or an increased salary.

The recruitment of high-calibre scientists and engineers to doctoral programmes ought to increase, but expanding postdoctoral schemes, and setting up a suitable range of stable career opportunities within academia and businesses R&D, is even more important. The government needs to increase demand for research-based jobs through an increase in the pay, conditions and job security of research staff, in both higher education institutions and the private sector.

The increasing need for four-year undergraduate courses will further increase the debt burden of prospective scientists and engineers, who are increasingly choosing not to undertake postgraduate study. The government needs to consider ways of increasing the attractiveness of postgraduate study, including an increase in the levels of stipends and an improvement in the amount and quality of training offered. Research training is often sporadic in its delivery and too general in its approach. Students want training to be an integral part of their research programme, focusing specifically on their research needs.


The National Postgraduate Committee (NPC) is the representative body for postgraduate students in the UK. We organise meetings and conferences, publish best practice guidelines and seek to influence public policy on all aspects of postgraduate education. Our membership consists of affiliated students unions from across the UK; we have one full-time officer, the General Secretary, and fourteen voluntary officers. We work closely with the National Union of Students and the lecturers unions.

A Skills and skills dialogue

What skills does business value most in its researchers? What skills is a researcher expected to have, and how can they be acquired?

The balance of skills varies considerably among trained scientists and engineers, depending on the individuals institution, course and extra-curricular interests. Businesses and industries need to be made more aware of the differing needs and qualities of scientists and engineers when developing research programmes.

Are there sufficiently robust processes for communication between business and HE, and how might any deficiencies in these processes be addressed?

Higher education needs to make itself more recognisable to businesses. From a postgraduate perspective, we feel businesses often do not recognise the higher levels of experience and skill postgraduate students have. Many completing postgraduates find their skills are not rewarded by higher positions in companies or an increased salary.

Although the number of collaborative schemes between academic institutions and businesses R&D is steadily growing, there are still quite a number of communication problems between partners, particularly in new schemes. This is mainly due to misunderstandings of the different working cultures that are evolving in industry and academia.

Are universities able to respond to changing demand from businesses and/or students, and what incentives do they have for doing so?

Universities value long-term investment and support. Often they are less adept at responding to changes in short-term demand from businesses or students.

B Recruitment and retention of researchers

Why do people choose the careers they do? Which are the most important factors in researchers and potential researchers career choices?

People choose employment which:

(a) values the specific and generic skills possessed by scientists and engineers;

(b) gives job satisfaction and strong career prospects;

(c) carries a salary capable of quickly paying off debts and loans; and

(d) provides a fulfilling social environment.

Different people will of course prioritise these four areas in different ways. It should be noted, however, that debt is increasingly leading graduates to prioritise financial reward above other areas, and in particular to forego postgraduate study. This was borne out by the 1999/2000 Survey of Postgraduate Study Intentions, conducted by the University of Sheffield on behalf of the OST, which found:

"Debt is the most discouraging factor for the Maybes [i.e. those undecided as to whether to pursue a postgraduate course], closely followed by the number of postgraduate awards. It is interesting that in 2000 students have been putting greater emphasis on the inadequate level of postgraduate maintenance. The proportion rating the maintenance level as a discouraging factor (though not necessarily their most discouraging factor) increased by nine percentage points between years, from roughly 65 to 74 per cent, regardless of whether they were contemplating a PhD or a taught Masters."

(University of Sheffield/OST, 2000, p.13)

Even those students who are keen to pursue postgraduate study may well find their bank is keener that they commence paying off what may well be a several thousand pound overdraft. It is the banks of prospective postgraduate students who need convincing of the merits of postgraduate education, not just the students themselves.

At postdoctoral level, it is important that both businesses and higher education institutions offer an attractive career path to the completing research student. Sadly, this is increasingly not the case.

The number of research positions within higher education institutions is limited, particularly in purer disciplines such as mathematics, and the increasing casualisation and relatively low pay of postdoctoral research staff has led to many completing research students leaving academia or migrating abroad. An AUT survey in December 2000 stated:

"The level of casualisation of research staff in the UK has increased since 1995-96, despite the signing by employers in 1996 of the Concordat on Contract Research Staff Career Management, which resolved to improve the careers of contract research staff. The level of casualisation of academics in general, and women academics in particular, has increased. However, a number of HEIs are reducing their reliance on fixed-term contracts and have begun to change their employment practices."

(AUT, 2000, section 4 conclusions)

For these reasons it can be very productive for businesses R&D departments to actively target newly-qualified PhDs. In the long term, however, the lack of PhDs staying in UK academia is likely to lead to a reduction in the quality of UK research as a whole.

Businesses can improve the supply of PhDs into academia, and the mobility of PhDs between academia and business, by engaging in collaborative R&D work with higher education institutions. Ultimately, though, an increase in central funding via the Research Councils (possibly partly via collaborative projects with businesses) is needed to significantly boost postdoctoral numbers.

Is the overall pattern of careers adopted by scientists and engineers a problem for businesses R&D activities?

There is a significant leaching of scientists and engineers into non-research-based careers. This will only change when a career in research, within either higher education or businesses R&D, carries comparable pay, conditions and job security to a career elsewhere in the private sector.

C The education system

What factors in the education system affect the supply of researchers who have the skills required for businesses R&D activities?

One of the consequences of the broadening of the secondary schools curriculum, no doubt unintended, is that school leavers are entering undergraduate study in mathematics, natural sciences and engineering knowing significantly less basic knowledge than they used to. This concern was expressed in the London Mathematical Societys 1995 report Tackling the Mathematics Problem:

"There is unprecedented concern amongst mathematicians, scientists and engineers in higher education about the mathematical preparedness of new undergraduates. There is also a very long-standing worry about the numbers of prospective students in these disciplines . . . It is economically important to this country that it produces both numerate citizens and top class mathematicians, scientists and engineers. This is almost impossible if the mathematical foundations for all these disciplines are not laid at the appropriate time . . . Recent changes in school mathematics may well have had advantages for some pupils, but they have not laid the necessary foundations to maintain the quantity and quality of mathematically competent school leavers and have greatly disadvantaged those who need to continue their mathematical training beyond school level."

(LMS, 1995, summary report)

The rise in four-year undergraduate Masters courses may perhaps be seen as a response to the relative unpreparedness of those beginning undergraduate study as scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

We do not believe the answer to this problem lies with returning to traditional A levels; nor do we endorse AS levels, which we feel have proved to be unnecessarily bureaucratic. Instead we would encourage the adoption of a programme at post-16 level based on the International Baccalaureate, which combines rigour and depth with a broad curriculum. This should make UK post-16 education more compatible with the rest of the EU, so hopefully improving the mobility of prospective scientists and engineers both as they progress in their studies and as they proceed to employment. We are very encouraged that the National Assembly for Wales has decided to move towards a Welsh Baccalaureate, and would encourage such a scheme to be adopted across the UK.

The UK also needs to seriously consider the issue of retention of its science and mathematics teachers.

Should more young people in general, or more high achievers in particular, be encouraged to study science and engineering to graduate and postgraduate level, and if so, how?

The increasing need for four-year undergraduate courses will further increase the debt burden of prospective scientists and engineers. We feel there is a compelling case for the reintroduction of targeted maintenance awards to offset this burden, coupled with an increase in the level of student loan.

Many students undertake part-time work to finance their studies; however, courses that involve a lot of laboratory work tend to fit in uneasily with this. In Oxford and Cambridge, working during term-time is extremely difficult in all subjects.

As we have mentioned above, scientists and engineers are increasingly choosing not to undertake postgraduate study. To combat this, the government needs to consider ways of increasing the attractiveness of postgraduate study, including an increase in the levels of stipends and an improvement in the amount and quality of training offered.

We would like an improvement in the transparency of procedures by which quota studentships are allocated. There is much evidence of studentships being offered to favoured sons we use the gender-specific term advisedly which we feel is off-putting for many prospective postgraduates. It also has implications in terms of equal opportunities; one of the reasons for the comparably low numbers of female postgraduate students is, we feel, the system of informal offers that exists within departments and traditionally favours male students.

Clear policy on the allocation of studentships needs to be adopted by the Research Councils. The advent of EPSRC doctoral training accounts, where a significant amount of the responsibility for studentships is devolved to individual institutions, makes the adoption of clear guidelines by the EPSRC a particular priority. All guidelines should comply with, and build on, the forthcoming QAA Code of Practice on recruitment and admissions (QAA, 2001).

We also believe the government could do more to actively promote migration from one institution to another to undertake postgraduate study. Increased migration both improves the quality and diversity of students within institutions and enriches students personal development.

We believe the role and function of one-year Masters courses (both MSc and MRes) are still unclear to many prospective postgraduate students. In particular it is still unclear how they are supposed to fit in with undergraduate courses that, increasingly, are developing into four-year Masters courses, and research programmes that, increasingly, have significant amounts of research training built into them. The implementation of the QAA National Qualifications Framework should assist prospective students and employers in this respect.

Should more be done by businesses and/or higher education institutions to encourage top science and engineering undergraduates into research, and if so, how?

We believe collaborative postgraduate programmes, taught and research, need to be encouraged so that more of those wanting, or needing, to go into graduate employment can gain access to postgraduate education and professional training. Too many graduates see postgraduate education as a fallback option in the event of not finding employment.

Does research training in a university fit researchers for careers in business and/or in academia?

Research training is often sporadic in its delivery and too general in its approach. Students want training to be an integral part of their research programme, focusing specifically on their research needs. A PhD should offer more than just a specific area of research; scope is needed to allow broader skills to grow in a PhD student during their studies, to give them more to offer an employer.

There is of course a need for some general training, and in particular we wholeheartedly endorse the Research Councils Graduate Schools Programme as an excellent means of allowing research students to realise the transferable skills theyve developed. We feel the methods developed by the Graduate Schools Programme should be integrated into subject-specific training programmes at institutional level; the Research Councils and AHRBs joint statement of Skills Training Requirements for research students represents an encouraging step forward.

Research students also need their institutions to properly recognise the importance of their training and continuing professional development. Too many departments see research training and CPD as a distraction from the goal of producing a thesis within a strict four-year deadline. Research Councils need to take research training into account when enforcing submission deadlines; departments should not be penalised for late submission if this lateness is due to diligent attendance on training or CPD courses.

D Roles and responsibilities

Is the current division of responsibility for training and development of researchers between and within government, business, the education system and the individual a strength or a weakness in ensuring that innovative businesses can recruit and retain scientists and engineers with the relevant skills? Do roles and responsibilities need to change in order to address any problems with the supply of trained scientists and engineers, and if so how?

Clear guidance is needed for all stakeholders to ensure there is an overall strategic focus to their activities. Government departments and agencies, particularly the Research Councils, need to take considerably greater responsibility for monitoring the whole situation.

E International dimensions

What challenges are brought about by the increasingly global market for highly skilled scientists and engineers, and how can the Government help the UK economy adapt?

There are significant problems of lack of mobility for UK-trained scientists and engineers due to the perceived lack of comparability of our higher education structures with those of continental Europe. Our system of 3+1 for Bachelors and Masters programmes (3 years at Bachelors level followed, optionally, by 1 year at Masters level) sits uneasily within a European model that is increasingly opting for 3+2 or 4+1 models. If the UK is not careful its awards will be viewed as inferior to those on offer in the rest of Europe.

The Government needs to ensure the UK higher education sector is fully aware of the implications of the 1999 Bologna Declaration, which stated the EU governments commitment to a transparent and consistent higher education framework across Europe.

F Substitutes for scientists and engineers

Apart from direct intervention in the education supply chain by Government and/or business, what other ways are there to affect the supply of and demand for researchers in science and technology?

It is a false economy to believe that the best way to encourage scientists and engineers to stay in research is to simply increase the competition for non-research-based jobs. This could lead to a skills crisis and lack of mobility within the research community, with research being seen as a dead-end option and bright graduates avoiding entering the black hole of a research post. People studying for science and engineering degrees are already under a lot of pressure to find suitable career opportunities; simply increasing competition for non-research-based jobs could lead to a short-termist take the first job that comes along attitude, which goes contrary to the governments ambitions for lifelong learning.

The government needs to act to increase demand for research-based jobs through an increase in the pay, conditions and job security of research staff, in both higher education institutions and the private sector. It also, of course, needs to adopt supply-side measures such as increasing the mobility of research staff within the higher education and private sectors and improving the transferable skills of scientists and engineers. Pay, conditions and job security remain the central issues, however.


AUT, 2000 - Trends in casual employment in higher education 1994/95 to 1998/99, Association of University Teachers, December 2000

LMS, 1995 Tackling the mathematics problem, London Mathematical Society, October 1995

QAA, 2001 Draft code of practice for the assurance of academic quality and standards in higher education: recruitment and admissions (circular CL19/01), QAA, March 2001

University of Sheffield/OST, 2000 Office of Science and Technology report on the 1999/2000 survey of postgraduate study intentions, University of Sheffield on behalf of the OST (Dr Marcus Phillips, principal author), 2000