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STEM student numbers on the rise

08 Feb 2018

Upon today’s release of Higher Education student data, James Tooze reviews some of the key numbers for science & engineering.

Women play pivotal role in increasing STEM student numbers

The UK has long been known as a powerhouse of global research and innovation. While Britain benefits hugely from overseas talent to enhance our research base, a capable and sizeable domestic workforce has been unable to meet the demands of our growing and evolving sector. At a time when two-thirds of the roles on the shortage occupation list are jobs in STEMM disciplines, and Engineering UK report a shortfall of 20,000 domestic engineering graduates every year, it is more important than ever for the UK to meet its labour demands. We were pleased to see that today’s data from Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) revealed that numbers of STEM students in undergraduate and postgraduate roles have risen in the past five years, despite the fall in overall numbers.

This growth in numbers is thanks in part to an increased number of female students studying in STEM disciplines. While the proportion of female students studying biological sciences remains much higher than other subjects, virtually all STEM subjects have seen an increase in female students.

Proportion of female students by broad subject area

Biological sciences61.1%60.8%60.9%61.8%63.0%
Physical sciences39.9%39.6%39.5%40.4%41.2%
Mathematical sciences38.7%38.0%37.6%37.2%37.1%
Computer science17.4%17.1%17.2%17.1%17.2%
Engineering & technology15.8%16.1%16.7%17.0%17.6%

Although the table shows a slight drop in the proportion of female students studying in the Mathematical sciences, the increase in overall numbers mean there are only 60 fewer students in 2016/17 than in 2012/13. Similarly, the number of women studying Computer science have increased by nearly 2,000 over the same five-year period.

Engineering & technology still highly international despite falls in non-UK students

International students form an integral part of the HE landscape in the UK. Figures have shown that an annual cohort of students can contribute over £20bn to the UK economy over the duration of their studies, they also enrich the opportunities for domestic students by making some courses viable for universities to teach. HESA data gives us the opportunity to review where these international students are studying, and some of the more popular choices for these groups. One such popular discipline is engineering and technology, where foreign students make up almost one-third of all undergraduate and postgraduate numbers.

While the proportion of non-UK students in engineering and technology remains one of the highest of any discipline, this year’s figures have shown a substantial drop in the number of engineering students from abroad.

Nationality demographics for engineering and technology students

% of EU students8.6%8.5%8.5%7.7%
% of non-EU students29.1%29.6%29.0%24.1%
% of UK students62.3%61.9%62.6%68.2%

It would of course be presumptuous to attempt to draw any conclusions as to why this change has occurred. The figures for the academic year of 2016/17 show the first intake of students following the Brexit vote in June 2016. It would be expected that most international students would have made their decisions to study in the UK before the summer, but we will be keeping a close eye on this over the next year.

Other scientific disciplines vary much more widely when it comes to international student numbers. Physical sciences has one of the highest proportion of European students (6.4%), whilst having one of the lowest proportions of non-European students (9.8%). Biological sciences sees only 11.2% of its student base come from outside the UK.

Read the full release from HESA here