Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-447)



  440. You are all saying yes, would you like to elaborate a little on that?
  (Ms Tyson) I think the point was made earlier about the bottleneck with the A level physics as an indicator in terms of certainly going on to the graduate level, there are so few with that sort of basic eligibility badge going through, and we are all interested in those scientifically literate people.

Dr Iddon

  441. You are engaging people now who are coming from schools via what is loosely called the vocational route. In the current White Paper that is out for consultation there are proposals to move more towards the vocational route. Are you happy that that will provide the kind of people you have been mentioning in your earlier discussions or do you have some hesitation about the White Paper?
  (Ms Tyson) Our experience is that the people who have vocational qualifications, say for instance they have done a GNVQ in addition to their GCSE or their GCE qualifications, where it is additional it is good, they cope better with the training programmes, but where it is instead of then they struggle.
  (Mr Hanslip) It is the balance again between practical skills and the pure academic achievement. At the very highest level I think we still get some very, very good high quality R&D specialists, etc., coming through the university system.

  442. You were saying earlier that there was a shortage of what we call skills at the technical level, technician level, is this new drive to vocational studies going to supply you with the people that you are missing at the moment?
  (Mr Hanslip) Theoretically it should help. I think there is a case for more and more practical work at school that makes science things interesting. When you interview them a lot of people who have even gone through and done their science degree found it incredibly boring, it is not very flexible. You were talking earlier on about digging up projects rather than just churning out facts that are incontrovertible. Lots of them come straight in and want to go into things like marketing, which they find very exciting, and do not want to go into a scientific career. That is not necessarily a bad thing as long as there are enough coming through. Increasingly we, and others, are looking to Germany and Holland, Europe, to recruit good quality engineering and science graduates.

  443. Is it numbers or quality that is the problem in Britain?
  (Mr Hanslip) I think it is beginning to be a bit of both. Numbers are not critical yet to the larger organisations, although fewer and fewer people are going into things like chemical engineering, which is one that we are pretty critical of. The quality at the top end is as good as it ever was.

  444. The $64,000 question to people from industry and commerce is do you think you are paying them enough?
  (Mr Speechley) If I can answer that. I just have to put our operation into context. Although we are a very big organisation worldwide, we are not very big compared with the Rolls-Royce's and AstraZeneca's in the UK, so I perhaps have a slightly different perspective. We do pay them enough and I tell them, particularly at the sixth form level, "if you read that there are so many places in engineering that are going vacant, if you want to earn more money in ten years' time engineering could be quite a good thing to be in". The other thing I tell them is they should have a language other than English because we are seeing a separation in Germany, for example, where people need to speak languages at all other than English. On the vocational point that you made earlier regarding the White Paper, I believe that we are in danger, if we are not careful, of the old channelling off of the people who cannot do whatever into the vocational courses. I think one of the things that has come out from everything I have heard is that we need good people and if we say "it is okay, there is a vocational course if you cannot do maths, physics and chemistry at A level", that would be the wrong way. I honestly believe there is a danger of that seeing the schools and the way they could react to this, "it's okay, we will give them something to do because they do not like maths and physics". Again, the big companies may not suffer so much from that.
  (Ms Tyson) We will want them to have the maths and physics as well.
  (Mr Speechley) There is a significant danger of it that if we are not careful we will just have a place to put the people who cannot do the academic subjects, which is not what we want. We have to have the very best people. I actually say to them when they come in the sixth form that I want people who could be solicitors and accountants but actually want to do engineering. That goes down as a little bit of a shock the first time they hear it.

Mr McWalter

  445. We have heard both from you and, indeed, from Professor Ruxton as well the desire to get people to do, as it were, engineering courses that are well short of chartered engineering courses and a lament that the old ONC, HNC or whatever has gone. Is it not the case that it is a far more attractive option for someone who perhaps might have rather modest GCSEs at school to do a degree in business studies where they have a very pleasant working environment, they have got the option of maybe doing very well for themselves economically, compared to doing an ONC in engineering which might also lock you into a particular set of skills which might get outdated over a relatively short period of time? It does not feel to me as if in the modern world it is very attractive for people to take the engineering option and particularly to take the option for, as it were, those lower level engineering courses. Are you well equipped to deal with the marketplace in this regard?
  (Mr Hanslip) That is an interesting question. Just on pay, somebody said do we pay and the chemical industry I work in pays 30 per cent above the average and I am sure pharmaceuticals is the same, they are both very highly paid industries. The problem is the manufacturing industry, or industry almost in itself, is not a desperately attractive proposition to young people these days. Quite honestly doing a business studies course is a damn sight easier than doing physics, chemistry or whatever it is. Somebody said it is two grades different earlier on, I do not know whether it is two grades or not, but there is no doubt there is a perception, real or not, that it is easier to do the humanities and that type of thing than it is to do engineering and science. If you then add to that the fact that it is not perceived as a particularly attractive career path then we have got a huge amount of work to do to make these types of careers exciting to young people. It starts right at the school and runs right the way through to industry.
  (Ms Garson) If I can add to that. It does not matter how well you pay, and we pay them well, really you do not go into those sorts of roles just for financial aspects. It is something about have we really got the message across about how exciting and varied these careers can be, do we do enough work in that area and what other career pathways do they allow people to go into, which again is something that we could do a bit more of. I know, for example, that the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry has been doing quite a lot of work in that area.

Dr Iddon

  446. I cannot resist having Vicki Garson in front of us without asking her would it be possible for a modern Harvey Jones, almost without qualifications, to rise through the stratifying managerial structure to the top within your company?
  (Ms Garson) An unqualified person?

  447. He made great play about not having too many qualifications as I remember.
  (Ms Garson) We do have some anecdotal examples already of people who have come in with, how shall I say, some of the most basic qualifications who simply through their own motivation and the fact that we have been able to support them have gone on through to further qualifications, MSCs and PhDs on some occasions, and have taken on significant roles. I cannot say that is something which is an everyday story but it does show that it is possible. Whether that remains possible as the number of people with qualifications we are hoping to see rises, I do not know, that is a personal view, I could not comment on it.

  Dr Iddon: Thank you.

  Chairman: Good answer. Can I say thank you very much for coming. I think we have all agreed at this session today there is an awful lot to do, we recognise an awful lot of problems and we do not see perfection on the route all the way from the cradle to the grave, as it were, from schools into industry and it is going to be very difficult. I am quite sure that what you have given to us today will help our report agitate and allow Ministers and other officials to cogitate about some of these issues as well. You have contributed very much to the end process for us in terms of what we are trying to do but you have also said that you are trying to get back into the schools as well to play a part in that and that is a very important message for us all, that it is not just a unitary thing that it revolves around, everybody has got to work together. I am very grateful indeed, thank you for coming and seeing us today. I will let you get back to the bench producing cars, engines, drugs, whatever it is. Thank you very much indeed.


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