Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


CHAPTER 9: MEETING THE SKILL NEEDS

Introduction

9.1  If the United Kingdom is to contribute to the future development of microprocessor technology, and reap commercial benefit from this activity, it will require appropriate numbers of people with relevant skills and experience. The requirements placed on the education system to deliver appropriately trained students are similar to the requirements for many other areas of science and technology — a good basic education in science and mathematics.

9.2  The Roberts Report SET for success[87] provided a detailed analysis of these questions, covering the education system from primary to higher education. The Government's detailed response to this report was published at the end of July 2002, just as we were concluding our evidence taking[88]. Rather than revisit all these points, here we will report only the highlights of evidence presented to this Inquiry that relate to this matter.

The skills need

9.3  The memorandum by the IEE (p 44) noted that:

"we produce far too few graduates with the skills in the [microelectronics] industry sector … the overwhelming complaint from companies is the lack of skilled staff."

This view was reinforced by the Professional Contractors Group (p 216):

"Perhaps the biggest problem my business faces is in recruiting people with sufficient skills."

9.4  The generic requirements to undertake undergraduate training in the skills relevant to the microelectronics industry are mathematics and science. Although some undergraduate computing courses do not require A-level mathematics, these courses tend to focus on the applications and IT aspects of the subject rather than the design of the machines themselves. All the 5*-rated computing departments currently require undergraduates to have good A-level mathematics. We must begin, then, by looking at the situation in our schools as they are the first step in the skills supply chain.

Schools

9.5  If UK universities are to increase the supply of graduates in relevant subject areas they must have a suitably trained source of undergraduate intake. The numbers of school pupils taking mathematics and science subjects at A-level is, however, declining. This serious long-term problem has been widely recognised. In addition to the Roberts Report mentioned above, this Committee commented on these matters in Chapter 6 ("Science Education in Schools") of our February 2000 Report on Science and Society[89] and in our March 2001 follow-up Report on Science in Schools[90]. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also published a highly relevant Report in July 2002[91].

9.6  Sir Robin Saxby noted his concerns regarding the teaching of science and mathematics in schools, institutions which industry found it hard to influence (QQ 360 & 365). The small number of girls showing an interest in engineering and technology was also a major concern for him (QQ 362 & 363). The difference between different countries in gender demographics suggested that this was a cultural problem rather than some intrinsic difference in outlook between the sexes.

9.7  The Prime Minister's explicit acceptance[92] that "we particularly need to reverse the decline in maths, physics and engineering, and make science a career to aspire to, for girls as well as boys" was very welcome. We strongly support the Government in pursuing the various policy initiatives aimed at reversing the decline in mathematics and science subjects in schools.

Higher education

Staff

9.8  The BCS drew our attention to several studies confirming the crisis in recruiting and retaining academic staff in computing and electronics (Q 136 and p 60). A 2001 survey of Deans of Engineering showed that the greatest difficulty in recruitment was in the computing departments, closely followed by electronics. A survey of computing departments, also in 2001, showed many unfilled vacancies (blamed principally on uncompetitive salary levels) and poor student-staff ratios leading to unacceptable work-loads and consequently retention difficulties. The International Review of UK Research in Computer Science also highlighted concerns about the difficulty of recruiting qualified academic staff.

9.9  We recommend that the Government and universities take specific action to address the crisis in recruiting and retaining university academic staff in computing and electronics, as highlighted by the BCS.

9.10  There is also concern about the experience brought to their roles by the academic staff that can be recruited. Professor May noted that "A large number of our engineering departments actually do not have many people who have ever built anything" (Q 262). This would be addressed if there were more interchange of staff between industry and universities, but there were two major obstacles to this.

(a)  Salary differentials were a marked disincentive. The IEE suggested a 2:1 ratio between industrial and academic pay at the entry level (Q 136).

(b)  Furthermore, staff from industry did not fit the conventional academic mould. In particular, industry did not place great emphasis on research publication, and such staff could fare badly in the RAE evaluation, making them unattractive to the university.

9.11  Most, but not all, universities choose to follow nationally agreed salary scales for lecturers and post-doctoral workers; professorial salaries are generally negotiated locally. Dr Bradshaw of the CBI stated that "we [the CBI] think universities ought to break out of this national agreement they have got themselves into and concentrate on getting the right people in the right places" (Q 445).

9.12  However, the fact is that few universities can afford to pay more than the agreed minimum for each grade. This is because most universities derive the greater part of their income from Funding Councils on a per capita student basis and paying more would mean poorer staff/student ratios. Beyond that, in many universities, an 'all of one company' ethos militates against paying more to staff in those disciplines for which there is strong market demand.

9.13  Post-doctoral positions are a vital strand of research. At present, such positions in universities are generally on short-term contracts of two to three years and, for this reason, can be less attractive than industrial positions which are generally not fixed term. Some companies wishing to support and utilise university research have to second some of their own staff for this purpose. It may in future become necessary for such arrangements — which also have other benefits of increasing interchange between universities and industry — to be applied more widely.

9.14  Professor Halliday felt (Q 91) that salary disparities were particularly problematic at the lower end of the scale — 23/24 year olds, post-doctoral researchers, and so on. Professor O'Reilly also noted that the low success rates in grant applications were a serious negative factor for junior academic staff (Q 91).

9.15  We recommend that the Government should consult universities and industry about ways of making the exchange of staff between the sectors more straightforward and commonplace. As part of this, particular attention will need to be paid to salary differentials and the current emphasis on the importance of research output on the basis of publications.

Students

9.16  Despite the buoyancy of student applications for university places in computing subjects there is still a shortage of graduates with the skills that companies in the microelectronics design industry are seeking. These include a combination of electronic design and computing skills, but the majority of students in computing disciplines receive very little training in hardware-related topics. There is clearly scope to increase the number of places on university courses that include aspects of both hardware and software design, perhaps delivered jointly by electrical engineering and computer science departments.

9.17  We note that companies, particularly larger companies with regular recruitment needs, are prepared to invest significant effort in forming relationships with universities. As outlined in the supplementary memorandum from Dr Williams of IBM (p 116) and Sir Robin Saxby's comments (Q 357), these relationships are often broad, covering studentships, research contracts and free or low-cost access to hardware and software as well as activities directly related to recruitment.

9.18  It is unrealistic to think that every computer engineer or designer will be an entrepreneur. However, as noted by Sir Robin Saxby, it is important to enable people to grow in this direction (Q 359). In any case, an understanding of business matters is valuable even for those who are not entrepreneurially inclined. Apax Partners (p 135) were among those who encouraged engineers to gain business and financial skills. The CBI added basic knowledge of IP law to the set of desirable skills for graduates to acquire in the course of their studies (Q 453).

The international position

9.19  In the foregoing, we have addressed the supply of suitable trained staff through the UK education system (which includes the university training of overseas students). The only other source of such staff is through highly-skilled immigration. Apax Partners noted (p 135) that the US, where there is a more serious shortage of indigenous engineering graduates than Europe, is highly dependent on that source. As the Minister noted (Q 502), "there is a global market for talent now, and we need to make certain that we win in that particular contest."

9.20  Immigration policy is a complex and politically sensitive topic. Commissioner Liikanen commented that European national policies are inconsistent and tend to focus on refugee questions, whereas the US is more concerned with the skill set of the potential immigrant (Q 530). The Minister noted (Q 501) the recent introduction of the highly-skilled migrant programme[93], which we welcome.


87   HM Treasury, April 2002. Back

88   See Annex A of Investing in Innovation: a strategy for science, engineering and technology, July 2002 - text available on www.hm-treasury.go.uk Back

89   Third Report Session 1999-2000, HL Paper 38 Back

90   First Report Session 2000-01, HL Paper 49. Back

91   Science Education from 14 to 19, Third Report Session 2001-02, HC Paper 508-I. Back

92   In his speech entitled "Science Matters" at the Royal Society on 23 May 2002. Back

93   See www.royalsoc.ac.uk/funding/merit.htm Back


 
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