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Delivering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills for the economy

Government efforts to improve the quality and take-up of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills have yielded some positive results. There remains, however, an urgent need for departments to set out a shared view of what they are trying to achieve and a co-ordinated plan for achieving it before government can demonstrate that it is delivering value for money, according to today’s report from the National Audit Office.

Since the early 2000s there has been growing concern, including from the government, about how to achieve higher productivity and economic growth in an era of rapid technological change.  Over time, this has generated the widely held belief that one of the UK’s key economic problems is a shortage of STEM skills in the workforce.

Current estimates of the STEM skills problem vary widely and typically focus only on individual sections of the workforce. Existing evidence indicates that there is a STEM skills mismatch rather than a simple shortage. A mismatch can include many types of misalignment between the skills needed and those available in the labour pool. The NAO’s research indicates that there are particular shortages of STEM skills at technician level, but an oversupply in other areas, such as biological science graduates, who are then often underemployed in an economy in which they are not in high demand. Some major science and engineering bodies also believe that exit from the European Union could reduce the availability of STEM skills in the short term.

Today’s report finds that a number of the individual initiatives aimed at boosting take-up and provision of STEM education have had a positive impact, and participation levels have grown in most areas of the STEM skills pipeline. STEM A Level entries have grown by around 3% since 2011/12. Starts on STEM apprenticeships have grown by 18%, driven mainly by starts in apprenticeships covering: engineering and manufacturing technologies; and construction, planning and the built environment. Enrolments in full-time undergraduate STEM courses grew by 7% between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

However, despite the progress being made in expanding the supply of STEM skills, a historic lack of coordination across government creates a risk that the overall approach is not cohesive, and that individual initiatives intended to boost STEM skills do not add up to a coherent programme of intervention. The success of individual initiatives also masks some ongoing problems. There is a consistent participation gap in terms of gender: in 2016/17, women made up only 9.4% of A Level examination entries in computing, 21.2% in physics, and 39% in mathematics, and just 8% of starts on STEM apprenticeship courses. The areas where participation in higher education STEM courses has grown most strongly also appear to reinforce reported skills mismatches.

According to longitudinal research, of the 75,000 people who graduated with a STEM degree in 2016, only around 24% were known to be working in a STEM occupation within six months. The NAO finds that in the schools sector, better training and attempts to attract former teachers back to the workforce show some positive results, according to early stage research on the £67 million maths and physics teacher supply package.

“The government faces a complex challenge in encouraging the education pipeline to produce more people with the right STEM skills. Some initiatives are getting positive results but there is an urgent need for the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy to coordinate plans and set out what they are trying to achieve. A more precise understanding of the challenge would allow the Departments to better target and prioritise their efforts to deliver the STEM skills the economy needs.”

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, 17 January 2018

Notes for Editors

Spent on, or committed to, key STEM-specific interventions between 2007 and autumn 2017

Undergraduate enrolments in STEM subjects in 2015/16

Of graduates in STEM subjects known to be working in a STEM occupation six months later


Additional STEM technicians the Gatsby Charitable Foundation estimates  will be needed to meet employer demand in the decade to 2024

STEM apprenticeship starts in 2016/17


Of STEM apprenticeships started by women in 2016/17, despite women accounting for over 50% of all apprenticeship starts

£80 million 

Government investment in national colleges, including in high-speed rail; nuclear; onshore and gas; and digital


Rise in the number of STEM A level examination entries in 2016/17 compared with the previous year

Fall in the number of enrolments in part-time undergraduate STEM degrees between 2011/12 and 2015/16

£200 million 

Government capital investment in higher education STEM provision in 2015/16

  1. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In education, it means the study of these subjects, either exclusively or in combination. In employment, STEM refers to a job requiring the application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills or a qualification in a relevant subject, or located in a particular industry or sector. There is no universally accepted definition in either setting.
  2. Responsibility for developing STEM skills involves a number of government departments, and is embedded across a number of non-STEM specific policy areas. The Department for Education (DfE) is responsible for the majority of STEM skills interventions. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has a cross-cutting role, including work on doctoral training and STEM inspiration, and setting the national framework for science and technology. Other departments, including the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Defence, run individual STEM-related programmes and initiatives.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  4. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Sir Amyas Morse KCB, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund, nationally and locally, have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy.  The C&AG does this through a range of outputs including value for money reports on matters of public interest; investigations to establish the underlying facts in circumstances where concerns have been raised by others or observed through our wider work; landscape reviews to aid transparency and good practice guides.  Our work ensures that those responsible for the use of public money are held to account and helps government to improve public services, leading to audited savings of £734 million in 2016.


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