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The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Department for Education (DfE) have insufficient understanding of what specific science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) skills the UK actually needs, or how Brexit will affect the task of ensuring their supply is maintained.
That is according to a report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which raised other significant concerns in a number of areas besides Brexit, such as difficulties in understanding exactly what counts as a Stem subject or job; the rapid evolution of the workplace, leading to outdated definitions and targets; and lack of clarity around efforts to widen participation in Stem fields generally, as well as, more specifically, to attract more women and girls to work or study in technical fields.
With the UK scheduled to leave the European Union (EU) in eight months’ time, the PAC said both departments were failing to demonstrate enough urgency in assessing how Brexit might affect the supply of Stem skills into the country.
“The departments’ lack of urgency is demonstrated by their heavy reliance on the work of the Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which is due to report on European workers in the UK labour market in September, and has been asked to address the issue of the number of visas available for highly skilled migrants,” wrote the report’s authors.
“We are also concerned that BEIS is uncertain about whether the public sector pay cap is restricting organisations’ ability to recruit workers from overseas with the skills needed to help deliver major infrastructure projects,” they added.
The PAC had previously criticised the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) and the Cabinet Office for not having a robust enough plan to identify and recruit the right people with the right skills – including around digital – to implement Brexit.
The committee called on both BEIS and DfE to set out the further steps they plan to take within six months after publication of the MAC report.
Turning to the Stem gender imbalance, the PAC’s report again called out “insufficient progress” at departmental level to address this. It noted that when it examined the apprenticeships programme in 2016, it recommended that DfE set up performance measures for under-represented groups – which it did for black and minority ethnic (Bame) apprentices and people with learning disabilities, but not for women.
At the time, DfE said it was satisfied with the fact that women make up more than half of apprenticeship starts, but the PAC said this disregarded the fact that only 8% of Stem apprenticeship starts are undertaken by women.
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It called on the department to introduce and monitor targets for increasing the involvement of women in Stem learning programmes, as well as to address slow progress in increasing the number of girls studying computing and physics.
More widely, the PAC also identified concerns about the quality of careers advice being given in schools and colleges.
“It is clear that many young people perceive Stem subjects to be too challenging, and conclude that Stem-related careers are therefore not suitable for them,” said the report. “Government efforts to boost Stem skills in the workplace will fail if these perceptions continue and not enough children choose to study Stem subjects.”
Again, the report acknowledged the steps that DfE has taken – notably, it has asked the Careers and Enterprise Company to focus more on Stem when producing its toolkits – but said it could do more.
The PAC recommended that DfE take further steps to make use of data on career destinations and salaries to push young people towards Stem, and work with Ofsted to consider introducing a ratings system for the quality of advice given in schools.
The committee also said it was concerned that various government Stem boards and working groups contain shortfalls in expertise and knowledge, particularly practical industry and commercial experience, which meant these groups may be missing crucial knowledge of Stem issues that prevents them from being truly effective.
The PAC also said it is yet to be convinced that the DfE’s proposed Skills Advisory Panels will properly understand national and global skills issues, particularly given its established concerns over the involvement of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in these panels. It believes LEPs’ capacity and capability to assist appropriately is too variable around the UK.