STEM curriculum and graduation rates

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I sent an email to NFER asking for advice on how to get stats about graduation rates, how many people go on to university, what subjects they study, how prepared they are for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, and what the job market looks like in these areas. I mentioned that I'm also interested in how this breaks down along gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic dimensions.

Any other ideas about where I should ask for info? I was a bit surprised to learn from one of my co-workers that his niece was one of the only girls to complete A-levels in physics in England. I'd like to follow up on that with some numbers (which I think might be quite shocking). Also interested in comparison with other countries.

Some initial numbers[edit]

From a report on Education and training statistics for the United Kingdom (2011), we see that there were 1.437M students pursuing their first degree in the 2009/2010 year (including full-time and part-time students). It may be interesting to note that 793K or 55% of these students were female.

However, if we look at specific technical fields, the numbers are strongly "gendered", with 70K males studying mathematics and computer science, versus only 22K females (thus, the average English mathematics department would have about 1 female student among every four students). In the somewhat amorphously defined field of "Subjects allied to medicine" (nursing? biochemistry?) there were 97K female students versus 25K male students -- approximately reversing the previous ratio.

At the postgraduate level, in mathematics and computer science, the percentage is preserved (24K males, and around 7K females), whereas in "subjects allied to medicine", the gender gap reduces somewhat (37K females to 15K males).

What isn't clear from these numbers alone is whether technical degrees broadly considered are over- or under-subscribed vis a vis the job market. Making the simplifying and generous assumption that all graduates who don't go on to a post-grad program in their field get employed in that field, there were, say 20K new hires (after a first degree) in mathematics and CS, and 23K new hires in "subjects allied to medicine".

What we can learn by looking elsewhere in the report is that in the same year, there were 3.906M students enroled in secondary school. Continuing with our assumptions above, the total number of new hires in either mathematics/CS or "subjects allied to medicine" was about 43K, or 1% of the size of the secondary school population. Looking at enrolment numbers across fields, it seems that 285K, or about 7% of the secondary school population, went on to get jobs immediately after their first degree, foregoing further studies. This says that your chances are of being employable straight after you graduate are about 60%.

These calculations may seem biased against students pursuing vocational certificates: if we add these in, we find that while 38% will persue a degree, just around 50% of school-leavers pursue further training per se, so that at most half of the population is able to do technical work that requires training above the school level (unless they're learning on the job, which no doubt many do).

To sum up:

  • at most 7% of the school population will both obtain a first degree and get a job straight out of their undergraduate
  • at most 50% of the school population has a hope of doing technical work that requires training beyond what they receive in school (unless they're learning on the job)
  • Less than 1% of the school population will go on to get a job that requires a degree in mathematics or computer science.
  • A similar percentage (slightly more) will go on to get a job in a field "allied to medicine".

Now, does this mean that schools aren't adequately preparing students? Not necessarily. Does it help explain why a mathematician can make more money, on average, than an "unskilled labourer"? Yes: as we've seen, at the professional level, mathematics is a highly specialized field.

But why all the fuss about STEM education? Do we need more mathematicians now than we did before? More broadly, will there be fewer jobs for people without specialized degrees in the future? (Certainly there are fewer farmers now than there were a decade ago, but are there fewer construction workers as well? Retail staff? Petrol attendants? Movie theater attendants?) Do the 50% who do not pursue higher education need more skills coming out of school?...

To be continued...

In the news[edit]

See also[edit]