Cutting tuition fees for STEM subjects could help address skill shortages faced by many industries

Cut tuition fees for STEM degrees says CBI

University tuition fees for key science and maths degree courses should be slashed to encourage more young people to take the subjects.

In a new report, the CBI said the government should consider funding a cut to get more people learning "the skills the economy needs", citing research that suggested nearly half of the general public say government subsidies for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) degrees would persuade them to encourage their children to consider a career in engineering.

The business group suggested that cutting tuition fees for some STEM university courses would be worth the longer-term economic pay-off to the UK and also called for new one-year "cross-over courses" for school leavers who want to switch back to studying STEM subjects.

In its report, the CBI said many industries are already facing difficulties in recruiting STEM-skilled workers and that this is likely to escalate in the future. While it acknowledges progress is being made in increasing the numbers of students taking STEM subjects at school and university, it adds that the UK needs to build a "pipeline" of talent for the future.

"To incentivise people to study for the skills the economy needs, it may be necessary to enhance this subsidy further by cutting tuition fees," the report said. "Given the longer-term economic pay-off for the state, this would be a decision worth taking for some key courses."

It adds that businesses also have an important role in subsidising and sponsoring relevant STEM courses and qualifications to reduce the cost to students.

The CBI also warns it is important that young people are not "closed off" to studying science and maths in higher education because of decisions they made – such as A-level options – years earlier.

"Developing one-year intensive cross-over courses – an approach used in the legal profession after graduation – for young people to take for a year at 18 would enable more young people to study for a STEM degree," the group said. "This would include many young women, who perhaps gave up the sciences at 16."

These courses could be developed by universities working with businesses and government, the industry group said.

Katja Hall, CBI chief policy director, said: "Growth and jobs in the future will depend on the UK having a workforce that can exploit new technologies and discoveries. The growing skills vacuum is threatening the recovery, as demand from firms is outstripping supply.

"Highly-skilled workers are essential for our growth sectors and it will be those young people with science and maths who will go on to become the engineers and new tech entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

"The government must explore if it's possible to reduce the costs of some of these courses and create a one-year cross-over qualification at 18 for those who turned away from science and maths after GCSEs, but now want to take a related degree."

The CBI also said that more apprenticeships need to be made available and more should be done to re-train the existing workforce to meet the need for skilled technicians.

A Business Department spokeswoman said: "We are committed to ensuring that the science and engineering workforce makes use of all the talents available to it. That is why we recently announced a £200m investment in teaching facilities at universities for science, technology and engineering and an additional £185m over four years to support teaching.

"The government is also funding a range of programmes including STEMNET, the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering diversity programme, which are aimed at encouraging a range of people to study science and engineering."

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: "We support the CBI's demands for action on the growing skills vacuum. We agree entirely that a reduction in fees for higher education STEM courses would encourage more young people onto them, as many are put off by high tuition fees and the prospect of future debt." 

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