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STEM Subjects

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 27th April 2009.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly expresses its concern at the decline in the number of students enrolling in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects; notes the commitment in the Programme for Government to increase by 25% the number of students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds at graduate and postgraduate level, studying STEM subjects by 2015; and calls on the Minister of Employment and Learning to bring forward proposals to ensure this commitment is delivered. — [Mr Butler.]

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

Northern Ireland can ill afford a continuation in the decline in the number of students who study science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Therefore, it is imperative that the House overwhelmingly endorse the motion.

As Members and many hard-working families know, Northern Ireland is not immune to the effects of the global economic downturn. The solution to the economic problem lies in a knowledge-based economy, particularly in STEM subjects. Furthermore, given our present economic circumstances, I am happy to contend that our Programme for Government has distinguished itself by placing the economy at its heart.

I would love to inform the House that more students are enrolling in STEM subjects than ever before, that we have more lecturers and teachers in STEM subjects than ever and that we have higher graduation levels in the STEM subjects than at any other time in Northern Ireland’s history. However, sadly, the evidence does not allow me to do so. However, before we all get depressed, people in Northern Ireland who acknowledge the necessity of quality education in STEM subjects have much to celebrate. It is not all doom and gloom. We have high enrolment figures at 49%, but, given the comparison with Scotland, we cannot be complacent. Keeping ahead of the field in comparison with England and Wales will help to deliver the competitive edge that we require.

I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and I commend the Department for making available an extra 300 PhDs by 2011. Our universities have demonstrated considerable leadership. The University of Ulster deserves praise for its Step-Up programme, and I commend Queen’s University for its scholarship; bright students who achieve three A grades at A level merit that £1,000 reward for their excellence. However, we cannot ignore critical areas. A commendable number — 2,855 — of students graduated in STEM subjects, and that figure has been consistent for several years. However, it is disconcerting that more people — 3,130 — graduated in STEM subjects in 2002-03.

Moreover, I am perturbed at the number of lecturers in STEM subjects. I address myself to the South Eastern Regional College in my constituency of North Down. Many constituents testify that the college distinguishes itself through its quality teaching and learning, and I am pleased to put that on record. However, in 2008-09, there are 144 lecturers in the STEM fields, whereas, in 2007-08, there were 180 — a loss of 36. I do not consider that to be progress, because it impacts on the local and national economy.

In the past, I have said that we need more effective co-ordination between further education, those involved in apprenticeships and the demands and requirements of industrial employers. I reinforce the need for synergy. However, we need to go further and unlock the scientific curiosity and creativity in our primary-school children and fire their enthusiasm and imagination for scientific fields. Our schoolchildren must have ambition if they are to hold down skilled STEM-sector jobs. I welcome the STEM events at the King’s Hall and other venues, which placed before some 3,500 primary-school children creative scientific approaches that helped to stimulate an interest in science, including, for example, a robotic sumo wrestler.

We need delivery on the commitments that have been made to the STEM programme.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

No, I will not. Effective career advice helps, as does linking skills and innovation to the wider economy. Better teacher supply and integration helps, as do more productive links between employers and schools. Facilitating the triumvirate of schools, further education and industry to more effectively communicate also significantly helps.

Getting it right with STEM subjects is critical for the following six key reasons: it reduces economic inactivity; grows our competitiveness; attracts investment; contributes to adult upskilling; improves adult education; and, most critically of all, provides employment. We have noted the decline in the uptake of STEM subjects and, for the sake of the economy, we must now note the report from the Minister for Employment and Learning on how we can achieve a 25% increase in students studying such subjects. Failure in that area is not an option. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I thank the Members who tabled the motion. Increasing the number of students who study STEM subjects at university and at postgraduate level is integral to the development of our economy, the collective wealth of our society, and our ability to make the best possible recovery from the current recession.

Although the Minister for Employment and Learning has a responsibility for the development of STEM subjects in higher education — that I know he takes very seriously — the overall responsibility for their uptake and development lies with two other Departments. The Department of Education and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment also have crucial roles to play.

It stands to reason that, for people to study STEM subjects in higher education, they have also to take those subjects and enjoy them in secondary education. It also stands to reason that, if we are to make use of STEM subjects in the economy, there must be continued co-operation between business and Government.

The motion, rather than taking the broad and co-ordinated approach to STEM subjects that is required, has, I am afraid, fallen prey to some party politicking. The Members who tabled the motion fail to acknowledge the role of their own Minister of Education.

The world economy has changed substantially over the past 30 years. Western countries have significantly moved away from heavy industry and have been leading the way in technology, design, software development and financial services — what is now called the knowledge-based economy. However, with that change in emphasis there has been a decline in the number of young people who study science, technology, engineering and maths. That worrying trend, if unchecked, could see the competitive advantage that our education system affords us in those fields being transferred to developing countries, which are producing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of graduates in STEM subjects every year. We are in danger of being left with economies that are heavily reliant on consumption and debt, which, as we all know, is a completely unsustainable position.

I welcome the independent review into developing STEM subjects that was jointly commissioned by the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education. I understand that the report is currently with the Minister, and I look forward to analysing the policies that develop from it. I sincerely hope that the report adequately addresses the issue of encouraging young people to engage with STEM subjects at an early age.

I fear that the modern education system has deprived many young people of the excitement and potential possibilities of science and engineering subjects. It appears that young people are less inspired by STEM subjects than ever before and are now often persuaded to study subjects that can appear easier and guarantee better marks at GCSE and A level. That problem must be addressed. Similarly, there is a need to adequately examine how we can encourage more children from socially deprived backgrounds to gain access to higher education, particularly in STEM subjects. As was discussed last week, plans to tackle educational underachievement are as crucial as that examination.

There is also the issue of retaining as many young undergraduates as possible in Northern Ireland. Although the trend is not as prominent as it was in previous decades, thousands of our young people are still travelling to GB and to the Republic of Ireland to study and work. Although most contribute to the greater economy, their talents are often lost to Northern Ireland.

If we are to learn anything from the recent mistakes that precipitated the current economic crisis, it is that government and the private sector must be in continual and productive conversation with each other. If Northern Ireland is to grow its private sector adequately, strategies must improve and increase. The adequate development of STEM subjects throughout the education system and the ability to feed them into and develop new areas in our economy will be crucial to our future economic and social success.

I believe that the Minister for Employment and Learning is engaged fully in that process. I also believe that he, in conjunction with his colleagues, will deliver the necessary framework for that development to take place. I hope that all Departments that are involved have the capability to deliver the co-ordinated drive to carry out that plan. I support the motion.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15 pm, 27th April 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá an-áthas orm páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht thábhachtach seo.

I am happy to participate in this debate, and I thank the Members who secured it.

It is a fact of life that our economic development depends very much on the STEM subjects. If we want to attract foreign direct investment, we must have a workforce that can offer a good supply of STEM graduates. If we want to develop a stronger base of SMEs here, we need people who are qualified in and able to apply STEM subjects in practical business settings.

Recently, we heard news of a company that will bring 150 new jobs to the Sandy Row area of Belfast. The company spokesperson, when explaining the reason that it moved to Northern Ireland, said that the availability of a good supply of experienced software engineers was a major determining factor. That illustrates, in a practical setting, the importance of the STEM subjects.

I could rehearse the many disadvantages in Northern Ireland that we have in economic development. However, it is much more productive to concentrate on the positive. As Mr McClarty said, the successful economies of the future will not depend solely on location, national resources or infrastructure — those factors will always have a bearing — but will be knowledge based. That means that economic development will be driven largely by brain power that is focused in the most productive economic directions. In the context of this debate, that means that there should be a focus on science, technology, including information and com­munications technology, engineering and mathematics.

At present, the number of pupils in Northern Ireland taking STEM subjects at A level has fallen drastically by 35%. We must address that situation urgently if we are to gain the competitive edge that we need for economic survival.

What do we do? Obviously, we must encourage and direct more people to the STEM subjects. At the moment, our schools seem to be obsessed with producing more and more professionals for service industries. We must highlight to young people the practical business and economic applications of the STEM subjects, not only by providing the relevant information in an attractive, modern format but by placing greater emphasis on a more applied approach to teaching and learning and on the application of knowledge through the challenge of problem solving in simulated real-life situations, which will help to stimulate the interest of young people in those subjects.We must get the message across that the STEM subjects mean economic development, that economic development means work, and that work means prosperity.

Often, school principals and senior management teams are the gatekeepers who can admit or exclude information and messages to schools. We need to ensure that we get the message across to those people, and that they, in turn, cascade that message down through staff to pupils.

As a major stimulus, some organisations have advocated a champion for STEM subjects. I agree that that would be helpful, but we need a series of actions, working in tandem, to ensure that we have a coherent strategy.

Greater engagement between local companies and schools is another important stimulus that should be developed further. The professional development of STEM teachers in business skills is also useful. We need effective programmes and the reskilling and upskilling of our workforce, including conversion incentives. Other useful ideas include payroll shelter, greater investment in the Success through Skills strategy and a national internship scheme.

Emphasis on STEM subjects cannot stop at ages 16 or 18. We must continue to raise the profile of those subjects in further and higher education. The current research assessment process, under which the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) rewards pure research over academic enterprise, does not encourage product process innovation, which can lead to business and economic development.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

Will the Member draw his remarks to a close?

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

We need the right balance in favour of academic enterprise, so that our best researchers and innovators in the STEM areas are retained and are active in contributing to our economy.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Go raibh míle maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Members for bringing the motion to the House. In his introduction, Paul Butler said that there was a perception that people who study STEM subjects are nerds or geeks. I am interested in the debate because I studied STEM subjects and enjoyed them very much. For many years, I was an engineer by day and a politician by night, which could be the strapline for a very boring comic-book superhero. Nevertheless, how people perceive the studying of science and technology subjects is a serious issue.

I am very passionate about the studying of STEM subjects because I believe that it opens doors for young people to really challenging, stimulating and interesting careers. It also equips them with skills that can be transferred into many other areas of learning. That is incredibly important.

Although I agree with the first part of the motion, which expresses concern about the decline in enrolment and highlights the targets in the Programme for Government, the call at the end of the motion puts all the emphasis on the Minister for Employment and Learning alone to bring forward proposals and ignores the responsibility of the Minister of Education in that regard entirely. People’s perceptions and their ability to study at the second level will be dictated largely by expectations born out of their primary and secondary education. People are very unlikely to be studying STEM subjects at graduate and post-graduate level if they are not interested and engaged by them when they are at school; and we have to be conscious of that. If people have not studied STEM subjects at GCSE and A level, it is unlikely that they will be equipped to look at them as a potential degree course.

By the age of 13, most people have already decided what degree of emphasis they are going to give science, technology, engineering and maths when it comes to further study. Many people take STEM subjects at that level purely to fulfil the criteria for the curriculum: they must study certain subjects, but not because of any particular passion for them. We have to recognise that, and we have to look at how those subjects are taught.

I am not absolving the Minister for Employment and Learning of any responsibility, but I think that the Minister of Education and her Department have to accept that they are responsible for the first 14 years of primary education and for early-years education. That cannot be ignored.

Study after study has found that perceptions and stereotypes are formed very early in life: those may be gender stereotypes, or there may be ideas about career restrictions or options available. There may be a perception about the difficulty of the subjects, that it is hard to achieve top grades in A-levels if one picks science subjects, or, at least, that it is harder to do so than if one were to pick other subjects. There is also the notion that you are a geek or a nerd if you want to study those subjects. I did not get drawn into the debate about the differences between geeks and nerds: that would only confirm people’s suspicions of me.

We need to look at how we engage young people with those subjects when they first come across them in the classroom. That needs to be addressed through positive role models and good careers advice. Experiences in the classroom are also incredibly important, particularly experiences beyond the classroom in fieldwork and practical assessment. That will often engage young people who would otherwise find those subjects very dry if engaged solely in classroom learning. There are huge opportunities, because of that practical element, to engage young people who do not respond to those subjects in a classroom setting.

In the current economic climate, we have to recognise that a lot of our focus will be on looking for jobs in research and development. There must be a degree of technical competence if we are to have the right skills balance to attract such jobs. We have gone through the pattern of attracting jobs that can then be transferred to lower-wage economies, and we have lost out as a result. If we target high-end R&D-based jobs, they are much more likely to remain here in the long term.

STEM subjects are not only for those who want to become scientists or engineers when they graduate; they also provide academic rigour and transferable skills such as logic, numeracy, management skills and experience in problem solving and team working, all of which are crucial in a range of environments. People are not closing down their options if they choose to study for a scientific career; they are opening up a huge number of careers for themselves down the line that might be in fields that they did not expect, such as politics.

Photo of David Hilditch David Hilditch DUP

I, too, welcome the opportunity to highlight this matter in the House and to support the motion. I thank the Minister for Employment and Learning for his participation. As Mr McClarty and Mrs Long said, there are others in that supply chain.

If we are to build our economy, we must build it on information technology and engineering. That is why we must address the decline in the number of students who study STEM subjects and the gap that exists between available skills and the total volume of required skills. At Queen’s University in 2000, there was an all-time peak of 120 students studying electrical, electronic and software engineering. In 2008, there were only 36 students on those courses. Other research and statistics project a deep and worrying developing situation.

Employers have good reason to be concerned that there will not be sufficient skills to provide the next generation of scientists and engineers. Our reputation in Northern Ireland for a world-class workforce at the top of the league is in danger of being characterised by becoming mid-table dwellers.

There is an annual requirement in the STEM sector for about 1,350 recruits across all occupational areas just to replace the people who will retire in the next six years. In 2007, 2,500 people were recruited into the entire engineering industry alone, within which there were 535 hard-to-fill vacancies. That is estimated to have cost our economy £21 million in gross value added.

We are trying to encourage investment, and we need to start concentrating on the availability of the workforce that will be required if foreign companies set up here and the need for a training system that will continue to deliver the number of skilled people that are needed for that sector. I therefore urge the Minister and his Department to work with the Committee for Employment and Learning, the Executive and other Ministers who are not here today to build relationships with the universities and colleges, to introduce incentives for students to study the STEM subjects, and to increase the number of apprenticeship opportunities in that sector.

It is imperative that the Minister bring forward robust proposals to ensure delivery in line with commitments in the Programme for Government and to safeguard a future workforce that is fit for purpose. I support the motion.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I am glad that we have the support of the Assembly for the motion, including, in the words of Naomi Long, the geeks and the nerds. It is useful that, in debates such as this, we have the participation of Members who are interested in science subjects. Therefore, I would not allow anyone to be put down by saying that they are geeks or nerds. Geeks and nerds are needed in this day and age.

One of the main reasons for our proposing this motion was a presentation that the Committee for Employment and Learning received from the Institution of Engineering and Technology. I accept the point that Naomi Long and others made about other Ministers having a role in the issue, and I will come to that later. However, we spearheaded it solely towards the Minister for Employment and Learning because DEL and its Minister made a commitment in the Programme for Government that he can deliver on, and we need to outline that today.

I am not for one minute saying that the Departments of Education or Enterprise, Trade and Investment, or, indeed, other Departments do not have a role. They have a valid role to play, but, when the Committee heard that presentation, we realised that we needed to take forward a review with STEM stakeholders. Therefore, we organised an event in the Long Gallery and got the buy-in and support of the Education Committee and the Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee. It is the first time that three Committees have come together to consider one issue, and the Committees were all quite active in promoting the STEM issue at that event.

There is consensus among the members of the three Committees on how we take the issue forward and how we collectively go to the Department of Education and its Minister, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and its Minister, and the Department for Employment and Learning and its Minister. Therefore, there is no reason for anyone to suggest that we are focusing on DEL or its Minister. We are quite mature about the fact that other Departments have a role to play in the matter.

As I said earlier, there have been discussions in previous debates and even in private Members’ questions when Members have said that there is an issue about the Executive looking again at the Programme for Government. We need Ministers to come to the Assembly and outline to us how they propose to deliver their commitments in the economic downturn, because that commitment was given a year ago. Therefore, the delivery mechanisms or the objectives of how to deliver are there. Ministers need to come and outline to us how they will do that, and then we can work together.

One of the public service agreements in the Programme for Government relates to skills for prosperity, and its aim is to:

“Ensure our people have the right skills to deliver economic prosperity now and in the future and increase skills and career choices in STEM subjects”.

Again, that goes back to the point that we need to get people involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at a younger age, before they are labelled as geeks. We need to make those subjects sexy in primary schools, using language that primary-school kids can understand.

I and other members of the Employment and Learning Committee have just returned from a study visit to America, and the collective, joined-up approach from many of the Departments in the United States struck me. We went to Boston, North Carolina and Washington, and, from the outset, there was a collective approach to STEM subjects. When I saw that joined-up approach, it made me realise that we can talk about what the Minister for Employment and Learning can do when kids get to the age of 16, but we need to talk about what to do before they get to that age. We also need to involve DETI, because there is no point in retraining people if there are no future prospects for them. Those are the reasons why we proposed the motion.

We have excellent schools and colleges, we have investment, and we have world-class universities. We need to bring them together to achieve the objective that was set out in the Programme for Government. I support the motion.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP 4:30 pm, 27th April 2009

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. As a member of the Committee for Employment and Learning, I am concerned that the numbers enrolling in STEM subjects are declining. It has often been said that a good economy is based on a strong skills base in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Over many years, Northern Ireland has produced many top graduates from STEM subject areas.

In a smaller country such as Northern Ireland, generating a good number of quality engineers is vital to the future of manufacturing and exporting. Therefore, it is worrying that the evidence points to a lack of uptake of those subjects. The problem is compounded by the fact that we are now in the grip of a worldwide recession. In the past few weeks, there has been news of unfortunate job losses on mainland Britain and in Northern Ireland. It is clear that the numbers of people enrolling in STEM subjects will continue to decline in a downward spiral as jobs in those sectors become more difficult to find. The debate today is complex. Although the main thrust of the motion is to urge the Minister to bring forward proposals for a 25% increase in the number of students enrolling in STEM subjects, we cannot ignore the current economic climate.

The review is yet to be published, and I will be interested to read its recommendations on increasing enrolments in STEM subjects. However, given the economic situation, any proposals must be tailored to encourage innovation and ensure that Northern Ireland has the skills and ideas to punch above its weight in a global market.

To date, Northern Ireland has been lauded for its skills base in ICT and engineering. It is that strong STEM skills base that has allowed multinational companies to locate and thrive here. However, we cannot afford for the recent drop in enrolments to continue, or those same companies will find it increasingly difficult to source new staff and will, ultimately, move elsewhere.

I note that the Minister has raised the possibility of bursaries for students enrolling in STEM subjects. Indeed, the motion calls for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to have increased access to STEM subjects, and there is no doubt that fees are a significant stumbling block in sustaining a three- or four-year university degree.

Although the motion relates solely to the Department for Employment and Learning, there is also room for improvement at the Department of Education. Schools play a vital part in shaping the future for STEM students and in helping them to achieve their qualifying grades for university. The aim of the recent STEM Experience event was to introduce younger pupils to science and technology, and that is a welcome initiative, but more must be done to encourage younger pupils to consider STEM-based further and higher education.

Many factors have a bearing on the enrolment figures for STEM subjects. Much work is required to encourage our children to focus on those subjects and our students to pursue the subjects at university. We must also encourage our economy so that it can sustain our graduates with employment opportunities in industries in which their skills and ideas can be harnessed.

I very much doubt that a review will, in itself, provide the solution to the dilemma. However, it is imperative that it is forthcoming and that the Minister is prepared to accept its conclusions and act in the best interests of students.

Photo of Robert Coulter Robert Coulter UUP

I join other Members in thanking Mr Butler and his colleagues for tabling this important motion.

Across the western world — including the United States, Scandinavia and the United Kingdom — and in Japan, there is a developing and worrying trend of declining enrolment in STEM subjects. Indeed, in the past decade alone, the number of PhD candidates researching science subjects has fallen from 65% to 57%. Although the number of PhD candidates has risen overall, the number taking science subjects has failed to grow at anywhere near the same rate. That is surely a worrying trend.

I am aware that the Minister is currently considering the STEM review, which the Department for Employ­ment and Learning commissioned in conjunction with the Department of Education. I look forward to seeing that report in the near future, after it has been considered, and I hope that it will provide some of the answers to our questions.

As I said, the report was commissioned jointly by the two Departments. That interdepartmental co-operation seems to be a lost theme of the overall STEM debate. The decline in graduates is a symptom of another problem, which has its roots in the school setting. As one who has spent many years working in further and higher education, trying to rectify some of the laxness in the minds of students entering that level of education and interest them in engineering and science, I am fully convinced that the real problem to be tackled is not at the top but at the bottom end, where the students start — in primary school and upwards.

It must be fully accepted that a decline in graduates leads eventually to a shortage of schoolteachers in STEM subjects. However, at this stage, the focus should surely be on the decline in interest at school level. If children and young people are not taking STEM subjects from Key Stage 3 to GCSE and A level, we can hardly expect them to take them to degree and post-graduate level.

We must focus efforts on identifying the reasons for the decline of STEM subjects in schools and take steps to rectify that problem. I feel that, if we succeed in that, the problem in our universities will fix itself. We cannot expect our universities and the Minister responsible for them to tackle a problem that has germinated long before children and young adults get to that stage of the system. The root of the problem needs attention before we can tackle any residual problems in the take-up of university places. That root exists at and even before GCSE and A-level choices.

Therefore, I look forward to hearing what the Education Minister plans to action from the joint report. In respect of what is being done now, Queen’s University, as has been stated, deserves tremendous credit for its scholarship, which provides a £1,000 bursary for the top students entering STEM courses. Very often, higher education in professions that are associated with STEM subjects requires much more than a three-year undergraduate course, and any bursary that attracts the best students to those vital courses and jobs is to be welcomed.

That Queen’s filled only one-third of its electrical engineering places in 2007 is evidence of the problem that we face. The grant is evidence of Queen’s taking a positive initiative to do something about it. Queen’s University’s pioneering of this type of incentive in the UK is further proof of the top-quality institutions that we have in Belfast. I hope that Queen’s is considering other steps that it can take to improve the situation and that it will roll out its bursary a little more widely, budgetary considerations notwithstanding. I welcome the steps taken so far by the Minister and by Northern Ireland universities; however, I reiterate my call for the Department of Education to take its place at the head of the push for STEM subjects.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Minister (Europe), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I also thank the Members who tabled the motion. We are all indebted to them and I am delighted to see that there appears to be total consensus around the Chamber.

We all know that we are in very challenging economic times in which there is a great need to take advantage of every opportunity that arises to rebuild our economy. Foundations for a future high-wage, high-value-added economy must be laid today. If we are to meet the demands and requirements of new technologies and new high-value-added industries, we must plan well in advance.

The birth of the Celtic tiger had a lot, if not everything, to do with STEM subjects, because the Irish Republic invested substantial amounts of money in those subjects and in technology colleges. The Celtic tiger’s birth was well-planned and did not come about by accident. I would like to see Celtic tiger II being born in the North and producing that sort of economy there. The fact that the Celtic tiger is hibernating does not preclude us from hoping for another round. If we make the appropriate plans, that hope will be well founded.

If we are to be successful in attracting foreign direct investment and if we are to grow and sustain indigenous firms, we must be able to compete on a global stage and invest in the STEM subjects; their importance to the economy cannot be overstated. Unfortunately, however, there is a steady year-on-year decline in the number of students who study STEM subjects and successfully acquire qualifications in science, technology, engineering or maths at further- and higher-education levels. Others have brought those numbers to the attention of the House, so I will not repeat them.

I know that a review is taking place. I urge the Minister to bring forward recommendations for urgent implementation. It worries me that the Executive made a commitment in the Programme for Government to increase the number of students — especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds — at graduate and post-graduate level in STEM subjects by 25% by 2015. By my calculations, that requires an additional 1,623 students to enrol in STEM subjects each year for the next seven years. That is a tall order.

There are initiatives that may help to achieve that target. It is the view of the SDLP that those initiatives should start now in primary schools right across Northern Ireland. There is no point in waiting. Schools should take every step to promote the STEM subjects and interest in them, and they should create an interest in STEM subjects in a fun and innovative way for primary-school kids in their curriculum and their extra-curricular activities. They should open the eyes of children and young people to the cutting-edge, high-value-added, highly paid opportunities in our economy if they take that educational path. That effort could be supported by local companies via school site visits, job fairs that showcase careers and mentoring programmes involving companies and interested pupils.

Last week, I attended an award ceremony for the engineering education scheme in Northern Ireland at the Whitla Hall at Queen’s. I was very impressed by the projects that were presented by sixth-form students from across Northern Ireland. They developed innovative solutions to industrial problems in collaboration with neighbouring engineering companies from their towns or villages. It was a very worthwhile initiative. I saw, as could anyone, how much the students enjoyed working together in a school atmosphere with local companies in real-life situations.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin 4:45 pm, 27th April 2009

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Minister (Europe), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

Greater steps must be taken to increase the number of STEM graduates. I support the motion, and I urge the Minister to do everything in his power to ensure that that comes about.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

This is one of the more important subjects to come before the Assembly. It will probably not receive much coverage because it is not particularly controversial, but that does not diminish its importance.

Over the past weeks and months, there have been considerable job losses in Northern Ireland, particularly in the manufacturing industry. My outlook is not total doom and gloom, and I anticipate that some of those jobs will come back to those industries. Bombardier, for example, has a history of having to move with the times; it has made large-scale layoffs before and has subsequently re-employed. I hope that other organisations, such as FG Wilson, will re-employ as markets recover. However, it is more than likely that some jobs that were lost will not be replaced. I do not believe that the Visteon jobs, for example, will be replaced in the motor industry, and the textile jobs that have been lost over the years will not be replaced. We cannot compete with many of the Far East or north African countries as they progress in that type of economy. If we are to compete and create quality jobs for our people, it will be through STEM subjects.

Giving people the opportunity to engage in tradable services that are, largely, knowledge-based is critical to Northern Ireland’s future. It is critical not just for high earners, who leave university and take up good jobs but for lower earners who work in the service industries, in cafes, restaurants, stables, sports clubs and shops. Those people also need a strong, vibrant well-paying economy so that the service sector can exist and prosper. Therefore, it is critical that STEM subjects are developed in our universities and that young people are encouraged to be interested in those subjects.

We must reach out and bring people to Northern Ireland for third-level education rather than export so many of our young people. That is also critical because the more graduates we have in Northern Ireland, the greater prospect there will be of attracting firms here to make use of those graduates. Those firms will be enhanced by being in Northern Ireland, because there will be a stream of quality graduates to fill their vacancies.

We must also become more involved in developing research programmes in association with the universities. Although success stories have come out of the universities, that area must be developed further. We must look at how to bring Northern Ireland universities to the cutting edge of research and development for large companies. That, as a consequence, will enable us to keep more graduates in Northern Ireland.

Sue Ramsey, Rev Coulter, and my colleague William Irwin, touched on the core importance of education. Although the Minister for Employment and Learning will be responding to the debate in this instance, if the young people who actually sit the science and maths GCSEs and A levels do not have the required qualities, it will be pointless for universities to create spaces for them. Therefore, it is important that more young people are encouraged to take STEM subjects, which will lead them on to doing courses involving STEM subjects at university. Much of the debate in Northern Ireland is detrimental to that aim, and the Minister of Education’s wish to have a lot of comprehensive schools and to do away with schools that achieve academic excellence will do nothing to contribute to producing more young people with the necessary qualities. Moreover, the Education Minister’s actions will not help children from a working-class background to achieve those goals, because a consequence of her actions will be that more parents will be paying for young people to take up places in the best schools. Once again, working-class kids will not have those opportunities.

Photo of Francie Molloy Francie Molloy Sinn Féin

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There is a great burden of responsibility on the Education Minister to assist the Minister for Employment and Learning in this matter.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I could not dissent from a word that has been said this afternoon. However, I am wondering how we can take a motion from the Assembly and, for the want of a better word, “operationalise” it in the life and economy of the North. It is on that theme that I shall talk.

I do not know what shape the Northern Ireland economy should take in the next 20 or 30 years. However, people who have been speaking to the SDLP in recent days have been saying that the investment and education priorities for positioning ourselves in the global market must involve bioscience, information technology and engineering. Although that may be self-evident, we must determine, at Government and university level, the hard shape that those broad, warm aspirations will take, and we have not yet done that.

If those are the three priorities — I do not know whether they are — how will they shape up under the Government and universities’ partnership over the next 20 or 30 years? The Minister hinted at some of this during Question Time, but, if economic interventions are to be made in the current downturn, they will have to be measured against instances of companies that have a STEM requirement and background and for which training or weighed subsidies may be required, if that is what transpires over the next number of weeks. If we are to ensure that people who are in work can stay in work, we must protect the skills base that is a product of a STEM culture. I want the Minister to give us not only a time frame in which any intervention may come from him and the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment but an indication of the scale of that intervention. Moreover, I want the Minister to indicate what aspects of our economic base, including those that rely on STEM skills and STEM background, might be the priority areas for protection in the event of the Assembly and Executive endorsing a programme of measures.

Alex Easton correctly recognised that one of the better developments over the past couple of years to try to ground our education and economic base in STEM subjects was the roll-out of the 300 PhDs that the Budget funded. However, as Alex Easton and every other Member knows, that funding package is for the North and the South to share. Alasdair McDonnell touched on the broader lesson to be learned, which is that unmet collaborative opportunities exist in higher and further education sectors on this island.

I have previously asked the Minister whether any conversations are taking place with Dublin yet about how we might maximise North/South opportunities in further and higher education and in community colleges. That remains a valid question, but it will also remain a valid strategy over the next 10, 20 and 30 years. Whatever one may say about the Celtic tiger in its current phase, well-regarded international economists believe that the South’s essentials are right, because, for over 30 years, it invested in R&D in areas where the skills base would add value to its economy. When we are on the far side of the recession — with respect to the South, it may be on the very far side of it — those essentials will still be right. We can still learn from the South, and enormous opportunities exist to work with it in future.

We need to have a conversation about whether research moneys that come from the Government should go into the higher-education sector and not into the areas that we think will produce added value and be the economic drivers. It is best that we start that conversation now. Would it be better to invest Government money in pure research or in liberal arts research rather than target it at STEM areas or at PhDs, which would give the people of the North an economic and educational uplift?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

I welcome the opportunity to speak to the motion. I thank the Members who contributed to the debate, and I will address as many points as I can. I am aware that the subject has attracted great interest in the Chamber. February’s joint discussion forum, comprising the Committee for Education, the Committee for Employment and Learning, and the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, demonstrated that interest practically. It is good to have the commitment to the issue that Members have shown to date, and I trust that my Department’s policy — together with that of the Department of Education and of others that have an interest in the issue — will benefit from their contributions.

The past decade has seen tremendous scientific and engineering progress. From the advances in hybrid-fuel technology to the iPhone and all the features that we now expect from mobile communications, the application of knowledge in the STEM field benefits us all.

Northern Ireland has a proud heritage of world-leading engineering firms and scientific pioneers. From Henry Ferguson and his tractor to Frank Pantridge, the inventor of the portable defibrillator, we can point to those who showed what can be achieved on our own doorstep and exported around the world.

Only last week, Intune Networks, which is a Dublin-based software company, announced its decision to expand its operations in Belfast to almost double its current size. When asked the reason that it chose Belfast, its chief executive made it clear that the key reason was the level of the talent pool of communication specialists that we can offer. However, even with such success stories, it is clear that there is further potential to boost our productivity.

With that in mind, the recently published Matrix report focused on the economic growth and wealth creation that will be brought about by the increased commercial exploitation of Northern Ireland’s science and technology capabilities.

In addition to the work that was taken forward to gain a better understanding of Northern Ireland’s strengths and weaknesses in science and technology, Matrix also conducted a market-foresight initiative known as the Horizon programme. That programme identified opportunities in five key technology business areas, and it suggested how Northern Ireland could gain a strategic market advantage to compete internationally in those areas. Yet, as the world continues to look towards technology to gain a competitive advantage, it seems that, like people in many other developed countries, more and more of our young people are choosing actively to not study STEM subjects at school, college or university.

The recent report entitled ‘Forecasting Future Skill Needs in NI’ by Oxford Economics in association with FGS Consulting, supports that view. It also notes that although Northern Ireland is trailing behind the UK average in the percentage of people who have degrees in STEM subjects and who are employed, there is an increasing demand for those graduates.

Dropout levels in STEM subjects are also particularly high. That is the case primarily during the first year of study; for example, one of the highest dropout levels, at 18%, is in computer science. The Department has been working with Queen’s University and the University of Ulster to address that problem. A range of measures, both academic and pastoral, has been introduced. Examples of those measures include: increased numbers of tutorials; greater emphasis on personal tutorials for students in their first year; and closer monitoring of attendance. Pre-entry initiatives, such as masterclasses and targeted support, have also been set up.

The point when a young person loses interest in science often occurs much earlier, as a number of Members from all sides of the House mentioned. In many cases, young people have made choices at school that have limited their options in those fields. Therefore, in order to maintain our reputation for excellence and economic competitiveness, it is important that we nurture a passion for those subjects in our young people when they are still at school. A number of Members raised the obvious point that choices are made at 13 years of age, thereby limiting to a large extent what is possible later.

Unlike some other subjects, the application of knowledge in STEM areas requires a solid foundation of underpinning knowledge. The linear nature of mathematics and other sciences requires the patient layering of concepts and theories in the mind. The critical juncture for our STEM-based economy is not, therefore, at the university application stage; it is at the GSCE subject-selection stage, as some Members mentioned.

The teaching of science and mathematics can be ripe, with practical, real-life examples of what can capture and hold the interest of our young people. However, the STEM review identified how the repetition of concepts that were studied previously at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 leads to a reduction in student enjoyment of the subjects. There may be scope to improve the already strong curriculum in that regard.

One slight spark of hope can be seen in a diagram in the STEM report, which I received only recently. That diagram covers the period 2001-08 and shows that in 2007-08, there appears to have been a slight increase in the number of people in Northern Ireland who applied to study STEM subjects at GCSE. Therefore, that may be a slight indication that something is stirring, although it is too early to be definitive.

It is for that reason that I asked Richard Noble OBE to be the guest speaker at this year’s skills conference in May. That conference will focus on STEM subjects and will bring together leading policy-makers, educationalists, training providers and industry representatives. Richard is the entrepreneur who oversaw the Thrust SSC project that holds the world land-speed record. Not content with that, he has set up a new project called Bloodhound, which will aim to break the existing record, and, together with a strong education programme, will inspire the next generation of young scientists and engineers and help to address the potential shortfall of skilled young people in that area in the UK.

Our expectations for a successful economy are predicated on the exploitation of STEM knowledge at all levels, from apprenticeships to PhDs. Addressing that shortfall was the reason that my Department, in conjunction with the Department of Education, commissioned the independent review of STEM policy in 2007. The steering group, comprising representatives from business, Government and academia, led by Dr Hugh Cormican, was asked to examine the issues relating to the uptake of STEM subjects and to make recommendations to ensure the future success of STEM education in Northern Ireland. Although I had initially hoped to receive the report earlier, I am pleased to say that Minister Ruane and I received the final report and recommendations on Good Friday, and they are being studied as I speak.

I assure the Committee and Members that my Department will respond promptly to the issues that arise from the STEM review and to the recommendations that relate to my Department as part of the revised ‘Success through Skills: The Skills Strategy for Northern Ireland’. I intend to provide a progress update on that at the aforementioned skills conference in May at W5.

It is worth noting in the interim that the report makes several recommendations for which responsibility lies across a number of Departments and bodies. We are all aware that young people’s decisions on their future careers are greatly influenced by their choice of subjects at GCSE. Similarly, the general attractiveness of an industry and the terms and conditions on offer shape those choices. Clearly, business should take a lead. We must remember that what businesses pay people to do jobs in that area has a direct link with the number of people who go down that route.

Businesses will have to play a key role in ensuring that young people make the choice to study STEM subjects. We have seen how that can be done through the implementation of the information and communication technology (ICT) action plan. Better engagement between companies and schools can help to make that happen.

The future skills action group for ICT worked with a wide range of stakeholders to develop a proactive and comprehensive action plan to address the immediate skills needs of the sector. Implementation of that plan has seen a high profile advertising campaign named “Bring IT On”; interactive workshops that link industry with schools, delivered by Momentum, the ICT trade federation; and support for a range of projects initiated by the sector skills council for IT and telecoms — e-skills UK. Work also includes better short- and long-term research about the state of play of the industry and the skills that employees will need to help the sector to reach an even higher level of productivity.

Although I have just received the report, work has been continuing. Through the critical sectors initiative, my Department has recently commissioned a feasibility study into the possibility of providing STEM bursaries or scholarships to encourage students to study STEM courses in Northern Ireland’s higher and further education institutions. That research will make recommendations on the types of financial assistance that should be offered, the length of time for which it should be supplied, and which subjects will be eligible for funding. It will also investigate the impact that those bursaries may have on other subject areas. The findings of that study will be available this summer.

It is important to note that Queen’s University already offers a £1,000 bursary, to which reference has already been made. A scholarship of £500, in addition to the £1,000 bursary, is paid to all students who achieve three A grades at A level, and a scholarship of £1,000 is paid to all students who achieve four A grades at A level in physics and mathematics. Other organisations also offer their own bursaries. For example, the Institute of Physics in Ireland offers five grants of £1,000 a year to the top-achieving students in that subject.

My Department is also funding an additional 300 PhD places at our universities, to which reference has been made. Those places are confined to areas of economic relevance, including STEM-related subjects, and that will significantly increase high-level skills in those important areas.

I shall refer to one or two points that were raised by colleagues during the debate. A number of Members, including Mr Butler, raised the issue of the decline in STEM subject uptake. I am pleased to say that although the STEM review indicates that there may be a slight turning of the tide, it is, quite frankly, too early to say.

Mr Hilditch referred to enrolment numbers for electrical engineering courses at Queen’s University. Another, perhaps slightly more positive, indicator is that, for 2009-2010, enrolments have increased by 12% in software engineering, which is a subject area that is critical to all the issues that we have discussed.

As a number of Members said, the target is challenging. I will not throw in the towel before we have had a good go at it or before we have discussed and implemented the recommendations of the STEM report. A range of measures must be taken over the next few years to resolve the problems.

Naomi Long made a point about the perception of STEM subjects, and that goes to the core of the matter. Companies must get out and engage early with schools, because people need to know what is going on. The image of the nutty professor in a white coat is not the current image; it is the sort of image that is portrayed on television. All the soap operas portray slick lawyers, and that is an attractive image; few of them concentrate on people who work in engineering or science, unless they are trying to blow something up. Society as a whole needs to examine the matter carefully, and promotion of STEM subjects must be done much earlier.

Alex Attwood mentioned a number of collaborative measures with the Republic. There was, and is, collaboration. The Member will be aware of the announcements about research projects that were made before and after Christmas. Funding permitting, I want to extend those projects. I assure him that no opportunity has been missed in that collaborative area, and the universities, through Science Foundation Ireland, are working well together at present. All the projects that we announced involve three, four and, in some cases, five universities. Much is happening in that area, and there is scope for further development if that is possible in the current climate.

I know the point that Alasdair McDonnell made about the Celtic tiger economy being born in the institutes of technology, and so on. There is no doubt that, at the very time when those institutes were opening in the South, we were closing down our colleges. We were going completely in the opposite direction, but a lesson has been learned.

Rev Robert Coulter mentioned the decline in STEM subjects across the developed world and the fact that it is not confined to this region. Millions of engineering graduates are coming out of universities in China and India every year. The future capacity for engineering in the world will shift to those countries, and we will be left behind if we are not careful.

Many Members contributed to the debate, and I am sorry that I cannot list everybody’s contribution. It is clearly a cross-departmental issue. It is primarily my Department and the Department of Education that are involved in, and focused on, the issue, because action must start in schools, even in primary schools. We must get right down to that level. The opportunities and the will exist. We received the STEM report only in the past couple of weeks; we will try to turn it around and respond positively as quickly as possible, and we will publish the STEM report when it is possible to do so. I thank Members for their contributions to the debate. We are focused on delivery and on the achievement of the targets.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 27th April 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all Members who contributed to the debate, and I thank the Minister for being present for its entirety.

Having listened to Members’ contributions, I wish to make some comments of my own. The Minister commented on individual contributions, and I wish to do the same and to examine how those contributions fit the motion. Perhaps I am beginning my speech with a negative point, but few Members focused on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Members rightly talked at length about the need to increase the number of students taking up STEM subjects, whether at further education, higher education or PhD level. However, we may have missed an opportunity to focus on people from disadvantaged backgrounds; I will look at the Hansard report, but I think that only one or two Members mentioned them. I do not know what is in the review, but a key point of the motion was to focus on people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A couple of Members made the point that Caitríona Ruane, the Minister of Education, had been left out of the motion; however, the three people who tabled the motion, my party colleagues Sue Ramsey and Paul Butler and I, are all members of the Committee for Employment and Learning. Sue Ramsey explained why the Minister of Education is not mentioned in the motion, but it has nothing to do with leaving her, or the Department of Education, out. The Minister for Employment and Learning did not mention the careers strategy, but it refers to a joined-up approach to STEM subjects. It may have been an oversight not to mention the Minister of Education in the motion, but it was certainly not a case of leaving her out.

Paul Butler spoke in detail about STEM subjects when moving the motion; like other Members, he talked about the decline in the number of students enrolling in STEM subjects and said that there is a need to develop links. I totally agree; moreover, the process needs to begin in primary school. I am a member of the Western Education and Library Board, and, last year, 18 schools took part in an event that was facilitated by Sentinus. I declare an interest in that the competition was won by Donemana Primary School, which is in my council area. I commend Donemana Primary School on that achievement.

Work is being done on the issue. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment carried out an inspection of a small cohort of three schools that are involved with Sentinus. The inspection report highlighted the value of working with children to focus them on the available opportunities. The competition that was won by Donemana Primary School concerned a slow marble run. The schools were given a certain amount of materials and an hour to work on the project, and Donemana Primary School came out on top. There is cross-departmental work being done.

Paul Butler also referred to careers advice. Careers advice is critical, and I hope that the careers strategy that was launched this year will address it effectively in practice. Other Members said that those providing careers advice may not be very well informed about the sciences, which is something that needs to be looked at. Naomi Long, and others, talked about the negative perception that some people have of those who study the sciences. However, despite what the Minister said, such a perception is not common currency. Indeed, Naomi Long also said that people learn logic and so on from studying the sciences, and that could help politicians. In fairness to Mr McClarty, he mentioned the need to look at those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alex Easton talked about the extra PhDs; so did Alex Attwood, who also mentioned the further education colleges. That is a point that I want to make: not enough is done to forge links with the further education colleges. More could be done. When one talks about the STEM subjects, people think immediately of Queen’s and higher education. People think that universities deliver the science graduates, and that is the case. However, while good work is done in higher education, work can be done with further education. Dr McDonnell and the Minister both mentioned the work that could be done in further education. The Letterkenny Institute of Technology does cross-border work with the North West Regional College in Derry and Strabane, though it may not be just in the sciences.

Dominic Bradley said that business needs graduates in STEM and a good supply of software engineers. He urged that we direct more students to the STEM subjects. Some work is being done on that, though businesses should have another look at what they are doing. In the education system there is progress being made, and the Minister referred to it.

David Hilditch spoke of the drop in enrolment in STEM subjects. The Minister said that there may be some improvement in the trend, though it is nothing to get excited about. He felt that, in some cases, we can detect a gradual increase.

Sue Ramsey said that other Ministers and Departments had a role. She referred to her recent visit to America. The Minister visited the Museum of Science in Boston at an earlier date, and he referred to the work that is done there. William Irwin also spoke of the decline in numbers. All the Members have spotted that except the Minister, with his possibility of a slight increase.

Reverend Coulter spoke of the STEM review commissioned jointly by the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education. He was concerned that the education aspect had been ignored by the three Members who tabled the motion, but I hope that I have made it clear that that was certainly not our intention.

Dr McDonnell made a good point, which was referred to by other Members. We need 1,623 additional STEM students per annum if we are to get up to the level that we should have. As the Minister said, it is a very big challenge. I do not know how it will be met, and I am not sure that those students will come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I stress that point.

Those are all the points that I have to make. I support the motion. The Minister said that there is an awful lot going on. Someone mentioned the word “operationalise”, and it might be important to see how all of this turns out. Go raibh maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly expresses its concern at the decline in the number of students enrolling in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects; notes the commitment in the Programme for Government to increase by 25% the number of students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds at graduate and postgraduate level, studying STEM subjects by 2015; and calls on the Minister for Employment and Learning to bring forward proposals to ensure this commitment is delivered.

Adjourned at 5.23 pm.