ignorance or misinformation – the press and higher education

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at poor reporting in the Mail, but it does feel slightly more serious than the other tabloids.  I should explain I have a copy of the Mail as it was the only UK paper when I got on the Malaysian Airlines plane in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday evening, and it is the Monday copy as I assume it had flown out of the UK on the flight the day before!

Deepish inside, p22, the article was “UK students lose out in sciences” by Nick Mcdermott.  The article quotes a report by Civitas that shows that while the annual number of students in so called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) courses rose by around 6500 in the 10 years 1997-2007, in fact this is largely due to an increase of 12,308 in overseas students and a fall in UK students of nearly 6000.  Given an overall increase in student numbers of 600,000 in this period and employers “calling for more science graduates”, the STEM drop is particularly marked.

While the figures I assume are correct, the Mail article leaves the false impression that the overseas students are in some way taking places from the UK students, indeed the article’s title “UK students lose out” suggests precisely this.  I can’t work out if this is simply the writer’s ignorance of the UK higher education system, or deliberate misinformation — neither are good news for British journalism.

Of course, the truth is precisely the opposite.  Overseas students are not in competition with UK students for undergraduate places in STEM or other subjects, as the number of UK students is effectively controlled by a combination of Government quotas and falling student demand in STEM subjects.  The latter, a disinterest in the traditionally ‘hard’ subjects by University applicants, has led to the closure of several university science departments across the country.  Rather than competing with UK students, the presence of overseas students makes courses more likely to be viable and thus preserves the variety of education available for UK students.  Furthermore, the higher fees for overseas students compared with the combined student fees and government monies for UK students, means that, if anything, these overseas students subsidise their UK colleagues.

We should certainly be asking why it is that an increasing number of overseas students value the importance of a science/engineering training while their British counterparts eschew these areas.  However, the blame for the lack of UK engineering graduates does not lie with the overseas students, but closer to home.  Somehow in our school system and popular culture we have lost a sense of the value of a deep scientific education.  Until this changes and UK students begin to apply for these subjects, we cannot expect there to be more UK graduates.  In the mean time, we can only hope that there will be more overseas students coming to study in the UK and keep the scientific and engineering expertise of universities alive until our own country finally comes to its senses.