According to the recent Engineering UK 2012 report the UK is going to need a few more workers with skills in science, engineering and technology over the next five to 10 years. Some two million more, in fact, based on estimates from industry skills councils, which suggests now might be a good time to consider enrolling for a science, engineering or technology (SET) degree.
Stephanie Fernandes, education policy adviser for The Institution of Engineering and Technology, explains that the demand is global. “SET graduates are needed to tackle challenges including climate change, global health, food security, biodiversity, water security and energy security.”
This is good news for those hoping to move into related fields, but also for those who want to take the skills learned on a SET programme and put them to use elsewhere. “It is critical that the sector attracts more science, engineering and technology graduates, as many will be Britain’s future scientific and technological leaders, while others will clearly be leaders in other fields,” says Fernandes. The reason for this is that SET subjects give students a wide base of abilities.
“If you do a SET course you’ll have a broad grasp of skills that will be helpful for working in business,” says Professor Jim Roach, dean of the School of Design, Engineering and Computing at Bournemouth University. Graduates will be both numerate and analytical, he says, “which sets you on the right road towards a lot of different things”.
Prospective students will find plenty of subject choice under the umbrella of science, engineering and technology courses. Programmes embrace everything from product design and automotive engineering to more theoretical realms such as physics. These courses have obvious appeal to those who are attracted by intellectual rigour, says Dr Mark Richards, senior teaching fellow at Imperial College London. “A physics degree is a conceptually challenging course. It will certainly stretch you intellectually.”
Courses like physics also have practical value in industry and beyond, he adds. “The skills you gain – report writing, analysis, presenting technical material – are required throughout society. Physics in a nutshell is about problem solving, and where in the world do you not have problems?”
Problem-based learning forms a part of many SET courses. Lectures and tutorial work in small groups are other key elements, while hands-on experience in labs or workshops is also useful, says Roach: “It’s important to have a practical base.”
At some institutions this is further emphasised through placement schemes, which give students a chance to work for a year putting their skills to use in the workplace before returning to complete their studies. Roach says: “When students come back they really see the benefits, and they’re much more mature.”
While the employment prospects and starting salaries for SET graduates are generally good, there’s still the matter of paying for university. A good wage on graduation will help with loan repayments but not with living costs, cautions Richards. “Of course, tuition fees are high, but the key thing for students is often how to survive once you’re here; we offer schemes that will help with living expenses while you’re studying.”
Different institutions will have different ways of helping students. ICL has a financial support package, while Bournemouth offers some 300 scholarships to students across all courses (some funded by the government and some by the EU). As ever, the best advice is to speak directly to universities to see what they offer. “We want to reach out to as many able students as possible,” says Richards.
After university the skills graduates acquire make them attractive to a range of employers. “There are many benefits that someone with a background in science, technology and engineering can bring to business management,” says Donna Miller, European human resources director for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. “We are looking for evidence of leadership, of working as part of a team, of entrepreneurship as well as a willingness to serve and help others. Science and technology degrees often develop all of these skills.”
Richards also notes that, for physics grads, opportunities arise in intriguing areas such as the design of physics engines for computer games. Roach adds that Bournemouth graduates go onto work for major technology companies, engineering firms or start their own businesses. “We’re a creative nation and we need creative minds,” he says. “SET is the future.”