Letter: Lack of demand inhibits supply of science graduates

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The Independent Online
Sir: The picture of students hoping that their A-level results will secure them a conditional place at university for next year highlights again the Government's eccentric efforts to increase the output of good graduate scientists.

Its attempt to increase the relative supply of science as opposed arts and social science places has no relevance in the short run, and probably little in the medium term, to solving what is actually a problem of demand. In these days of high unemployment, and when flexibility of choice can be exercised, students choose degrees with the goal of expected lifetime income in mind. If they perceive that opportunities for science graduates are economically poor, they will be unlikely to study science.

What is therefore required is a policy to increase the demand for scientists. If that were achieved, potential scientists would then see two things happen: employment prospects would brighten and, given the short-run constraints on the supply of scientists, incomes earned by scientists would rise. Both of these would encourage people to seek a career as a scientist.

The result of the current policy is that, because of excess demand for places, price (conditional offer) has risen in the arts and social sciences and fallen in the sciences. Given the narrowness of the range of A-levels they tend to possess, those very able students who just failed to make the arts and social science offer will not be in a positon to take up the empty places in the sciences. To fill these, if filled at all, will involve admission of those students from the A-level science stream with rather low grades. Unless standards are altered, a year further on in the university courses we shall probably observe low failure rates in first arts and social sciences and high ones in first science.

With fewer advancing in the sciences than had entered, all that will have been achieved will be the production of roughly the same number of science graduates as before, but in a university system that is more poorly resourced and is totally unbalanced across disciplines in terms of staff-student ratios. Even the proverbial Martian would be puzzled by a policy that had these effects.

Yours sincerely,


Head, School of Economics

and Management

University of St Andrews

St Andrews, Fife

19 August