Is the rising dominance of science and maths at university Dominic Cummings’ final victory?

What we are witnessing is the revolution Michael Gove wrought in education reaching maturity. But it’s the architect of these policies who will be celebrating most

Ed Dorrell
Saturday 14 August 2021 15:30
Gavin Williamson says universities shouldn’t charge full tuition fees if they fail to deliver what students ‘expect’

The future of Britain is nerd. Largely unnoticed because of the all-too-predictable row about grade inflation, Tuesday’s A-level results and the university admissions that followed in their wake contained an extraordinary story about the direction of this country.

It’s quite something. Quietly, quietly, science, technology and maths (known collectively as Stem) are edging towards dominance on campus. These subjects are now catching up with – and in some cases have caught up with – those that have dominated for decades.

In 2013, 25 per cent more students across all universities studied arts, humanities and social sciences than those who were on Stem courses. As of Tuesday, that gap will be just 1 per cent.

Over the same period, there was a 27.8 per cent jump in the number taking Stem courses but the arts, humanities and social sciences courses crept up by just 3 per cent.

And despite the overall number of students going to university increasing, students taking creative arts courses – the likes of music, drama and design – has decreased 16.7 per cent from a peak in 2016 of 47,630 students to 39,660 students this September.

All of which begs the question, why? Why have our country’s young people suddenly decided to ditch the literary canon in favour of equations, engineering and experiments?

The answer, whether we like it or not, appears to be Michael Gove. What we are witnessing is the shock and awe revolution Gove wrought in education between 2010 and 2014 reaching maturity.

Using a mixture of soft power – rhetoric that undermined many creative subjects – and policy interventions, the entire focus of an education system was shifted over this tumultuous period.

What were these policies? Perhaps the most important was the creation of the English Baccalaureate, which more or less forced schools to strongly encourage the sciences as separate courses at GCSE. But Gove and his team also funded and encouraged the creation of new specialist maths schools, which are now reaching maturity, while also using other curriculum and exam reforms to drive traditional academic approaches in secondary school.

More broadly, this era also saw the introduction of much higher tuition fees, which almost certainly resulted in a culture shift among students towards practical subjects perceived as more likely to command higher returns in the employment market.

Some – more likely found on the right – will delight in this seismic shift, hoping that it points to a dynamic future driven by research and innovation. There will be others, of course, who will mourn the dilution of creativity, pointing towards the British success stories that can be found in the arts and design sectors.

Chief among those celebrating will presumably be the architect of the Gove reforms, the political impresario that forced through the changes against a resistant educational establishment, whose restlessness we have all become familiar with in the years since he turned his attention away from schools. Yes, Dominic Cummings.

There were others on this journey, of course, including Gove himself, but it was Barnard Castle’s most famous visitor who was most obsessed about the need to put Stem front and centre of the coalition government’s education reforms. He was still beating this drum, in fact, right up until he left Boris Johnson’s side last year, agitating for the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, a multi-million pound project that looks like it may yet come off.

Even if the scheme proves a damp squib, Cummings can, eyesight allowing, read through this year’s university admissions and he will know he reshaped education in a way that was almost unimaginable a decade ago. Love him or loathe him, we all live in a Cummings world now.

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