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Becoming a technology superpower: is the UK producing enough scientists?

Published on July 3rd 2024

While the UK boasts a relatively high proportion of STEM graduates compared to other countries and performs well in tertiary education attainment levels, it faces significant challenges in meeting the demand for specific STEM-related skills in the labour market. Drawing on insights from Section 4 of the 2024 UK Innovation Report, this article delves into the statistics, compares the UK’s performance with other nations, and discusses the implications for the future workforce, particularly in the engineering, manufacturing, and construction sectors.

Compared with other countries, the UK has a relatively high proportion of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates

The UK performs relatively well in terms of tertiary education attainment levels (as measured as the percentage of the population aged 25–34, in the same age group). In 2022 the share of the population with tertiary education in the UK was 57.7%, compared to 47.4% of the OECD average.

When focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, in 2020 the UK awarded 183,000 first university degrees in STEM, compared to 2.5 million in India, 2 million in China and 900,000 in the US. However, when normalising for the population in the 20–34-year-old population, the UK produces a higher proportion of STEM graduates. In 2020 the UK awarded 1,393 first university degrees per 100,000 people in STEM disciplines, compared to 1,317 in the US and 690 and 650 in India and China, respectively (Figure 1).

In 2022, more than half (52%) of the UK’s STEM graduates, however, pursued health-related disciplines (Figure 2). The UK is producing fewer graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction.
In a study conducted for the UK government, it is estimated that the UK will need to fill around 382,000 research and development (R&D) jobs by 2027. Engineering UK, an advocacy group, estimates that 173,000 new engineering and technology jobs will be created by 2030.

In 2021 the percentage of graduates in engineering, manufacturing and construction in the UK was only 9.1%, which is significantly lower than Italy, Switzerland, Japan, Korea and Germany. In these countries, the percentage of graduates in these disciplines ranged from 14.4% to 22.1%.

Despite the high proportion of STEM graduates, there are significant STEM-related skills gaps in the UK labour market

In the UK, 934,000 vacancies were recorded towards the end of 2023, 46% of which were in fields related to STEM disciplines such as human health (18%), professional scientific and technical activities (10%), manufacturing (7%), education (7%) and information and communication (4%).

At the beginning of 2024, 12% of UK firms in manufacturing and 6.9% in information and communication said they were experiencing a shortage of workers.

When compared to the OECD and the European Union, for UK employers it is difficult to find individuals with skills related to medicine, scientific knowledge (biology, chemistry, physics), digital skills (computer programming, data processing, ICT safety and network, office tools and collaboration software) and production and technology knowledge (building and construction, design, engineering and technology, quality control analysis) (Figure 3).

Despite a strong foundation in STEM subjects, the share of engineering graduates is comparatively low. Many of these graduates do not pursue engineering or manufacturing jobs, instead opting for roles in consulting, teaching, finance, and other fields. To foster the development of advanced technologies like AI and create high-value products and services, the UK will need even more engineers and computer scientists. If the current rate of engineering graduate production continues, the UK may face significant skill shortages in the near future.

This article draws from Section 4 of the 2024 Innovation Report.

For data, references, and more analysis on the UK’s competitive advantage, including analysis of the machinery and equipment sector and whether the UK is capturing value from the net zero transition, see the full 2024 Innovation Report produced by Cambridge Industrial Innovation Policy.

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