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Funding science skills

Posted 19/10/2010 by KatieJ

While the details of the UK government’s spending cuts are being digested, there is one issue that has continued, and will continue, to run: how higher education is to be funded in the UK and how can the UK’s science-based industries find the researchers and skilled workers that will be required in future?

David Brown, the ceo of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), says that proposals to allow UK universities to charge students unlimited tuition fees pose a ‘grave risk’ to both industry and potential students. In his recently published review of higher education funding and student finance, former BP chairman Lord Browne proposes removing the current cap on tuition fees of £3,290/year.

‘The engineering and process industries need all of the talent they can get; we must not deter young people, whatever their background, from higher education by the prospect of a mountain of debt – especially for the engineering and science courses, which are longer and costlier to teach, but vital to our economic future,’ says the IChemE’s Brown. ‘If young people are turned away from these subjects – or from higher education altogether – the nation will suffer irreparable harm. So if fees must rise, let them rise in a controlled way – perhaps to double the present maximum – and in a way that preserves access for all to the best universities,’ he adds.

Lord Browne’s recommendations, which have been approved by UK business secretary Vince Cable, do not propose that the increased fees would need to be paid upfront but would be repayable once the graduate’s earnings reach £21,000/year. But as IChemE’s Brown notes, chemical engineering graduates would be likely to begin repaying these fees sooner than many other graduates as the average starting salary for chemical engineers in 2010 is £27,500/year.

There is no simple answer to this question of funding. SCI bursaries provide financial assistance to some students, but what about industry itself? If companies foresee skills shortages in the future, what about funding the students that could fulfill these roles? This could be seen as an extension of apprenticeship schemes that are beginning to reappear, but could these approaches be successful in helping to maintain the UK’s competitiveness?

Of course the funding will have to come from somewhere. And this is before we totally understand how the 10% cut in science funding, said to be due to inflation, is likely to affect students, education and science-based manufacturing industry in the future. Cutting is often seen as a short term option, but one that must always be considered in terms of the impact on the future.

Neil Eisberg - Editor

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