Social mobility in STEM

Rebecca McKelvey, founder and CEO of in2scienceUK, discusses the need to redress the diversity divide for a prosperous UK STEM sector

The UK faces a troubling dilemma. According to STEM Learning, there is a current shortfall of 173,000 skilled workers within STEM industries, with 89% of STEM businesses admitting they are struggling to recruit.

This current issue is costing businesses £1.5 billion a year due to recruitment, temporary staffing, inflated salaries and additional training costs. Furthermore, the UK needs to increase the number of STEM graduates by as much as 50% to meet industry demand and ensure economic stability and growth.


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As the UK enters a time of significant technological, economic and societal change (also referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution), it’s never been so important to act to ensure there’s a pipeline of strong talent for the years ahead. At the heart of this has always been successfully engaging and inspiring younger generations to recognise the diverse and fulfilling experience a career in STEM can afford.

But there is perhaps an even bigger challenge to consider. Beyond this deficit of STEM skilled workers is an overlooked generation that may hold the key to unlocking the UK’s potential to remain at the forefront of STEM-based industries; children from low-income backgrounds.


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Social mobility and the role of science capital

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Poverty and low-income backgrounds remain huge barriers to progressing to university, yet social mobility in the UK, particularly as it relates to earnings and education, remains among the lowest in the developed world (OECD, 2018). Despite education being a vehicle for improving social mobility, top universities remain overwhelmingly dominated by children from the most privileged homes, which subsequently has an impact both on the opportunities for young people to enter STEM professions, and those from lower-income backgrounds.

In short, there is a diversity problem in STEM. Currently, the UK has the lowest proportion of women in engineering in Europe, with females accounting for just 10% of roles and 14% of university places. BAME ethnic minority students constitute less than 10% of the STEM student population at Russell Group universities. So, getting young people of all backgrounds on the trajectory of going to university is a vital first step.

While there has always been a class barrier to professions, for science, it’s more extreme. We need to address this diversity divide by widening access to quality careers and ensuring young people from low-income backgrounds can achieve their potential and become the next generation of researchers, innovators and pioneers. Where pursuing a STEM career is a possibility, regardless of background, and where STEM professionals reflect the diversity of the UK.

BAME ethnic minority students constitute less than 10% of the STEM student population at Russell Group universities.

Stemming the shortfall of students

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Moreover, we know there are a number of additional benefits associated with improving diversity and representation in STEM among those from low-income backgrounds. For a start, economic equality is redressed and there is better representation within higher education institutions, helping to meet education targets for university uptake and ensure diversity among student bases. Both issues have long been a priority for their respective sectors and government, yet the numbers still aren’t adding up.

Less than 10% of life science professionals, 15% of academics and 6% of doctors are from working class backgrounds (Social Mobility Commission, 2017). Furthermore, only 23% of students eligible for free school meals go on to university, and only 5% of children eligible for free school meals actually gain a place at a highly selective university. In this context, there are too many young people not reaching their potential, and a wealth of wasted talent is being underutilised.

Bypassing the barriers to a job in STEM

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Unsurprisingly, education has a huge role to play in redressing this disparity between the likelihood of young people from low-income backgrounds going into higher education and pursuing a STEM career.

A student’s poor background results in a myriad of barriers including a lack of experience outside of school, a lack of knowledge about STEM degrees, and a poor understanding of the university application process and how to develop high-quality applications.

The solution is collaboration. By putting researchers and STEM professional volunteers alongside the education system, young people from the poorest of communities are able to navigate their career path with guidance and confidence.

It’s important to recognise that this issue requires an integrated approach to engaging, supporting and educating talented pupils from poorer backgrounds if we are to ensure lasting change. For example, we’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with education and business partners who believe in the same mission, including the University of Oxford and Roche Pharmaceuticals.


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Through hard work and industry collaboration, we can rebalance the STEM workforce to ensure all young people from low income backgrounds have the opportunity to achieve their potential, as well as tackle the ever-growing skills shortages impacting the STEM sector that’s crucial to our economy.

More information on in2scienceUK can be found at https://in2scienceuk.org