Last week, the Prime Minister outlined the government’s plans to encourage all young people to study maths until they are at least eighteen, rightly arguing that maths is as important to the creative sector as it is to finance.

In time, the hope is that this will also increase the proportion of students pursuing maths and other STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects at university. Presently, the UK’s higher education landscape is crowded and confusing for students, with a bewildering array of courses on offer. While this variety may appear to increase the opportunities on offer, it is becoming increasingly clear that not all degrees offer good professional outcomes for students.

As a country, we need to rebalance our priorities, the first of which should consist of cutting up to 20% of university degrees which do not provide good employment prospects for graduates.

The rationale for this proposal is simple: students invest a lot of time and money in obtaining a degree, and they expect to receive good value for their investment. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and many students end up with little to show for their degree beyond a pile of debt. According to the Office for Students, less than half of students from 25 UK universities were in professional employment or further study within 15 months of graduation.

Put simply, by cutting low-quality degrees, the UK can save money that can be used to fund high-quality degrees which offer better outcomes for students, and avoid wasting the time of those students who often find themselves disappointed after three years of hard work.

One area where this money could be put to better use is STEM education. Despite the fact that STEM subjects  are increasingly important in today’s economy, the UK suffers from a dearth of graduates in these fields.

To address this shortage, the government could use the money saved to reduce the cost of studying STEM subjects for students who commit to teaching them in schools or working in the STEM sector for at least five years after graduation.

Research from STEM learning estimated that in 2022/23, schools managed to recruit just 30% of necessary Computing teachers – physics fared even worse, with only 17% of positions filled. These are concerning numbers.

So how do the finances work out? Assuming that the 20% cut in university degrees applies evenly across all subjects, we can estimate that approximately 100,000 degrees would be cut based on the total number of degrees awarded in the UK in 2019.

According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), the average cost per student for universities in the UK was £9,188 per year in 2018/19. If we assume that the average degree takes three years to complete, then the cost of a single degree would be around £27,564.

Using these assumptions, a 20% cut in university degrees would save approximately £2.75 billion in total. If this money were dedicated to subsidizing degrees in STEM subjects, it could potentially cover the full cost of tuition and provide additional funding for research and development in these fields.

Needless to say, there are likely to be many factors which could affect the actual savings and costs involved in such a policy, and the impact on the higher education sector and the economy as a whole would need to be carefully considered. At the very least however, the policy would give us a realistic chance of cutting the cost of STEM degrees down to approximately £3,000 per year. The average annual tuition fee of STEM courses presently varies from £9,000 to an eye-watering £38,000.

Such an approach would simultaneously encourage more students to pursue STEM subjects and address the shortage of STEM graduates by incentivizing them to work in the sector. It would also ensure that the money saved from cutting low-quality degrees is used to benefit society as a whole, by investing in areas of the economy that are likely to drive future growth.

The long-term social and economic benefits likely to be accrued from increasing the pool of STEM graduates are numerous, but I will start with just six.

First and foremost, growth. By studying STEM subjects, students acquire the skills and knowledge needed to work in high-growth industries such as software development, biotech, and renewable energy. This will lead to the creation of new businesses, more jobs and higher economic growth.

Secondly, innovation. STEM education fosters creativity and problem-solving skills, which lead to new products, services and technologies that improve people’s lives and make businesses more competitive.

Thirdly, international competitiveness. Countries with strong STEM education systems are demonstrably more likely to attract foreign investment, and their businesses are more competitive in global markets. This is because foreign investors are typically attracted to countries with a highly skilled workforce where they are more likely to find the necessary talent to grow their businesses.

It is no surprise – and no coincidence – that the United States, China and South Korea have some of the highest proportions of STEM graduates and are all world beaters leaders in technology and innovation. In the same vein, countries like Germany and Japan, which have a long history of innovation and a strong emphasis on STEM education, have also enjoyed robust economic growth.

Fourth, higher wages. On average, STEM jobs pay higher salaries than non-STEM jobs, which can lead to increased economic mobility and a reduction in income inequality. In addition, workers in STEM fields are less likely to experience job loss due to automation or offshoring.

Fifth, advances in STEM fields lead to significant improvements in public health, such as the development of vaccines, better medical treatments, and cleaner water and air.

Last but not least, STEM education can prepare students to address pressing environmental challenges such as climate change, pollution, and resource depletion. The development of new technologies and practices in STEM fields can help mitigate these challenges and ensure a sustainable future for the planet.

Of course, there are some potential drawbacks to this. For example, some students may feel that they are being forced into STEM careers, or that they are being penalized for choosing a degree that does not offer good employment prospects. However, these concerns can be addressed through careful planning and communication. The key is to ensure that students understand the benefits of studying STEM subjects, and that they are aware of the incentives available to them.

A responsible government needs to allocate its resources effectively. Cutting low-quality degrees is a sensible proposal that puts excellence and economic growth back at the heart of our country’s education system.

 Bim Afolami is Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden

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