A report, published by the science community representing education (SCORE), finds that the information on HE courses is neither clear nor helpful to prospective students

Students studying an STEM course

Over the past few years there has been much effort and resource put into raising young people's awareness of the career opportunities that come though studying STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - at university. Central to the success of this work is information that allows students to make informed decisions about what subject to study and where. But, according to a recent report published by SCORE (the science community representing education), this information is neither transparent nor easily accessible, and presents a challenge to students, and their teachers who have to advise them. 

Collecting the evidence

The report, Choosing the right STEM degree course: investigating the information available for prospective applicants, is based on research done by the Centre for Education and Industry at the University of Warwick, and commissioned by the Science Council for SCORE. The research team, headed by Peter Stagg, investigated the subject requirements for entry into STEM degree courses. The team looked at the UCAS course search facility and the UCAS website, as well as individual prospectuses and websites, and collected data from the UCAS statistical service, which lists the top five GCE A-level subjects held by all students accepted onto a range of STEM degree courses. In an online questionnaire and telephone interviews, the team also sought information on admission practices.  

The report finds

Students looking to do a degree in a STEM subject are faced with an enormous number of degree courses on offer. According to information available from UCAS, there are 14805 degree courses, with 4815 different titles, that require STEM qualifications for entry in 2010. While the information on the UCAS website, and its 'course search facility', is fairly easy to navigate, the report finds that the presentation of information on individual course requirements is neither clear nor 'user-friendly'. Details of how many GCE A-levels are essential, desirable or indeed excluded as entry qualifications, are difficult to find. The variation in the design of university websites also presents an added challenge for the students trying to find relevant information. 

The findings also confirmed that students wanting to do a STEM degree would be best advised to get A-levels (or equivalent) in at least two STEM subjects. While biology, chemistry and physics are universally accepted, students with other science and technology subjects should check against the specific requirements of a university to find out if these are acceptable.  

The research confirmed that maths is highly valued by admissions tutors for STEM courses. Over 40 per cent of them who responded to the online questionnaire made some reference to improving maths, when asked to name one specific change they would like to see in 'pre-HE STEM' education which would prepare students better for STEM degrees. While references and personal statements are important, the research finds that admissions tutors take more notice of predicted or actual grades and the subjects studied.  

SCORE recommends

The scientific professional bodies are calling on the STEM higher education sector to review how they present entry requirements to their courses, and to provide guidance on the subjects that departments believe offer the best preparation for their courses alongside entry requirements. SCORE also recommends that the course search facility on the UCAS website is improved after consultation with the site's main users - HE, teachers, other professionals with advisory roles, and students . 

SCORE is currently working with the stakeholders to develop key questions for prospective students to consider when applying for HE courses. These, along with the key findings of the report, will be made available to students through the Science Council's Future Morph website. The full report is available on the SCORE website.