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Boffin shortage will blight Blighty's prosperity

Report: Soft PhDs no way to earn hard currency

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The UK's top scientific body has warned that the swarms of new PhDs being churned out by British universities include a falling proportion from scientific or technological disciplines. It is feared that this lack of knowhow may render Blighty uncompetitive in the hi-tech, value-added sectors which alone can support Western levels of affluence.

In a report published yesterday, the Royal Society says that doctorates are being handed out like plastic cutlery these days, with the number issued up by 79 per cent over the past decade. But qualifications from the hard-sums departments - physics, chemistry, engineering and technology - are still being issued at much the same rate as ten years ago. Biological sciences have in theory grown massively, but this doesn't mean the UK of tomorrow will be strong in genetics or pharmaceuticals: those numbers come from a huge boom in courses such as psychology and sports science.

"Postgraduate study in the UK is very successful in terms of the overall numbers of people studying and the income generated [for universities]," said Professor Judith Howard, speaking for the Society working group which authored the report.

But the prof said that in terms of producing arse-kicking boffins with brainpower sufficient to drive a modern developed economy, UK higher education wasn't doing the business.

"The skills base our economy needs is still well behind our competitor economies," she said. "The technological breakthroughs that are required to keep us competitive will come from our labs but only if they have enough people with the best education."

A swarm of MBAs and people with PhD theses in the politics of 1930s Hungarian love poetry isn't going to be much use. But it's all too easy to see why students go for the easy, mellow subjects; you actually have to work hard in the more economically valuable areas, and to add insult to injury the fees are often significantly higher too.

The boffinry bigwigs reckon that only serious money from both government and industry can reverse the atrophy of the nation's intellectual muscles. They say that fees must come down in the shortage areas; also that the full eight years of study it takes from starting a first degree to getting a scientific PhD should be funded, rather than only seven. (At present, many hard-sums PhD students have to pay for the missing year from private resources.)

Sir Tom McKillop, another of those involved in drafting the report, said: "It is graduates in science and technology who will be leading the innovation necessary to drive the UK's economy forward in the future. We cannot expect to achieve that on the cheap."

Read the report, A Higher Degree of Concern, here (pdf). ®

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