STEMing from the problem

What prevents disadvantaged students from reaching their potential and flourishing in science?

Author: Altay Shaw 
Editor: Eleanor Mackie 
Artist: Rahel Kiss 

Despite the turmoil of results day and the algorithms that downgraded individuals’ predictions, a record number of disadvantaged students secured their place to study STEM subjects at university this year. 18.8% of school students from the most deprived backgrounds received an offer to start university in September 2020. Though that number is an improvement on previous figures, it does not negate the fact that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) men are 28% less likely to get STEM jobs than white males who have studied to an equivalent level. So, what are the issues facing students and what is being done to increase the number of disadvantaged students at university?

The barriers to higher education

Applying to university is difficult at the best of times. As a rule of thumb, students often need to have achieved A/A* equivalent at GCSE in order to pursue a sixth form course for a STEM subject. This imposes an immediate barrier to students who were unable to achieve top grades aged 16, as they are deprived of the opportunity to complete the three A Levels required to make a robust application to university. In the worst case scenario, students with untapped potential are actively talked down by career advisors from going into higher education at all. Faced with seemingly impenetrable barriers to accessing the A Levels they need to go to university, it can make the application process near impossible for some students. 

How disadvantaged are students? 

Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds may lack adequate support, information and internet access on their way to higher education. A cycle of discouragement and blindsightedness has seen many lose interest in studying STEM subjects further by the time they are 13

In terms of their academics, the gap between the highest and lowest performing regions of the country is staggering. In 2018, a report showed that students from wealthier backgrounds had a 2.3 times higher chance of applying to and being accepted onto their desired course at university. The gap between educational backgrounds has grown over past years, resulting in deprived students receiving 18 months less class-time than their peers at selective-entry schools by the time they finish their GCSEs. Though initial efforts to reduce the deficit were proving successful, the pandemic has put an end to that. The disparity in quality and quantity of online teaching that students have received during national and local lockdowns has amplified the attainment gap, leaving the worst-off students even further behind than expected.

What is being done to tackle it? 

Despite the numerous barriers that are present, steps have been taken to improve outcomes for students from the most deprived backgrounds. Universities now offer more access courses than ever before, allowing multiple routes into prestigious degrees such as medicine, dentistry and other allied healthcare programmes. These courses aim to increase the number of individuals entering STEM professions, regardless of previous A Levels or degree work. 

Following this, universities have been offering more free and accessible forms of work experience and conferences, to allow students to build up a portfolio of experience. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, Brighton and Sussex Medical School created a free online work experience platform, which took students through several different specialties and taught skills on reflective practice, a key focus of the General Medical Council for graduates. Outside of universities, more free science courses are being offered by EdX and Coursera, aimed at supporting students to expand their horizons beyond the classroom curriculum. Imperial College has gone one step further by offering dedicated support for A Level maths through their ‘mA*ths’ online course. 

Within universities, an ever-growing number of initiatives and widening access programmes are being implemented. The Russell Group has provided increased funds to students embarking on university STEM degrees. Their strategy allowed the dropout rate from STEM courses to fall to 3.9%. This is 4% lower than the average for higher education institutes in the UK. UCL is a prime example, with several initiatives in place to support disadvantaged students, including shadowing opportunities and summer schools. 

Where do we go from here? 

Positive progress is being made, with increasing numbers of students entering higher education. However, more needs to be done to close the lingering social divide. Reducing the cost of application and tuition, and improving access to work experience placements, would go a long way. We need to strive for a future in which all students have the opportunity to study and work in STEM, regardless of their background.

Despite the turmoil of results day and the algorithms that downgraded individuals’ predictions, a record number of disadvantaged students secured their place to study STEM subjects at university this year. 18.8% of school students from the most deprived backgrounds received an offer to start university from September 2020. Though that number is an improvement on previous figures, it does not negate the fact that BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) men are 28% less likely to get STEM jobs than white males who have studied to an equivalent level. So, what are the issues being faced by students and what is being done to increase the number of disadvantaged students at university?

The barriers to higher education

Applying to university is difficult at the best of times. As a rule of thumb, students often need to have achieved A/A* equivalent in order to enter a Sixth Form course for a STEM subject. This greatly discourages students who were unable to receive the necessary teaching to achieve the top grades, creating hurdles in trying to go from secondary to higher education. These pupils then face a tough choice when entering colleges or sixth forms. As they were unable to reach the grades requirements, students are not offered the chance to complete 3 A Levels, unless they are prepared to self-study for one of them. In the worst case scenarios, students are actively talked down by career advisors from going into higher education at all. Faced with seemingly impenetrable barriers to accessing the A Levels they need to go to university, it can make the application process near impossible for some students. 

How disadvantaged are students? 

It is important to note that while some students may well come from affluent backgrounds, they may not always be encouraged to study a STEM degree or get a job in a STEM field. The unfortunate bias prevalent in our society has led to STEM being a male dominated area, creating discriminatory social barriers to highly skilled jobs. A lack of adequate support and information available to students, especially those with limited internet access, poses an immovable obstacle on the way to higher education. This cycle of discouragement and blindsightedness has seen many lose interest in studying STEM subjects further by the time they are 13

In terms of their academics, the gap between the highest and lowest performing regions of the country is staggering. In 2018, a report showed that students from a wealthier background had a 2.3 times higher chance of applying to and being accepted onto their desired course at university. The gap between educational backgrounds has grown over the past few years, resulting in most deprived students receiving 18 months less class-time than those who go to selective-entry schools. Though initial efforts to reduce the deficit were working, the effects of online learning brought on by the pandemic have caused students to miss the vast majority of the last two academic terms due to lockdowns – both local and national. disparity has also been amplified by the effects of the pandemic, causing students to be even further behind than expected. This means that even though the students may well be in the classroom, either in person or virtually, some 

What is being done to tackle it? 

Despite the numerous barriers that are present, steps have been taken to improve outcomes for students from the most deprived backgrounds. Universities now offer more access courses than before, allowing individuals multiple routes into prestigious programmes such as medicine and dentistry and other allied healthcare programmes. The introduction of these programmes aims to increase the number of individuals entering STEM professions, regardless of previous A Levels or degree work. 

Following this, universities have been offering more free and accessible forms of work experience and conferences, to allow students to build up a portfolio of experience. During the first COVID-19 lockdown period, Brighton and Sussex Medical School created a free online work experience platform, which took students through several different specialties and taught skills on reflective practice, a key focus of the General Medical Council for graduates. Outside of universities, more free science courses have been offered by EdX and Coursera than ever before, aimed at supporting students to expand their horizons past the classroom curriculum. Imperial College has gone one step further by offering dedicated support for A Level maths through their  ‘mA*ths’ online course

Within universities, an ever-growing number of initiatives and widening access programmes are being implemented. The Russell Group has provided increased funds to students entering into university and STEM subjects. Their strategy allowed the dropout rate from STEM courses to fall to 3.9%. This is 4% lower than the average for higher education institutes in the UK. UCL is a prime example with several initiatives aimed to support disadvantaged students, including shadowing opportunities and paid places at summer schools. 

Where do we go from here? 

Positive progress is being made, with increasing numbers of students entering higher education. However, more needs to be done in order to close the social divide in applications to higher education. In order to get closer to this goal, more advances need to be made towards reducing the cost of the university application process. In addition, the social divide between students when applying for work placements and relevant work experience must be narrowed, as these play a role in the application. If these problems can be addressed, it will be one step closer to a future where all students have the opportunity to study and work in STEM, regardless of their background.

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