Set against the backdrop of an impending FE loans system and college funding cuts, the future of FE teaching in science, technology, engineering and maths could be facing tough times ahead. Kate Green, director of business development at 157 Group, and Daniel Sandford Smith, programmes director at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s education team, look at what the future might hold for colleges delivering the subjects.

Changes to FE funding will make it harder for colleges to deliver advanced courses in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) and harder for individuals and employers to afford them.

Our report, The Challenges of STEM Provision for Further Education Colleges, reveals that funding pressures on colleges threaten the viability of high-quality STEM provision at levels three and above.

It also highlights how proposed changes will make things worse.

FE colleges play a vital role in delivering STEM education and ensuring employers are provided with a suitably skilled and qualified workforce.

FE offers almost 2,500 STEM-related qualifications and in 2009/10, 1.74m STEM qualifications were achieved by students aged 16 and above in the English FE and skills sector.

Setting up and delivering new STEM courses is a key way in which FE can contribute to growth.

However, offering a high-quality STEM curriculum that responds to the needs of individuals, employers, the government and the UK economy, can be resource-hungry.

It often needs to be delivered within a highly specialised and technologically rich environment; the challenges involved in offering a suitable curriculum at a time of economic constraint should not be underestimated.

Our report details the findings of a 157 Group project, undertaken with support from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and in partnership with the Association of Colleges, which aimed to develop a better understanding of the challenges FE colleges face in offering STEM provision.

In light of the clear policy focus on promoting STEM provision, a review of current programme weightings is required.”

It looked in particular at programmes at level three and above — where the need for increased skills is greatest.

It also sought to gauge the expected impact of a number of current policy changes, such as the introduction of FE loans and reductions in overall college funding, on the demand for STEM provision in the post-16 sector.

The report notes that the additional cost of delivering many STEM subjects has been recognised in the funding arrangements for FE Colleges for many years.

A programme weighting has been given to those subjects that incur greater costs because of the need for smaller staffing ratios, technician support for practical activities and for the extra costs of materials and equipment.

Even so, these programme weightings only reflect the revenue costs of delivering these subjects, rather than the capital costs of setting them up.

The report, released today and now available on the 157 Group website, confirms current programme weightings do not fully reflect costs.

Moves to simplify funding may make this worse by reducing the differential between high and low cost subjects, for example, the Education Funding Agency will in future fund sixth-form science and humanities at the same rate.

We therefore feel, in light of the clear policy focus on promoting STEM provision, a review of current programme weightings is required.

The decision to remove public funding from provision at level three and above for those over the age of 24 may similarly undermine attempts to promote STEM.

Until now, the Skills Funding Agency has ensured the hourly fee rates for STEM subjects are no higher than those for humanities or business studies by giving extra subsidy to the former.

From next September, however, there will be no such subsidy — students will have to pay higher than average fees or take out larger than average loans if they choose to study STEM.

This is sure to have an effect on the level of demand from individuals and employers and needs to be reviewed.

We are keen to work with others to take the report recommendations forward to ensure the maintenance and development of a vibrant and responsive STEM offer in FE.