Today I attended the Parliamentary Links day on the topic of Diversity in STEM. A panel of excellent speakers considered challenges faced on the basis of gender, disability, socioeconomic background, age and ethic group.
The overwhelming take-home message is this: we need to do more to encourage more people, from every possible background, to progress in STEM education and stop the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ which sees huge numbers leaving STEM at every transition point.
But no solutions were proposed and I’ve come home with more questions than answers.
Firstly- there is no doubt that academics value outreach and that WP is imperative. However, with the current marketisation of HE, it is becoming more and more difficult for us to decouple outreach/engagement and recruitment. Those of you who work with me will know that I am passionate about science and I believe everyone should have an opportunity to access knowledge, and whilst I acknowledge that events such as the Lancashire Science Festival do indirectly lead to recruitment, it is not the aim. HEIs are working against each other to recruit students yet we need to work together to inspire young people, offer worthwhile, long-term engagement and to change perceptions held by influencers such as parents and teachers. There needs to be acknowledgement that this benefits us all and it needs to be funded as such.
Which brings me onto point 2. We all agree that it is important to widen access to education and training, whether this be degrees or apprenticeships. We recognise that not everyone is cut out to be a world leading professor. So why is it then, that government funding available for outreach initiatives is becoming more and more targeted at research intensive universities? Is this a rod we have made for our own backs with the ‘public engagement with research’ agenda? Yes, it makes sense that the Research Councils fund projects that enable engagement with RCUK funded research. BUT- there is an absolute wealth of other work out there that is inspiring, engaging, enthralling. Why doesn’t the government make some of that funding available to other HEIs, grassroots organisations, community groups, individuals? Go on, give me some funding and I’ll show you what I can do. Seriously
Finally a comment on being a woman in science. It never bothered me that I was in the minority- I had a male supervisor, male PhD students outnumbered female by about 8:1. If there had been a quota. e.g. to have 50% female PhD students, I’d have spent the whole time wondering if I should actually be there. I don’t believe quotas are the answer. Cultural change is. Now working in HE, I come across gender bias time and time again, not just in STEM. It does bother me now. There’s a macho attitude to things like working late, answering email over weekends…it seems to be viewed as weak to have a family and to want to spend time with them! This needs to change.
I think we are doing well at UCLan. We do a lot of community outreach and long may it continue. We are addressing gender issues and I’m pleased to be part of a working group looking at gender and career progression. But the sector as a whole has problems. I hope to be part of the solution…