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Key trends among STEM graduates

June 2019

The gender gap in professional-level employment has narrowed, but data suggests more could still be done to tackle the underrepresentation of women in STEM

Which STEM subjects produce the greatest proportion of graduates? Are more STEM students choosing further study? How significant is the international cohort?

This article answers these questions and more by looking at HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data from 2012/13 to 2016/17 to help HE and careers professionals understand the changing behaviour of STEM graduates.

The gender divide

Encouraging females to pursue STEM subjects in school and at university has been a longstanding issue. Women are underrepresented across the majority of these disciplines, making up 42% of all STEM A-level exam entries and just 8% of STEM apprentice starts in 2016/17.1 The effects are felt throughout many industries, with women accounting for only 11% of engineers, 17% of IT professionals and 15% of science, engineering and technology managers.2

Efforts have been made to tackle this underrepresentation, and there has been a 1.3% rise in female STEM graduates over the past five years of DLHE data. However, this increase has not kept pace with the growth rate for their male counterparts (+4.6%) meaning the proportion of female graduates has declined slightly year-on-year. Men still continue to represent over 70% of STEM graduates, despite females making up the majority of graduates overall.

It's important that females are encouraged to take up these subjects and recognise their potential in the early stages of education to help inform their GCSE subject choices. Ensuring female role models are highlighted in the curriculum and generating discussion between students and employers increases young people's awareness of STEM careers and inspires women to pursue these professions.3 Employers could consider promoting work/life balance and inclusivity in their job campaigns to appeal to female talent.4

An international dimension

The UK continues to attract a large volume of international students to its universities, owing to its leading reputation for science and engineering research and high-quality education.5

International students made up 17.6% of STEM graduates in 2016/17, and since 2014/15 the number of other EU graduates from UK universities increased by 5.9%. During the same time the number of non-EU graduates for these disciplines increased year-on-year by 6.1%.

The effect of Brexit on international student numbers will become clearer in the following years, but there is concern that it could make it difficult for the UK to attract high-quality researchers and international collaboration may become more of a challenge.6

To maintain this influx of global talent it's vital that future EU students are granted the freedom to study at UK universities, and support and funding needs to be available for overseas students.7

Subjects on the rise and fall

Supply and demand issues in the STEM sector are not uncommon, with a number of vacancies left unfilled each year. Over the past five years some subjects have struggled to maintain a consistent student intake, which could have contributed to this issue. Since 2012/13 the following subjects have experienced a decline in graduate numbers:

  • planning (urban, rural & regional) (-53.3%)
  • building (-37.6%)
  • civil engineering (-27.2%)
  • architecture (-22%)
  • information systems (-16.8%)
  • electronic and electrical engineering (-15.8%)
  • physical geography (-8.1%).

This is particularly concerning for the engineering industry, which is currently tackling serious shortages. Mechanical engineering seems to be among the more desired occupations in this area, with a 23.2% increase in graduates over five years.

Sports and exercise science, the most common subject studied, experienced a rise in graduate numbers (+ 2.5%). The 'core' STEM subjects tend to produce a larger number of graduates, and they can be found in the list of growing disciplines.

  • games (+100%)
  • mechanical engineering (+23.2%)
  • physics (+21.4%)
  • chemistry (+18.1%)
  • biology (+3.9%)
  • computer science (+3.5%).

There is a possibility that undergraduate courses in these fields will continue to attract a greater number of school leavers year-on-year, as the number of A-level students studying computing, maths, biology, chemistry and physics increased in 2018.8

Occupational trends

The professional-level employment rate for STEM graduates has risen each year, with a 5.4% increase since 2012/13. The number of science, research engineering and technology jobs are predicted to increase at twice the rate of other occupations, with 142,000 created between now and 2023, meaning demand for these graduates is likely to persist.9

It's positive that the proportion of women securing professional-level employment has increased by 6.7% over the past five years. Men are still, and have always been, more likely to secure professional employment than women. However, this gap has narrowed year-on-year from 7.7 percentage points in 2012/13 to 5.5 percentage points in 2016/17.

It's important to look at which occupations are growing and declining in popularity to understand where the talent is drawn, and identify areas where employers may struggle to recruit.

The largest segment of STEM graduates became programmers and software development professionals, with a 43% increase in entrants since 2012/13. Other growing professions include business professional (+44%), management consultant (+43.7%), IT and telecoms professional (+40%) and lab technician (+32.6%).

The number of graduates becoming chartered surveyors (-32.5%), quantity surveyors (-30.5%), architects (-26.3%), web design and development professionals (-20.9%), and secondary education teaching professionals (-17.8%) has declined during the same period.

The latter is particularly concerning as there are already serious shortages of teachers in STEM disciplines with subject-specific graduate-level qualifications.10 A report by The Royal Academy of Engineering underlines the importance of specialist teachers in secondary education, as they are well placed to inspire and engage students.11 Improving teacher intake and retention is therefore vital to ensure the pipeline of STEM talent is sustained.

The growth of further study

More STEM graduates are opting to continue their studies after leaving university rather than progress into employment. Last year, 64.9% entered full and part-time employment six months after graduation compared with 67.1% in 2012/13. During the same timeframe the percentage in full-and part-time study increased from 15.3% to 19.7%.

This behaviour was particularly prevalent among women, with a 5.3% decline in full and part-time employment since 2012/13 and a 26.7% increase further study numbers. For their male counterparts, their employment rate decreased by 0.9% and further study increased by 32.3%.

Further study courses that have increased in popularity include computer science (+97%), which has risen from fifth to second most common, and exercise science (+66.3%), mechanical engineering (+58%) and civil engineering (+46%). Chemistry had a 25% rise in the number of further study entrants, but it fell from second most popular course in 2012/13 to fourth in 2016/17.

Disciplines with fewer entrants over the past five years include training teachers in primary (-21.8%) and secondary (-12.7%) education and architecture (-14.7%).


  1. Delivering STEM skills for the economy, National Audit Office, 2018.
  2. Diversity in Recruitment, STEM Women, 2019.
  3. The UK STEM Education Landscape, Royal Academy of Engineering, 2016.
  4. Diversity in Recruitment, STEM Women, 2019.
  5. British education: delivering skills for the future, Relocate Global, 2018
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Rise in STEM popularity among A-level students, Campaign for Science and Engineering, 2018.  
  9. Report reveals huge growth for UK STEM careers, Manufacturer, 2017.
  10. The UK STEM Education Landscape, Royal Academy of Engineering, 2016.
  11. Ibid.

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