HEFCE: Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects

September 2011/24
Policy development


Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects
The HEFCE advisory group’s 2010-11 report

This report sets out the advice and conclusions of the third HEFCE Chief Executive’s advisory group on Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects.

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions
Heads of further education colleges directly funded by HEFCE
Other relevant stakeholders
Of interest to those responsible for: Senior management, Finance, Governance, Planning
Reference: 2011/24
Publication date: September 2011
Enquiries to: Linda Allebon, tel 0117 931 7237, e-mail l.allebon@hefce.ac.uk

Executive summary (read online)



[ Download report as Adobe PDF 1.2Mb | Download report as MS Word 896K ]

Figures and tables to show supply of graduates to SIVS disciplines

[ Download MS Excel as MS Excel 224K ]

Figures and tables to show supply of postgraduate taught students in SIVS disciplines

[ Download MS Excel as MS Excel 159K ]

Figures and tables to show supply of postgraduate research students in SIVS disciplines

[ Download MS Excel as MS Excel 151K ]

Executive summary

i.   This is the second report from the third1 HEFCE Chief Executive’s advisory group on Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects (SIVS – broadly, these are science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), modern foreign languages and quantitative social science).

ii.   This report:

  • sets out the group’s advice and conclusions;
  • analyses the predicted future demand for all SIVS qualifications;
  • notes key developments since the third advisory group’s first report, in 20092
  • sets out the evidence on the current and future supply of graduates and postgraduates in SIVS subjects.

iii.   The SIVS advisory group, via this report, seeks to: influence policy across HEFCE, government and other stakeholders; inform student choice by communicating its work on the supply of and demand for different subjects; and provide an authoritative voice on subjects of strategic importance to the nation.

iv.   Looking forward, the group will work with HEFCE and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to consider during 2011-12 the activities that may be within scope for HEFCE’s policy on SIVS, with a view to reviewing and aligning SIVS policy in light of the government’s higher education reforms.

Key conclusions and recommendations

v.   HEFCE has continued since 2009 to invest in measures to increase and diversify demand for, and sustain and re-shape the supply of, strategically important subjects: chemistry, engineering, mathematics and physics within STEM; quantitative social science; and modern foreign languages and related area studies. An evaluation of these interventions confirms it has provided value for money and made a positive contribution to the sustainability of these disciplines.

vi.   As a result of the reforms set out in the government’s 2011 White Paper Higher education: Students at the heart of the system3, HEFCE has two new challenges with regard to subject provision: firstly, to establish an approach to supporting high cost subjects that mitigates the impact of costs on the demand for and supply of the highest cost provision; secondly, to identify those subjects where there is evidence that the student-led system – operating alongside the dual support system for research, and activities such as business engagement and international student recruitment – may not sustain the flow of graduates, supply of programmes and expertise, and level of research activity necessary to secure the national interest.

vii.   Analysis of the latest data on the flow of undergraduates suggests that at a time of wider expansion in undergraduate numbers, those in SIVS have seen a continued expansion, and at a rate higher than other subjects during recent years. However, some concerns remain, for example among the engineering and modern language disciplines, and with regard to the accessibility of SIVS provision via part-time programmes and at post-1992 institutions.

viii.   There has been sustained growth in the flow of postgraduate taught and postgraduate research students during the last decade, and in the SIVS areas the flow of taught students has been higher than the average overall. A significant proportion of this growth is, however, attributable to international students. The growth in international numbers has been so marked that any decrease in overseas postgraduate students could lead to concerns about the future viability of courses and the overall sustainability of these disciplines, given the impact of the reduction in associated income streams. There may also be a risk in relation to the UK’s future workforce, given that many postgraduate students enter positions requiring advanced skills and expertise following their studies, including studies in universities and research organisations.

ix.   Evidence suggests that employers signal the greater value they place on postgraduate study in preference to undergraduate study through higher salary levels, higher employment rates and sponsorship of postgraduate students. There is, however, only limited information available on the courses employers particularly value. This should be a focus for the work, proposed in the recent Higher Education White Paper, on a Key Information Set (KIS) for postgraduate students.

x.   A new policy approach is now in development. It starts from the assumption that the new student-led system for financing teaching, operating alongside HEFCE teaching funding and the dual-support system for research, will for the most part achieve the government’s aspirations with regard to subject provision. HEFCE’s future policy must be concerned with identifying the minority of areas in which this may not be the case and determining any mitigating action that might be taken. HEFCE will consult on the details of this approach alongside the second stage of the consultation on teaching funding arrangements from 2013-14, which will take place in the coming winter4.


  1. Previous advisory groups, chaired by Professor Sir Gareth Roberts and Professor Sir Brian Follett respectively, established and reviewed HEFCE policy towards strategically important and vulnerable subjects, and provided information on the flow of students in these subjects. Their reports are at www.hefce.ac.uk/aboutus/sis
  2. Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects: The HEFCE advisory group’s 2009 report‘ (HEFCE 2010/09)
  3. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills White Paper is available on the BIS web-site
  4. For more information on the teaching funding consultation see the HEFCE web-site
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