Concerns about the number of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates have been a regular feature of political debate in recent year, in many cases linked to wider worries about the competitiveness of the UK economy.

Making the latest contribution to the debate, Sir James Dyson, engineer and inventor of the vacuum cleaner that bears his name, told the Daily Telegraph that India is now producing one hundred times as many engineering graduates each year as Britain:

“[Britain] produced 12,000 engineering graduates a year … India produces 1.2m engineering graduates a year. The Philippines produces more than us, so does Iran, so does Mexico. It’s not a sustainable situation.”

While the UK’s population is only a fraction of India’s, (roughly 1/20th) can it really be right that India produces one hundred times as many engineering graduates?

We find that Britain does produce in the region of 12,000 home engineering graduates each year when we look at undergraduate degrees alone – but other claims made may be less supported.

Number of UK engineering undergraduates

According to Sir James, Britain produced 12,000 engineering graduates last year. When asked for the source of this figure, Dyson’s press office pointed us to a September 2011 report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), which suggests that there were 11,800 engineering graduates in 2010.

The report gives no source for the figure, but they’re likely to come from the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA). Figures from here, quoted in industry body Engineering UK’s 2013 report, suggest the number of graduates is higher than this, with almost 20,000 first degrees awarded in engineering in 2010/11

These figures include international students, as well as those from the UK. If we take Sir James’s description of Britain as “producing” engineering graduates as just referring to UK residents, we get a smaller number.

Of the almost 20,000 first degrees awarded in 2010/11, ‘home’ students accounted for just short of 13,000:

This only considers first degrees, however.

Number of postgraduates

When we consider those completing doctorates and other postgraduate degrees the numbers increase again. Looking at only those domiciled in the UK, some 4,000 postgraduate degrees excluding doctorates and PGCEs (referred to just as postgraduate degrees from this point forward) were awarded in 2010/11, together with around 800 doctorates.

In total the UK had more than 17,700 UK-domiciled graduates of at least first degree level potentially available to enter employment in 2010/11.

We should bear in mind, of course, that not all those who train in engineering will go on to work in the sector, with a report from the Royal Academy of Engineering last year suggesting that 26% of engineering graduates take jobs outside of the science, engineering and technology fields.

There might also be some movement in the opposite direction, as some non-engineering graduates will end up working in roles that are related to the industry.

How the UK compares to India

Sir James claimed that India produces 1.2 million engineering graduates a year, but at the time of writing Dyson had not provided a solid source for this figure, and we were unable to track it down ourselves.

According to the Indian trade association NASSCOM, almost 800,000 people completed technology or engineering graduate programmes in 2010 - some way short of Sir James’s 1.2 million graduatesThis number also includes graduates of computer science and several other types of technology course, which don’t feature in the UK figures. Looking at engineering graduates only, India produced just short of 500,000 of these in 2010 (excluding electrical engineers), according to the figures.

It should be noted that other sources do suggest considerably higher numbers, either now or in the near future. An Ernst and Young report put the number of enrolments onto engineering courses in 2009/10 at just over 1.5 million, based on figures from the Indian University Grants Commission. This means we might expect graduations in 2014 to exceed at least one million.

There’s also some discussion about whether quantity of graduates alone is a good metric. Some groups, including Engineering UK, have suggested that quality of graduates is another factor that needs to be considered.

Sir James’ claim difficult to substantiate

Overall it seems that the UK does produce around 12,000 engineering graduates per year (12,865 in 2010/11) if by produced, we mean that the UK has trained up (to undergraduate degree level) this number of domiciled engineers. If we take doctorates and other postgraduate qualifications awarded to UK-domiciled students into account, the numbers are higher at 17,705 in 2010/11.

While it’s tricky to make direct international comparisons, the suggestion that India produces one hundred times more engineering graduates is at least contentious. It goes against a Royal Academy of Engineering report last year that put the figure at eight times, while other sources suggest a number of Indian graduates that would give a figure closer to one hundred times.

In any case, we should also be asking whether numbers alone fully address the issue. When it comes to the employability of graduates, groups like Engineering UK have devised measures that take into account more than just graduate numbers but also employers’ perceptions of graduate quality.

Flickr image courtesy of Merrimack College

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