British academy

“Serious deficit” in UK quantitative skills, claims new report

18 Oct 2012

The UK has a serious deficit in quantitative skills in the social sciences and humanities, according to a statement issued today (18 October 2012) by the British Academy. This deficit threatens the overall competitiveness of the UK’s economy, the effectiveness of public policy-making, and the UK’s status as a world leader in research and higher education.

The statement, Society Counts, raises particular concerns about the impact of this skills deficit on the employability of young people. It also points to serious consequences for society generally. Quantitative skills enable people to understand what is happening to poverty, crime, the global recession, or simply when making decisions about personal investment or pensions.

Citing a recent survey of MPs by the Royal Statistical Society’s getstats campaign – in which only 17% of Conservative and 30% of Labour MPs thought politicians use official statistics and figures accurately when talking about their policies – Professor Sir Adam Roberts, President of the British Academy, said: “Complex statistical and analytical work on large and complex data now underpins much of the UK’s research, political and business worlds. Without the right skills to analyse this data properly, government professionals, politicians, businesses and most of all the public are vulnerable to misinterpretation and wrong decision-making.” 

The problem starts in school as too many students enter higher education with poor numerical skills, the Academy indicates.  The UK is dramatically behind many other countries in the study of mathematics after sixteen. With a gap of between two and four years for most young people between the end of mathematics GCSEs and the start of university, students feel anxious about quantitative methods, mathematics and numeracy. 

There is also a dearth of academic staff able to teach quantitative methods in ways that are relevant and exciting to students in the social sciences and humanities. As few as one in ten university social science lecturers have the skills necessary to teach a basic quantitative methods course, according to the report. Insufficient curriculum time is devoted to methodology in many degree programmes.

Broad numerical skills are valuable for anybody working in business, for charities and in the public sector. Businesses need their staff to be able to make effective use of statistics and probability. The value of quantitative skills for future employment needs to be actively communicated to students.

The British Academy statement launches today and is available on the website.

Editor’s notes:

  • For more information or interviews, please contact Kate Rosser Frost, Press & Communications Manager at the British Academy on k.rosserfrost@britac.ac.uk or 020 7969 5263.
  • Quantitative skills include competencies such as data analysis and interpretation; survey design and analysis; experimental design; descriptive statistics; the manipulation, treatment and interpretation of statistical data; the econometric representation of ideas and analysis; psychometrics; and many other areas.
  • The cited survey of MPs was commissioned by the getstats committee at the Royal Statistical Society. More here: http://www.getstats.org.uk/resources/elected-representatives 
  • Today, the Nuffield Foundation, Economic and Social Research Council and Higher Education Funding Council for England will announce a £15.5 million funding programme aimed at promoting a step-change in quantitative methods training for UK social science undergraduates. The British Academy welcomes this programme as an important strategic response to the problem outlined in its position statement. More here: www.nuffieldfoundation.org. 

Supporting quotes:

“We welcome the position statement for setting out so clearly why quantitative skills are vital for social science and the humanities and for wider social and economic reasons; it also gives a clear sense of what might need to be tackled to improve matters in schools as well as universities. The evidence presented by the British Academy demonstrated the need for initiatives like the new £15.5 million funding partnership from the Nuffield Foundation, ESRC and HEFCE, which aims to promote a step-change in quantitative skills at undergraduate level.” - Sharon Witherspoon, Director, Nuffield Foundation.

 “Good data and their rigorous analysis are essential to public policy and its effective and critical evaluation. No democracy can function without an informed population that can make its concerns count." - Professor John Holmwood, President, British Sociological Association 

“Graduates in Political Studies increasingly recognise the importance of statistical analysis. A firm grasp of quantitative data is not only vital for their own understanding of the social sciences and the wider world but enhances their employability in an increasingly competitive jobs market.” - Dr Jacqui Briggs, Vice Chair, Political Studies Association UK.

“Members of the Social Policy Association and academics engaged in social policy research across the UK and beyond recognise just how important statistics - and statistical skills - are to their work. Not only must we draw on these methods and skills in our own work, but we also need to ensure that new generations of researchers are well equipped to deal with the research challenges posed by increasingly complex societies as time goes on.” - Professor Nick Ellison, Chair, Social Policy Association.