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Under-represented STEM students most at risk of not completing degrees, report finds

30 November 2023

Students from under-represented backgrounds such as working class or racially minoritised people record the highest rates of degree non-completion, particularly in subjects such as computing, finds a new study led by UCL researchers.

Engineers Working with Tech stock photo-resized

Conclusions from the ASPIRES research project - a 14-year mixed methods investigation led by Professor Louise Archer (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society) - show that students from the most deprived backgrounds leave STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees at around double the rate of those from the most privileged backgrounds. 

At degree level, Black students and those from the lowest IMD (Index of Multiple Deprivation – a UK dataset used to classify relative deprivation) quintile remain under-represented in STEM, particularly in subjects like physics.

However, even in areas where these groups are better represented, such as computing, ASPIRES evidence suggests these students are more at risk of not completing their degrees. 

The project collected survey data from over 47,000 young people and conducted over 760 interviews which tracked 50 young people between the ages of 10 and 22.  

Its aims were to study the educational and employment aspirations, choices, experiences and outcomes of thousands of young people in England, as well as generate new understandings of how their trajectories into STEM are shaped by gender, race and ethnicity, and social class. 

While most students who withdraw from their degrees do so during their first year of study, the ASPIRES national survey of over 3,000 university degree students revealed that completion anxieties remain present throughout each year of study, with 27% of STEM students expressing concerns about finishing their degree.  

Across all STEM degree areas, those from underserved groups – women, minoritised students, and students from low IMD backgrounds – were the most likely to experience distress about not completing.

These concerns were at their highest among computing degree students (37%) and much lower among mathematics and chemistry students (both 18%). 

Elsewhere in the report, gender inequality within STEM remains a pressing policy concern, with evidence suggesting that the relatively unexamined issue of peer sexism in higher education STEM degrees is having a tangible negative impact on many female students’ experiences.  

Out of the 3,000 students surveyed, STEM undergraduates reported more sexism than those in non-STEM fields, with women in physics (50% of whom reported experiencing sexism) and engineering (30%) the most likely to do so. 

Interviews with women STEM students in the longitudinal sample revealed that peer sexism usually involved everyday acts of disdain and disrespect by male peers, such as questioning women’s academic legitimacy and ignoring or patronising them.

Experiences of sexism were not only found in degree courses but were also reported in school and college settings. 

The report outlines six main recommendations for policymakers and practitioners who want to support increased and more diverse participation in STEM: 

  1. Support and value young people’s STEM identities over time and across contexts. 

  1. Challenge ideas of STEM competence (but particularly in mathematical areas) as being based on ‘natural talent’. 

  1. Address the impact of double/triple science GCSE qualification routes on STEM progression. 

  1. Challenge peer sexism on STEM degrees. 

  1. Support more equitable experiences and retention in STEM degrees, particularly among students from underrepresented communities. 

  1. Facilitate greater access to key forms of STEM-related social and cultural capital for young people from underrepresented communities, to support social mobility in STEM and beyond. 

The project’s principal investigator, Professor Louise Archer, said: "Improving gender diversity in STEM is important, but our research highlights how it is not just a case of encouraging more women to take these degree paths. We also need to address women STEM students' all-too-common experiences of sexism and gendered microaggressions from their peers which undermine women's sense of legitimacy and belonging.  

“There are already valuable initiatives aimed at supporting women, for instance through mentoring, but we think there is also a need to target initiatives at changing the behaviour of male STEM students - and our resources hope to encourage more men in STEM to become anti-sexism allies, to help improve the gender climate in STEM for everyone.” 



Media Contact

Tom Cramp

  • E: t.cramp [at] ucl.ac.uk