About a month ago, I wrote about whether institutions would adjust their program mix if it would help improve economic growth. Nearly everyone that wrote me implicitly assumed that the “right” mix for economic growth implied a switch to a more STEM-heavy system, before going on to say something like “but what about the humanities?” I found this kind of amusing, because I actually don’t automatically assume that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) degrees are where it’s at in terms of growth, and there are a couple of quite high-powered papers out that support this view.
The first, Revisiting the STEM Workforce, comes from the National Science Board in the US. This publication makes a couple of sensible points, the most important being that STEM skills and STEM degrees are not the same thing. Lots of STEM graduates end up in non-STEM employment; conversely, many STEM-field jobs are held by people who are not themselves STEM graduates (Steve Jobs, famously, went to Reed College and was self-taught as far as computers went). Basically, the link between higher education credentials and labour market skills is nowhere near as tight as people tend to assume.
The second new STEM report, from the Canadian Council of Academies, makes an even more important point: namely, that STEM skills are a necessary condition for innovation, but not a sufficient one. The panel that wrote the report (led by former Bank of Canada Governor David Dodge) did not go quite as far as Don Tapscott did in his plea to replace a focus on STEM degrees with a focus on STEAM degrees (i.e. STEM + Arts). They did, however, point to a number of other types of skills, such as communication, team work, leadership, creativity, and adaptability, which they felt were at least as important as narrow STEM skills. The panel also made the point that the best way to meet future human resource challenges is to focus more broadly on skill acquisition from pre-primary to higher education, across a range of subjects – because, frankly, you never know what kind of labour market you’re going to need.
Both reports say we need to get over our obsession with STEM, a conclusion that typically brings cheers from the humanities’ defenders. But be careful here: even if you buy the “more STEAM” conclusion, it says nothing about the number of Arts degrees that should be produced. Companies are not dying to hire more Arts grads so they can add that little something of creativity and communication to existing teams of STEM workers. What they are looking for are individuals who can integrate all of those skills. It’s a call for more crossover degrees involving both Arts and STEM. It’s a call to get beyond C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures.
The real problem is that universities genuinely do not know how to deliver programs like this. Fundamentally, they are designed to focus on degrees rather than skills. Sure, programs can cross departmental lines; however, programs that cross faculty lines are the red-headed step-children of higher education. As a result, “real” programs – read: prestigious programs – more or less follow disciplinary lines. Within universities, faculties count success by how many students are “theirs”, but cross-faculty programs exist in a kind of no-man’s-land: they simultaneously belong to everyone and no one. With no incentives, there’s simply no pressure from below – that is, from faculty – to embark on the arduous journey of creating a curriculum, and working it through the academic approval process. In other words, STEAM only works for Arts at a resource level (and hence a political level) if it means more Arts degrees; if not, then forget it.
It would all be so much easier if institutions were built around what we wanted students to learn; instead, they are organized by academic disciplines that are necessary guardians of research quality, but in many respects actively hinder the development of balanced graduates who can succeed in work and society. Finding ways to mitigate this problem is one of the most important questions facing higher education, but we can’t seem to talk about it openly. That’s a problem that needs solving.