Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “We really need to have more STEM grads in this country. Really, we ought to be more like Germany or Japan – fewer of these ridiculous philosophy degrees, and more of those lovely, lovely engineers and scientists.”
Personally, I’ve heard this one too many times. So, just for yuks, I decided to take a look at the distribution of degrees awarded by field of study across the G7 countries, plus (since I’m overdue in throwing some love in the direction of the blog’s antipodean readership) New Zealand and Australia. The data is from the OECD, and is valid for 2012 for all countries except France, where the data is from 2009, and Australia where it is from 2011.
I started with the percentage of degrees that came from the Arts and Humanities. The result was… surprising.
Figure 1: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities Fields
Germany leads the pack with just under 21% of all degrees being awarded in humanities, and Canada and Australia bring up the rear with 11.6% and 11.1%, respectively. So much for the narrative about Canada producing too many philosopher baristas.
But as we all know, humanities are only half the story – there’s also the question of applied humanities, or “Social Sciences” as they are more often known. The Social Science category includes business and law. It turns out that if you add the two together, the countries cluster in a relatively narrow band between 47 and 56 percent of all degrees granted. No matter where you go in the world, what we call “Arts” is basically half the university. We should also note that Canada’s combined total is essentially identical to those of the great STEM powerhouses of Japan and Germany.
Figure 2: Percentage of All Degrees Awarded From Humanities and Social Science Fields
Let’s now look directly at the STEM fields. Figure 3 shows the percentage of degrees awarded in Science and Engineering across our nine countries of interest. Here, Germany is in a more familiar place, at the top of the table. But some of the other places are surprising if you equate STEM graduates with economic prosperity. France, in second, is usually not thought of as an innovation hub, and Japan’s third place (first, if you only look at engineering) hasn’t prevented it from having a two-decade-long economic slump. On the other hand, the US, which generally is reckoned to be an innovation centre, has the lowest percentage of graduates coming from STEM fields. Canada is just below the median.
Figure 3: Percentage of Degrees Awarded from Science and Engineering Fields
Last, Figure 4 looks at the final group of degrees: namely, those in health and education – fields that, in developed countries, are effectively directed to people who will pursue careers in the public services. And here we see some really substantial differences between countries. In New Zealand, over one-third of degrees are in one of these two fields. But in Germany, Japan, and France – the three STEM “powerhouses” from Figure 3 – very few degrees are awarded in these fields. This raises a question: are those countries really “good” at STEM, or do they just have underdeveloped education/heath sectors?
Figure 4: Percentage of Degrees Awarded in Health and Education Fields
So, to go back to our initial story: it’s true that Japan and Germany are heavier on STEM subjects than Canada. But, first, STEM-centricness isn’t obviously related to economic growth or innovation. And second, STEM-centricness in Germany and Japan doesn’t come at the expense of Arts subjects, it comes a the expense of health and education fields.