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STEM Education Not Necessarily Linked to Economic Growth

Aug 31, 2010

Paul Whiteley, professor of politics at the University of Essex, recently released an analysis of the relationship between the number of individuals studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and nations' economic growth rates. He found that while investing in higher education in general does lead to economic growth, it doesn't appear to be linked to any particular subject.

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Saving Ourselves with STEM

In education communities across the globe, STEM subjects are all the rage. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and many believe these fields hold the key to innovation, technological advancement and, perhaps most importantly, renewed economic health.

In the U.S., the Obama administration has led the STEM charge with programs like Educate to Innovate, a campaign that promotes extracurricular strategies to supplement STEM education in the classroom. The feds hope that by increasing STEM literacy in America's youth, they'll see more STEM students in higher education and, in the long term, in the workforce.

The British government has been similarly vocal about promoting STEM subjects. In January 2010, then business secretary Lord Mandelson addressed the House of Lords to detail, among other things, the government's plan to create 10,000 extra university places in England for the 2010-2011 school year. The new places are intended to focus on priority job skills, and almost all of them are in STEM subjects. Mandelson argued that this is necessary because STEM education is 'crucial in securing future prosperity.'

It's clear that whether you're in the U.S., the U.K. or just about anywhere in the world, the commonly accepted belief is that science, technology, engineering and math are the building blocks of society. Without more students focusing on these subjects, innovation will falter and the economy will suffer - or so the story goes.

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STEM: Magic Bullet or Education Trend?

In England, some people are questioning the accuracy of this perception. In July, the British education journal Times Higher Education (THE) spoke with Howard Davies, director of the London School of Economics. He argued that the focus on STEM subjects is 'economically irrational' when the current labor market is demanding graduates in fields like finance, media and law.

But it's these very fields that are being sacrificed in order to promote STEM subjects., at least in the U.K. The Higher Education Council for England is offering universities funding to move places away from lower price-band subjects and into STEM and modern languages. THE analyzed funding requests under the program and discovered that business, law, sociology, English and history were the subjects most commonly being reduced to make room for more STEM students.

This month, Paul Whiteley, a politics professor at the University of Essex, has also come out in criticism of the STEM-above-all mentality - and he has data to back up his claims. Professor Whiteley's research shows that while educational attainment in general is clearly linked to economic growth on a national level, there's no clear correlation for any specific field, including the STEM subjects.

Professor Whiteley compared two sets of data: Information on economic growth from 2000-2007 for 30 OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries from the Penn Database and UNESCO statistics on the number of students studying different types of subjects for the same time period. He analyzed the two data sets to determine if there is a relationship between the number of students studying STEM - or any other - subjects and the rate of economic growth.

Correlation Between Science Studies and Economic Growth by Professor Whiteley

Source: Professor Paul Whiteley, from Economic Growth and Tertiary Education Data

Contrary to the claims made by many STEM advocates, there was no statistically significant relationship between economic growth and the percentage of students enrolled in any particular discipline. The percentage of graduates in science showed only a 0.23 correlation to economic growth (see above), and the link was even weaker (0.11) for engineering graduates and economic growth.

These findings have been criticized for the crude nature of the analysis. Simply comparing the two sets of statistics doesn't leave a lot of room for considering other factors that might strengthen the link between STEM education and economic health. Commenters on the original THE article, published last week, note that there are many other factors that may be at work, including the presence of foreign STEM students in total enrollment figures, the fact that economies grow over time (and there were STEM grads before 2000), the presence of policies and laws affecting growth that may disrupt the relationship and the simple fact that the quality of STEM education can vary significantly both between countries and between institutions.

Clearly, Professor Whiteley's analysis isn't the final word on the subject. In fact, the project may be more aptly labeled an exercise than a study. It's a quick survey of available data that serves to make a point: The popularity of STEM subjects among politicians may be unfounded. And that's dangerous when it means that education funding, an increasingly precious resource, is following trends, not facts. Before higher education dollars are directed to STEM at the expense of other subjects, education policymakers around the world need to take a hard look at their assumptions.

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However, Professor Whiteley did find one relationship with which no one in the education community disagrees: Higher numbers of students enrolled in postsecondary education in any subject has a positive correlation (0.46) with economic growth. In other words, the more students enrolled in colleges and universities, the faster a nation's economy will grow.

While many of the same confounds may apply, from the short span of the analysis to the missing 'other' factors, the contrast between this relationship and his other correlations demonstrates Professor Whiteley's fundamental complaint: 'The important point for policymakers is that they should invest in higher education in general, not necessarily in particular subjects.'

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