Demand for STEM programming continues to increase; countries race to meet it

“STEM workers are disproportionately involved in creating and running successful tech companies … and coming up with breakthrough inventions …. It’s not an exaggeration to say that STEM workers are the driving force of economic prosperity.”

— Jonathan Rothwell, writing for the influential American think-tank Brookings

The demand for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programmes is on the rise across the world. National governments are aware of the vital importance of the sector for economic growth and students are becoming more and more aware of the great job prospects and earning power they can command as a result of a STEM education.

Now, the race is on in many countries to develop more STEM capacity and programming — which can be difficult given that high-quality STEM programmes can be incredibly expensive, both to provide (at the government and institutional levels) and to attend (from the perspective of students).

STEM crises in major destinations

Two leading study abroad nations are in the midst of STEM crises, if we can call them that. In the Brookings’ blog post referenced at the head of this article, Jonathan Rothwell talks about the dearth of funding for, and spaces in, American STEM programmes:

Apparently, the Washington state legislature has resisted increasing funding to appropriate levels because it costs more to train science majors than majors in business, art, or other popular degrees. That’s amazingly self-defeating. Meanwhile, in a rush to sacrifice long-run prosperity to resolve short-term budget conflicts, many states are cutting funding to computer and engineering departments at public universities and colleges. These policies are … ludicrous in our high-tech age.

This, in spite of the fact that —“in the average large [American] metro, 30% of job openings are in STEM fields but just 11% of the population have a STEM degree.” The Obama administration is endeavoring to improve STEM capacity to redress fears that the US is losing its competitive edge.

Editor’s Note: See our article “US one step closer towards passing STEM legislation, increasing H-1B visas” for the latest update on new legislation that would automatically grant green cards to international graduates of US universities with degrees in STEM fields, as well as significantly increase the number of H-1B visas.

In the UK, a study by the Royal Academy of Engineering notes that Britain is slipping in the international innovation league tables and points out that while the UK is currently graduating 23,000 engineers each year, India is producing eight times as many, and China 20 times as many. The study contends that the UK needs to “increase by as much as 50% the number of science, technology, engineering, and maths graduates it is creating.”

Countries investing in STEM

As the US and UK consider how to boost their STEM capacity, they of course know that China and India have been prioritising STEM for years now, with astounding results in terms of how much more globally competitive their economies have become. A new paper from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a European-based think tank, predicts that over the next 50 years, the size of China and then India’s economies will surpass the US’s.

Other countries are investing heavily in STEM in the hopes of achieving the same kind of boost as China and India (though of course on a lesser scale, due to population size):

  • Saudi Arabia, the home country of the huge King Abdullah Scholarship Programme (KASP) provides full funding for 125,000 students to study undergraduate and graduate degrees in mostly STEM subjects.
  • In Brazil, the National Industrial Apprenticeship Service (SENAI) is investing US $750 million to create 23 new Innovation Institutes designed to support business innovation and research in Brazil. And Brazil’s Science Without Borders Initiative sends 100,000 students for study abroad focused on science, technology, and innovation.
  • Germany has doubled its STEM graduates between 2000 and 2010, which one report claims will boost “long-term economic growth by .35%.”
  • The Swedish government has just made its largest ever investment in life sciencesUS $320 million. It has also budgeted for 400 new spots for engineering students at Sweden’s universities next year with a goal of 1,600 new places for civil engineering students to be created by 2016 — this has the attached price tag of US $32 million, a testament again to how expensive it can be to increase STEM capacity.
  • South Korea has allocated around US $51 million to assist Africa over the next two years in carrying out human resource development projects, including growing the continent’s scientific workforce, preparing higher education reform strategies and designing education policy.

What it all means for student recruitment

That there is demand for STEM programmes is undeniable – and demand among emerging segments in national populations, too.

In Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as a whole, for example, there is a growing emphasis on getting women trained in STEM fields. According to University World News, in Saudi Arabia, 65% of all enrolments in science degrees in 2010 were women, versus 40% a decade earlier. Still, Saudi women make up just 34% of Saudi science master’s students and 29% of PhD students, and they command only 1% of research jobs in the country (the worldwide average for women researchers is 30%).

A recent Economic Intelligence Unit report, Accelerating Growth: Women in science and technology in the Arab Middle East, contains recommendations for how to encourage more Arab women into STEM graduate studies and careers. Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, a researcher at Cairo’s National Research Centre, told University Word News that the report’s recommendations would be taken up by such associations as the “UAE-based Arab science and technology foundation’s Arab women network for research and development, and the Bahrain-based Arab network for women in science and technology.”

So, women – especially in the Arab world – may be an increasingly promising target segment. As for the population of prospective STEM students as a whole, keep in mind that STEM programmes are often very expensive, and so prospect interest in scholarship opportunities or other financial supports may be an important aspect of a successful recruitment strategy.

In addition, bridging/preparatory programmes and generally strong student supports can be very important for international students as STEM programmes are often very tough academically and can have high attrition rates.

One university that invested in this area was The University of Texas at El Paso:

Through a combination of bridge programmes, building a community of support for STEM students, increasing students’ research opportunities, and re-evaluating teaching practices, [the university] raised graduation rates in STEM disciplines by nearly 50% and more than doubled the number of STEM baccalaureate degrees awarded to Hispanics — making it the largest producer of Mexican-American STEM graduates in the country.

As these points illustrate, recruitment for STEM programmes can be tricky. But as more and more students (and governments) become interested in STEM fields, figuring out how to tune recruitment strategies to address these programme-specific challenges and opportunities will be key.



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