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STEM subjects and the ‘market’ in education since the 1960s


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Governments have always sought to steer young people towards the educational and career choices that governments think best for meeting ‘national needs’, mostly by means of exhortation. So in 2014 Nicky Morgan, then the Education Secretary, told teenagers in no uncertain terms (though without evidence) that ‘the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock doors to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and maths’.

Occasionally, governments have resorted to more heavy-handed tactics. Generally these have proved abortive or even counter-productive. In the 1960s, for example, a worrying ‘swing away from science’ in teenagers’ subject choices led to the appointment of a national commission chaired by the scientist and educator Fred Dainton. At the time many experts, and not only socialists, advocated ‘manpower planning’ to direct students where they were needed. After much agonizing Dainton rejected this option. ‘The tradition of respect for the choice of the individual is rightly embedded in our educational as well as our political institutions’, he concluded. ‘We esteem that tradition and would not wish to see it altered.’ Among other things he recognized that the temper of the times was not favourable to science – science was seen to be ‘out of touch with human and social affairs’, the gender balance in education was shifting, so was the balance in the economy between manufacturing and services. He could only hope that science would be made more attractive in future and students’ free choices would come to favour it again.

That didn’t happen. As educational opportunity grew, the huge new tranches of less socially privileged and less academically qualified students entering post-compulsory education continued to favour non-science subjects, especially the growing bundle of subjects known as ‘social studies’ – law, communications, business, the social sciences. The proportion of degrees granted in science subjects dropped from nearly 60% to about 45% between the early ‘60s and the early ‘80s. 

Oddly the next big push to steer students to science came from the alleged champion of individual choice and free markets, Margaret Thatcher, and her Education Secretary Keith Joseph. Joseph thought there were too many students in higher education and that too many of them were studying worthless subjects ‘damaging to the spirit of enterprise’ – a view echoed by his Conservative successors today. He sought both to depress participation in higher education and to steer students to science and technology subjects. As his advisers wrote in 1982, ‘although the national interest may indicate more market-oriented solutions to many problems, in some areas we may conclude that the Government and other public bodies should take a more interventionist stance’. After all, they reasoned, you couldn’t in the end trust 18-year-olds to make ‘sensible choices’. This didn’t sit well with Tory backbenchers. Their constituents wanted more access to higher education, not less, and on the terms they chose, not Joseph’s. A backbench revolt against his restrictionist policies led Thatcher eventually to turn to the more emollient Kenneth Baker. He duly expanded higher education, very rapidly – the 50% participation target set by Tony Blair was really only a late stage in the process initiated by Baker, who set a target of 30% in 1989. As a result of this further expansion, and of an economy now rapidly shifting away from manufacturing to services, the proportion completing science degrees continued to fall, to a low of 38% in 2012.

Governments of all complexions have continued to exhort students to study STEM subjects, but until recently they lacked the tools or the will or both to exert more real pressure. New Labour made one significant contribution in 2006 by enabling all students to choose ‘triple science’ at GCSE if they wished. That helped to ensure the maximum flow of students into science specialisms began earlier in the pipeline, while preserving freedom of choice. (18-year-olds might not be trusted, but 14-year-olds might be more easily and sneakily persuaded!) The Conservatives since 2010 have had the same ambitions for STEM, if anything more ardent than New Labour’s, but have been handicapped by their alleged beliefs in market principles. In theory students were supposed to make ‘sensible choices’ based on the returns that particular subjects were supposed to give in the labour market, many years down the line from their actual subject choices. In theory universities were supposed to respond to student demand by providing the right number of places in courses demanded by the labour market, at the right price (now that fees were being paid in part by students, not only the state). In practice, students continued to pursue the subjects they liked and were good at, without much interest in ‘national needs’ or awareness of payoffs long in the future. 

Even market-oriented governments, however, can’t resist the temptation to rig the market to suit themselves. The Australian government began in 1997 to set variable fees that charged students more for courses thought to lead to high-income occupations. The UK government sought to do the same a few years ago by linking variable fees to higher graduate earnings via the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework, which had little to do with teaching excellence); Parliament rejected this proposal. These higher fees would, it was hoped, incentivize universities to recruit more STEM students, who at least in the early years of employment (though not necessarily later) earn higher incomes.

More recently, both Australian and British conservatives have considered a 180-degree about-face in tactics. Higher fees incentivized universities; but did they disincentivize students? The Australian government recently decided to lower fees for courses thought to lead to higher incomes. STEM courses will become cheaper and most humanities courses will become dearer. Last year in Britain the Augar Report recommended in very anti-market terms reminiscent of Keith Joseph that students’ choices needed to be better aligned ‘with the government’s Industrial Strategy and with taxpayers’ interests’. But they struggled with the same problem as the Australians – how to manipulate markets to ensure the desired result? And they concluded as Dainton did that too overt manipulation of student choice would seem unfair and even authoritarian. But the Australian solution of lower fees for STEM courses is looking increasingly attractive in conservative policy circles.

Almost unnoticed by policymakers, students have in fact been freely (or as freely as they’re allowed) making different choices themselves of late. Whether because of the effects of the 2008 financial crisis, or the effects of higher fees, or possibly even a cultural shift back to STEM, after 50 or more years of declining STEM enrolments, from that low point of 38% in 2012, the proportion of STEM degrees is now rising, creeping up towards 45% again. Rather than play risky games with rigged markets, perhaps the wisest (as well as the most genuinely liberal) course would be to wait and see what students do. It’s not clear that in this case politicians know best what are ‘national needs’ (now or, still less, 10, 20, 30 years from now when these students mature). Since students are right now choosing to do what politicians want them to do, for the first time in 50 years, whyever would they want to start clumsy new manipulations now?

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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