The Financial Express

Relevance of STEM education

Students are working at a chemical laboratory in BUET.          —Photo Collected Students are working at a chemical laboratory in BUET.          —Photo Collected

It's quite encouraging to note that both the USA and Bangladesh have shown renewed interest in improving STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) enrollment. According to a recent media report, Bangladesh would like to increase the STEM population from 17 per cent to 30 per cent by 2030. But do the two countries similarly leverage growing STEM enrollment to address national security and economic edge issues? 

As part of the broader US effort to compete with China, the US has been updating policies to strengthen STEM graduate density. Experts have pointed to STEM graduates' deficiency to meet the recent Chips and Science Act goal. There is a strong consensus among academics, industry, and policymakers that adequate STEM graduate density is essential for sharpening the USA's commercial and military edge. Hence, additional funding and policy updates are being placed to increase domestic STEM enrollment and encourage STEM graduate immigration. Does it mean that all the countries of the world, notably less developed ones, would equally benefit by expanding the STEM graduate density?  

To determine the relevance of STEM graduates, we should look into the options of leveraging STEM competence. More importantly, how the national strategy and policy affect the derivation of benefits from STEM graduates. In a broader framework, three significant pathways exist to leverage STEM graduates. The first one is to engage them in technology selection, import, deployment, operation, and maintenance. The next one is to assign them with the job of customised engineering of technological solutions. And the ultimate frontier is to employ them to advance science, invent technology, and innovate for trading ideas in the global market.

So far, less developed countries have looked upon STEM graduates to perform the first role, creating the market of STEM ideas of the developed ones. Hence, their STEM graduates are to facilitate the import and use of technological solutions. The 2nd option of engaging STEM graduates in less developed countries is minimal. Notably, due to the growing dependence on foreign loans and the increasing specialisation gap, less developed countries have been increasingly relying on engaging foreign firms for customised engineering solutions such as metro rails. But the reason for which countries like the USA have been after STEM graduates is the 3rd one-leveraging STEM graduates to generate ideas out of scientific knowledge and sharpen innovation edge for advancing commercial and military might. Unfortunately, strategy and policy framework of less developed countries are not in favour of this vital approach of leveraging STEM.

Let's look into relevant statistics to get an idea about the comparative success of leveraging STEM graduates. As high as 43 per cent of students in Tunisia opt for STEM education-resulting in the top position in UNESCO statistics. The 2nd and 3rd positions go to Germany and Singapore. Occupying the 4th position, the India is far ahead of the USA. Compared to 17.9 per cent of students choosing STEM education in the USA, as high as 31.7 per cent of students in India pursue STEM education. Besides, India produced a staggering 2,675,880 STEM graduates in 2018, which is 500 per cent higher than that of the USA. Although the UNESCO statistics did not include China, STEM enrollment in China has sharply increased. The World Economic Forum in 2016 said that China produced 4.7 million STEM graduates annually, which is far higher than India.

But like the USA, why cannot less developed countries like Bangladesh harness the endless growth path out of STEM competence? Intriguingly, countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan succeeded in leveraging STEM graduates to reach high-income status by creating an idea economy. The barrier for Bangladesh and many other less developed countries to leverage STEM graduates is the conventional belief of the (i) development planners, (ii) economic policymakers, (iii) industry strategy developers, (iv) STEM experts, and (v) society as a whole about wealth creation means and their linkages with STEM.

To dig out the root cause, we need to look into the historical evolution of economic means. Before the first industrial revolution, more or less all the countries in the world used to rely on intuitive knowledge, grassroots ideas, labour, and natural resources to create wealth. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, the UK-led Europe found a way of systematically generating knowledge and turning it into a flow of ideas, adding increasing value. As a result, products produced in Europe started getting better and cheaper. Through colonisation means, European countries also influenced policies of making their colonies suppliers of natural resources and becoming customers of their industrial products. People of colonies started to form a belief in European, followed by American, technologies. Although these countries embarked on import substitution in the post-colonial period, they kept relying on European and American ideas in the form of product design and capital machinery. Furthermore, development theories kept evolving around suppliers of ideas, labour, and natural resources. Ironically, development planners of less developed countries, upon getting education from advanced countries, kept believing the theory of adding value through natural resources and labour to imported ideas.

On the other hand, upon getting education from the USA and Europe, STEM experts in less developed countries kept believing in the correlation between STEM indicators and economic health. Unfortunately, it does not naturally exist. Besides, due to the ease of profit-making opportunities and showing quick results, industry strategists kept believing in import substitution and export-led manufacturing-through the import of capital machinery and product design. Through the process, society as a whole kept believing that STEM graduates should focus on knowing, operating, and maintaining imported technologies. Hence, all major stakeholders of less developed countries could not figure out how to leverage STEM graduates to produce economic value out of idea production and trade. As a result, they could not craft a scalable growth path out of the investment in STEM. Hence, they run the risk of getting caught in the middle-income trap.

It's an essential requirement for leveraging STEM graduates to create scalable path of growth for escaping the middle-income trap and reaching high-income status. But ramping up the production of STEM graduates alone will not do the job. We need to draw a lesson, notably from Japan and Taiwan, and craft a pathway to leverage STEM to graduate from idea importer to exporter. Such exercise demands upgrading the belief, resulting in changes in development thinking, theories, strategies, and policies. 

M. Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D, is academic and researcher on technology, innovation and policy.

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