paulwhitelyPaul Whiteley points out that there is no evidence that supports the argument that STEM subjects provide an additional boost to growth on top of investments in universities in general. Despite higher than average enrolment in sciences, for instance, Britain has lower average rates of growth. More strikingly, Britain under-invests in higher education relative to other countries. Since it plays a key role in stimulating growth, this is a very unwise policy in the long run.

This article was originally published on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

The chart below shows student enrolments in higher education in three subject areas in the OECD or advanced industrial countries in 2010, with Britain and the United States identified separately. The data refer to the percentage of students enrolled in higher education who study science, engineering and also social science, business and law. The latter category is rather broad but the UNESCO data does not allow a finer distinction to be made between these subjects. The data are very relevant to the debate about the importance of science and technology as opposed to the arts, humanities and social science in stimulating investment and growth in Britain.

Whiteley fig 1

Source: UNESCO.

The conventional wisdom, shared by politicians from all major parties, is that science and engineering have a unique role in promoting economic growth and therefore Britain should give these subjects special treatment. The Campaign for Science and Engineering, the chief lobbying organisation for the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) puts it like this:

Our mission is to raise the political profile of science and engineering. We passionately believe in the economic and cultural importance of scientific and technological education and development, and the vital need for the funding of this research by Government and industry.

Their lobbying has been highly effective, since it persuaded the coalition government to exempt the STEM subjects when it decided to withdraw all financial support for teaching in universities, effectively privatising this aspect of their activities.

Do the STEM subjects stimulate growth? The answer is no more than any of the other subjects taught in universities. I have argued elsewhere that higher education makes a considerable contribution to economic growth in countries like Britain, but there is no evidence to suggest that the STEM subjects provide an additional boost to growth on top of investments in universities in general. The chart reinforces this point, since it shows that Britain does not in fact under-invest in science and technology in comparison with our competitors, and if anything the STEM subjects are rather generously treated in this country.

Britain had a larger percentage of students enrolled in science than the average for twenty-six OECD countries in 2010 for which the data is available. It also has a higher enrolment in science and engineering than does the United States, which is commonly regarded as a power house of technological innovation. Despite this, average rates of growth have been lower in Britain than in the OECD countries over the years. If anything the evidence suggests that Britain under-invests in social science, business studies and law in comparison with other OECD countries.

There is one sense in which Britain does lag behind our competitors, and that is in relation to the size of higher education relative to the population. In 2010 the UK enrolled 4,049 students per 100,000 people in higher education.  This compares with an average enrolment of 4,599 in the OECD countries and 6,673 in the United States. This means that Britain under-invests in higher education in general and since it plays a key role in stimulating growth, this is a very unwise policy in the long run. Unfortunately, this state of affairs is getting worse, since enrolments increased by 9 per cent on average in the OECD countries between 2007 and 2010 and by only 4.9, in Britain. In the United States they increased by a staggering 15 per cent over this period.

Investment in higher education is an important indicator of the effectiveness of a government’s response to the economic tsunami which has hit the industrial world since 2007. Many OECD countries including the US are keen to invest heavily in universities so that the educated labour force is there to aid recovery once the worst of the crisis is over.  In contrast the British government has tripled undergraduate fees, done nothing about the crisis in post-graduate funding, and cracked down on overseas students which are an invaluable lifeline to universities at the present time.

This short sighted response by the UK government has happened in part because the STEM lobby has divided support for a campaign of investment in higher education in the past, believing that they can successfully go it alone. This is a foolish policy since big science projects such as the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland are becoming prohibitively expensive and therefore more vulnerable to cuts in the future. But there is also the point that the social sciences have not fought their corner effectively in the past. However, the work done by various professional associations including the PSA and the Academy of Social Sciences to draw attention to the importance of social science is now helping to remedy this situation. But social scientists themselves have to join in too. If they don’t challenge arguments that the best way to promote growth in Britain is to scrap employment rights and drive down wages, as opposed to investing in higher education, then they have only themselves to blame.

This article was originally published on the PSA website and is being re-printed here with the author’s permission. 

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Impact of Social Science blog, nor of the London School of Economics. 

About the Author

Paul Whiteley is Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex.

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