Here’s an interesting fact: there’s been a steady decline in the number of secondary school students studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at higher institutions. This is perplexing and what makes it baffling is the most common reason given, which is that these subjects are perceived to be tough (now I admit that they are) and therefore challenging for students wanting to procure a place in a university; especially one they desire to attend.
Why this is baffling is the fact that studying these subjects increases a student’s future options. To compound matters, they are also far less likely to be taught STEM from teachers with a degree in the subject.
This decline matters because, in a knowledge-based economy, having a primary degree is a necessary but not sufficient condition for employment in a majority of the fastest-growing sectors. Most require a master’s degree and, in some cases, a PhD. So a decline in the numbers of our students with these requirements indicates the growing competitive disadvantage of our nation. Especially in a rapidly changing global economy that is technology based and which will need highly skilled workers, leading research to state that Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, will be needing to import expatriates to meet the needs of the knowledge market here.
This means that the vast majority of our students will be unable to have jobs and care for themselves. They won’t have the skills and knowledge that they need to be competitive.
The strategic implications of these trends are keeping some people like myself awake at night. I laid out the scale of the challenge in both my books, Future Readiness In Education and Reengineering Minds for Innovation.
“We will need over 2.5 million STEM professionals and technicians by 2030 to support a robust economic recovery. The real problem lies squarely in the lack of a conducive environment for manufacturing and innovative technology businesses across the country. They are struggling to recruit the STEM talent they need and lack infrastructural support.
It is the smaller companies; the startups, small enterprises that are reeling from the lack of STEM skilled labour more keenly, rather than the multinationals.
The STEM subjects are important because surges in innovation come from them. Contrary to popular opinion, innovation doesn’t come from lone scientists brooding in laboratories, but from refining technologies that already exist or have evolved.
A perfect example of this is the Google self-driving car, which is made possible not by some amazing breakthrough in artificial intelligence but by putting together massive processing power with machine-learning software, detailed mapping and new kinds of sensor technology.
Societies that will excel at harnessing this kind of innovation will be those permeated with people who understand the component sciences and technologies involved; that is people with STEM skills.
Nigeria was poised to be that society in the ’80s before the massive brain drain of the ’90s, whose adverse effects we are still dealing with decades later. Nigeria is a nation suffused with talent that has been recognised globally, especially in the STEM subjects.
It is a travesty to allow a society having an immense amount of human capital to become stagnant in the new knowledge economy. This will occur if we don’t do anything about the current trends in STEM education continues.
A visionary government would treat the decline in STEM subjects in secondary and tertiary education as one of the greatest threats facing the country and act speedily.
There should be a boost in the status and pay of teachers in these subjects across the board, providing huge rewards to students aid their studying STEM subjects (halving the tuition fees, for one) and support postgraduate students in STEM disciplines.
Future readiness begins with us creating the future that we desire.
Adetola Salau; Educator / Speaker / Author/ Social Entrepreneur / Innovator
She is an Advocate of STEM Education and is Passionate about Education reform. She is an innovative thinker and strives for our society & continent as a whole to reclaim it’s greatness. She runs an educational foundation with the mission to transform education.