Global Education & Skills Forum

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12 - 13 March 2016

Atlantis The Palm,
Dubai, U.A.E.

Are we too focused on STEM education?

While there may be a shortage of people trained in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, there is no paucity of people talking about the problem.

From presidents to popstars, everyone seems to be focused on STEM. But do we risk becoming too fixated on this issue and, if so, at what cost?

Help wanted

There is very good reason for much of the talk about STEM education. Put simply, there do not seem to be enough qualified people to fill the jobs we need.


SOURCE: Change the Equation

In teaching the problem is particularly acute.

England’s Department for Education’s most recent recruitment round for trainee science teachers missed its target by 22%.

STEM Education Guardian chart


The worry is that if these subjects are not being taught adequately, the problem will be perpetuated with fewer students being inspired to follow careers in these areas.

The changing landscape

Of course the problem isn’t confined to the teaching sector. The pace of technological development, termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, is bringing massive disruption to the labour market. Employment is set to change radically across many sectors and STEM skills are likely to be more important than ever.

STEM Education occupations chart

SOURCE: Change the Equation

The Gender Imbalance

Another issue is the gender imbalance that has long been apparent in STEM careers.

Women are significantly underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. In the US, women hold less than a quarter of all STEM jobs. In the UK it is even less: women make up less than 15% of all people working in STEM jobs.

The number of women in tech jobs in Silicon Valley is strikingly low.

STEM Education Silicon Valley chart.png


This is already a problem but is set to become an even greater one with some projections suggesting that because of women’s low participation in STEM sectors, one of the fastest-growing areas of job creation, women stand to gain only one new STEM job for every 20 lost across other job areas, whereas the ratio for men is one new job for every four lost.

How bad is the shortage?

While there are certainly problems, there are people who believe the focus on STEM is too narrow.

In his recent book Falling Behind: Boom, Bust & the Global Race for Scientific Talent, Michael Teitelbaum, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School, shows that the United States has been through at least five STEM-related cycles since World War II.

In each instance, alarms about a perceived shortage of STEM workers led to federal action to stimulate STEM research and education. But after the government’s stimulus ended, there was a surfeit of people with STEM degrees but no work commensurate with their training.

Others have pointed out that the tech industry is talking of a chronic lack of qualified employees even as it is laying many of its workers off.

The bigger picture

There are also those who urge us not to get too focused on STEM education at the cost of all else.

Jack Ma, the founder of China’s Internet giant Alibaba, recently noted that the Chinese are not as innovative as Westerners because China’s educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not nourish a student’s complete intelligence, allowing them to range freely, experiment and enjoy themselves while getting a well-rounded education.

Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg were both liberal arts students who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. As Zuckerberg put it, Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

And in 2013, two Oxford scholars conducted a comprehensive study on employment and found that, for workers to avoid the computerization of their jobs, “they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

While STEM is a vital part of our educational and employment future, so is teaching the arts and ensuring a rounded education.

As ever, maintaining a balance is the key.


This will be a key topic at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2016, taking place in Dubai on 12th and 13th March 2016. For more take a look at the programme. Follow us on Twitter @GESForum and on Facebook.


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Blog post by:

Harsha Sharma
Harsha Sharma
Digital Communications Manager, Varkey Foundation