How to STEM the economic crisis. More medieval historians, please

The figures are pretty stark if you are what Stanford MBAs call a "poet" (as opposed to maths-physical science types, who revel in the term "quant" instead, as detailed in John Lanchester’s lovely book on the cause of the financial crash, Whoops! (Penguin, 2010)).

All in all, the higher education budget is to be reduced by 40%, or £2.9bn, from £7.1bn to £4.2bn by 2014-15, and the FY 2012-13 is widely expected to be the last year there’ll be any kind of teaching grant for all non-STEM subjects, which are deemed "strategically important". Teaching grants, let us be clear, will go down 80% in total, with Unis being expected to make up the shortfall with all those £9,000 fees they will be charging our children.

So there is an argument along these lines; there are an awful lot of people with <fill-in-the-blank-with-arts-degree-you-dislike> who should be studying something <more-useful-like-wot-I-did>. (In the 1970s the variable in the first part of this formula would be "Sociology," now it’s of course the dreaded "Media Studies".) And if you do really want to study Sociology/Media Studies, you should pay for it and take the consequences of that decision if you can’t get a job after, and so on.

Then there’s this argument; If I want to study what the walls of medieval Poitiers looked like, I accept that has no immediate practical value, and accept that I will possibly struggle to find immediate employment; but I love the subject, I’ll get a lot out of it and, hey, I may get some transferable skills like being organised, working to deadline, and all the rest.

Finally, what about this view: real business innovation comes from technologists and according to a recent piece of "research" in Business Week, most US billionaires are college dropouts anyway, most famously of course that Harvard escapee Bill Gates and so it doesn’t really matter about the poets so long as we have enough quants, see.

Well, I don’t know. I totally respect the intellectual discipline of studying a numeric subject – but I also won’t let the canard that reading English or History is a doss (it may have been in the days of full grants, but my local University’s library is now open 24 hours a day and I don’t think the kids I see in there at 6am are all doing Chemical Engineering).

I also have to wonder about the employment profiles of all these new Chemistry and Comp.Sci. grads that the government wants to flood the market. As we know, there’s no real local UK ICT industry any more and we have decreasing confidence in financial services as a way to make money for the island. So what are they to do? Pump start some new manufacturing industry? That would be more than welcome, but who’s going to work in it or manage it?

I suspect that we need both Marketing and Metal Bashing (or, let’s hope, Bending In Really Cool Ways That The Chinese Can’t Do Yet) to revive our national fortunes; and this means both Materials Science and, yes, Media Studies on the CV.

So I cannot welcome the valorisation of STEM over non-STEM and fear this will prove an expensive, as well as deeply divisive and controversial, decision for UK tertiary education. And I think that we can’t really in IT support it, if we really do believe that CIOs need to to be more business than tech people going forward. If you think a Sociologist can’t do the job, then you really want the CIO to be a CTO. Fine; but be clear.

Indeed, apply some of the skills you learned mapping the walls of medieval Poitiers to the job – if you can.

Type: White Paper


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