From education to employment

Inventing the future: transforming STEM economies

“Technology is shattering and transforming in equal measure. No one can avoid it. Least of all educators.”

Scientists can already map out the human genome. The driverless car could be with us within the next decade. The internet of things is growing exponentially. Sophisticated robots could one day be working in hospitals. Rapid prototyping and 3D printing are disrupting the manufacturing sector. Artificial intelligence is increasingly outperforming humans in areas such as medical diagnostics or legal opinion.

Wherever you look, emerging technologies are colliding and breeding further technologies: the most exciting areas of innovation are occurring at the convergence of disciplines, such as bioengineering or computational biology. And the pace of change is accelerating.

The possibilities thrown up by technological advance are exhilarating, chaotic and daunting. They raise profound questions for trainers and educators: how do we prepare students for such a fast-changing and unknowable future?

NEF: The Innovation Institute consulted with more than 100 companies for its latest think tank report: Inventing the Future: transforming STEM economies, to discover the impact of technology – and subsequent skills requirements – within STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) based sectors.

As well as a growing demand for specific competencies, such as the ability to handle big data or rapid prototyping, some common themes emerged.
Regardless of whether they are active in biotechnology, civil engineering or aerospace, organisations are increasingly looking for a new breed of technologist: able to innovate and collaborate across several disciplines; spot new product applications; move easily between sectors with minimal retraining.

A wide variety of companies, from giant multinationals to pioneering start ups, are working hard to cultivate an entrepreneurial spirit within their workforce. The ideal STEM candidate will not only demonstrate technical competence, but also creativity, project management skills and business development flair.
As industry hurtles towards this exciting if unknowable future, where does this leave STEM education? Limping several decades behind. The STEM sciences are still taught in narrow academic silos that were defined decades or even centuries ago. Learning is theoretical and not placed into context. Assessment and qualification models are outdated and create artificial barriers to individual development.

FE colleges continue to churn out carpenters and bricklayers and ignore the phenomenon of building information modelling (BIM) software, which will become a standard requirement on all Government projects from 2016. Courses in composite materials, which are increasingly being used in the automotive, aerospace and marine sectors, are also in short supply. The NEF’s three-year review of FE colleges found the STEM curriculum was not fit for purpose in almost every case. In the worst examples, 80 per cent of course content was misaligned with industry requirements.
There is not enough talking, or exchange of information, between academia and industry, and the trust in what educational institutions are providing is steadily being eroded. Companies complain that they have to train graduates to make them ready for the workplace. Skills forecasting is short term, often based on immediate need.

Large companies with deep pockets can, of course, take matters into their own hands, setting up their own training academies and apprenticeship courses. But, whilst the training is undoubtedly of high quality, courses are often rigid and tied to a particular industry. This will not create the flexible workforce that can respond to rapid growth or contraction of different sectors in the future.

The UK remains a global leader in blue skies research, but we lost our way in applied research (turning brilliant academic ideas into commercial winners) with the closure of polytechnics in the early 1990s.

The new universities that replaced the polytechnics have suffered something of an identity crisis, having to fit their research priorities around loftier university assessment frameworks. In many regions, valuable connections between industry and academia have been broken.

How can we put this right? We need to develop a coordinated STEM strategy for the regions, led by LEPs and chambers of commerce.

Some new universities and FE colleges could convert to regional polytechnics, carrying out applied research for local companies. There should be much greater exchange of personnel between industry and academia: local companies could run courses or departments as concessions, senior industry figures could sitting on governance boards, helping to steer research priorities. Lecturers should spend more time in industry.

The polytechnics would act as innovation hubs, acting as a magnet for investment and paving the way for differentiated clusters of expertise across the UK. This could not only raise the productivity and prosperity of the regions, it would also protect the long term health of local businesses, particularly tech start ups, helping them hold their position as innovation leaders in their field.

To help fund this, innovation tax credits should be extended to include technical skills development and specialist capital investment in education.
We need an even greater revolution to take place in the classroom itself, with flexible courses that combine several disciplines, adapting, year on year, to changing industry trends.

There has been much hand wringing over the STEM skills crisis in past decades. Now is the time to take action, to create a more responsive and entrepreneurial workforce, able to adapt to – and thrive in – an environment of rapid change. This is essential not only to protect the employability of future generations, but also the long term health of UK plc.

Professor Sa’ad Medhat is chief executive of NEF: The Innovation Institute, the professional body and provider of SciTech innovation and growth services to business, education and government

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