The 26 August 2010 edition of the online magazine of the Times Higher Education reports that a study carried out by Prof. P. Whiteley of the University of Sussex, UK found that, using data of 30 OECD countries over the period 2000-08, there was no significant relationship between a nation’s economic growth and the number of tertiary students enrolled in science and technology (S&T) subjects. In particular, the study found that the correlation between the percentage of students enrolled in engineering and manufacturing courses and economic growth is negligible. These findings are important because they try to refute the UK government’s declared policy for increased university provision in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects to promote growth.
Two important points need to be emphasised. First, the study is based on only OECD countries, not the world. Second, the variable is student enrolment in S&T courses, not S&T manpower in the countries. Indeed, a simple comparison of S&T manpower in different countries of the world would quickly reveal that the most developed countries have the largest number of S&T personnel per million inhabitants, indicating the importance of S&T personnel to growth and development.
So what conclusions can one draw from Prof. Whiteley’s study? Perhaps that there is a ceiling for S&T personnel beyond which it has little impact on the growth of a country. Or perhaps that OECD countries are now placing more emphasis on services rather than industry and manufacturing for their development and therefore do not need additional S&T personnel. But that would be surprising in view of the increasing importance for research and innovation in S&T for a nation’s competitiveness in the global knowledge economy.
Even if the findings of the study were to be considered pertinent to OECD countries, there is a risk that they may be generalised and applied to the rest of the world, especially Africa where, in matters of higher education, there is an inclination to follow what the developed world does. In Africa, because of the pressure to increase tertiary enrolment, the lack of public funds and the high cost of running S&T courses, there is already a tendency to increase the number of tertiary students in social sciences and humanities instead of natural and applied sciences. Private and cross-border higher education institutions, which are rapidly increasing in numbers, run courses almost exclusively in areas such as management, law, finance and IT which require little investment. The danger of an even greater shortage of S&T personnel badly needed to promote Africa’s development is real.
In 1983 an important study was undertaken by the Commonwealth Board on Engineering Education and Training, London, on the importance of engineers and technicians for developing countries. Economic data from 83 countries, including 25 in Sub-Saharan Africa, were analysed and they revealed an almost linear relationship between GNP per capita and technological staff involved in industrial production. The study made a strong case for a significant increase in the production of engineers and technicians to promote industrial growth in all developing countries. Although these findings date back to more than a quarter of a century, there is no reason to believe that they are not equally valid today. For decades developing countries, especially in Africa, have been guided by the policy of increasing S&T personnel, especially women, to improve social and economic development. Any relinquishment of that policy could have serious developmental consequences. It is of course understood that producing S&T personnel alone is not sufficient; it must be ensured that they are relevant to the needs of a country and that they are productively employed. That is the challenge for higher education institutions and governments in the developing world.
Prof. Whiteley’s study also showed a clear relationship between investing in higher education and achieving high growth rates. This has already been well-established but it is still sweet music to the ears of the world higher education community. At a time when funding of higher education is facing a crisis, it is to be hoped that governments will pay heed to that particular conclusion of the study.