STEM is not a special case

September 23, 2010

It is a pity that contributors from various scientific societies in the letter to THE (9 September) chose to distort my research on the relationship between economic growth and participation in tertiary education in the advanced industrial countries.

The analysis looked at relationships over a period of nearly 10 years in the developed countries, and so arguments that it claimed to identify "instant" relationships or that the countries are too diverse to make comparisons are misleading.

One implication of the research is that university expansion helps to explain why standards of living in Britain have doubled since 1980, but this is due to expansion in general not just in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Lobbying from these subjects is understandable and indeed part of the democratic process, but I think it is particularly unfortunate at this time, when universities face the largest cuts in living memory. One has to go back to the Geddes Axe of the 1920s, which involved sacking a third of civil servants, to see cuts on the scale planned by the coalition government, and certainly they are going to be much worse for universities than in 1981-82.

In this environment, everyone in higher education needs to speak out about the important contribution that universities make to Britain's prosperity. The irony is that the STEM subjects need support from their colleagues more than other disciplines, because they are so expensive. If one wanted to save serious money then cutting Britain's contribution to Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, would be much more effective than sacking historians or English lecturers. So I think we need solidarity at this time, not special pleading by vested interests.

Paul Whiteley, Department of government, University of Essex.

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