Technology is shattering and transforming the world in equal measure. No one can avoid it. 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.
The possibilities thrown up by technological advance are exhilarating, chaotic and daunting. However, they raise a profound question for trainers and educators: how do we prepare students for such a fast-changing and unknowable future?
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 in biotechnology, civil engineering or aerospace, organisations are increasingly looking for a new breed- the technologist. Someone who is able to innovate and collaborate across several disciplines; spot new product applications and move seamlessly 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 Technologist will not only demonstrate technical competence, but also creativity, project management skills and business development flair.
As industry hurtles towards this exciting unknowable future, where does this leave STEM education? Limping several decades behind. The STEM disciplines are still taught in narrow academic silos that were defined decades or even centuries ago. Learning is theoretical and not placed in context. Assessment and qualification models are outdated and create artificial barriers to an individual’s development.
FE colleges continue to churn out carpenters and bricklayers and ignore the phenomenon of Building Information Modelling (BIM), 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. NEF’s three-year review of over 70 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.
The UK remains a global leader in blue skies research, but has lost its way in applied research (turning brilliant academic ideas into commercial winners) with the closure of the polytechnics in the early 1990s.
How can this be put right? Coordinated regional STEM strategies led by LEPs and chambers of commerce would go some way to redressing the lack of applied research for commercial gain in economic priority areas.
Some new universities and FE colleges could come together under the banner of “Regional Polytechnics” to offer a wider portfolio of courses and services to local employers. 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 sit on governance boards and help steer educational priorities. Lecturers should be given opportunities to spend time in industry to deliver real and relevant learning.
These polytechnics should take the role of “innovation hubs”, acting as magnets for investment, paving the way for differentiated clusters of expertise across the UK. This could not only raise the productivity and prosperity of regions, it could also protect the long term health of local businesses, particularly tech start-ups, supporting them to maintain their position as innovation leaders in their field.
To help fund this development, innovation tax credits should be extended to include technical skills development and specialist capital investment in education.
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 - and thrive within - 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.