STEM vs humanities – Calls for a more balanced approach

While the past decade has seen increased pressure on African universities to enrol and train more students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM subjects, a more integrated approach to development which includes the humanities and social sciences, is starting to receive more attention.

Most of the proponents of STEM argue that the continent cannot develop sustainably without a strong scientific knowledge and research background. But current research suggests that university and higher education enrolments in Africa are heavily skewed towards humanities and social sciences, with less than 25% of enrolments in STEM disciplines.

According to the World Bank’s Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology, or PASET, a fundamental shift is necessary to orient the continent towards value-added production and manufacturing, enhancements through technology, and innovation in order to find local solutions to development problems particularly in health, food security and climate change.

It is argued that qualified human capital remains in short supply compared to the continent’s development needs, an imbalance which hinders growth and undermines the foundation for sustainable development. Against this backdrop the PASET framework was established to strengthen science and technology capability for the socio-economic development of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Given the emphasis on science and technology, what role for arts and humanities?

Equal importance

In interviews with University World News higher education experts said that there is a need to ensure a healthy balance between STEM and humanities and social sciences, as they are equally important for the sustainable development of the continent.

Sajitha Bashir, education sector manager for the Eastern and Southern Africa region of the World Bank, said that there should be investments to increase STEM enrolments, not so as to undermine the humanities and social sciences but so as to address the imbalance that currently exists between the two.

She said African universities and institutions of higher learning should consider reviewing their syllabi so as to integrate some of the humanities into STEM courses.

“For instance, we can integrate engineering with climate change and some economics,” noted Bashir, adding that humanities and social sciences should be incorporated into the training of scientific courses. This includes subjects such as law, economics and communication.

Such integration would help increase knowledge sharing and transfer between STEM and humanities and social sciences and produce high-quality graduates who can handle a myriad of developmental challenges through innovation, she said.

Additionally, new technologies could be leveraged to change the way students learn STEM and humanities and social sciences through innovation. This could be achieved, she said, through well-coordinated partnerships of universities at institutional, national and regional levels.

Bashir suggested that such partnerships could lead to institutional or regional specialisation in certain areas critical for the region, along the lines of the African Centers of Excellence which support science, technology and innovation at postgraduate levels to address social problems such as the Ebola virus.

Mobilisation of funds

She called on universities to mobilise funds, especially for postgraduate-level training, through scholarships and innovation funds, and by leveraging funding from the private sector.
“Our universities need to be financially innovative and ensure professional management of the funds by being transparent so as to attract more funding, especially grants and donations,” said Bashir, adding that this will help the continent to train more PhDs in STEM, humanities and social sciences.

Bashir said African universities needed to focus to a greater extent on how to close the gap between STEM and humanities and social sciences in terms of quality rather than numbers. “We need to focus and invest a lot in closing the gap in terms of quality, knowledge and skills,” said Bashir.

Joining the call for greater integration of disciplines, Beatrice Muganda, director of higher education at the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research, said African universities need to develop and embrace multidisciplinary programmes that bring a mixture of STEM and humanities. This is because African development problems are multifaceted and needed to be addressed holistically.

“Some African universities such as Makerere in Uganda have multidisciplinary approaches to research but this is still at low level,” said Muganda. She added that African countries need higher education policy changes so that learning and knowledge production can be adapted to ensure multidisciplinary approaches.

Teaching and learning

“We can talk about STEM but never reap the fruits if we do not find the right approach to teaching and learning,” said Muganda.

She suggested that teaching skills be introduced in all postgraduate programmes, especially at PhD level, so that students acquired the skills to drive STEM forward. She said some students fear pursuing STEM courses because they have been portrayed by some lecturers as being difficult – a problem she attributed to poor teaching skills.

Muganda was also critical of the tendency of donor and higher education funders in Africa to increase monetary allocations to STEM training without necessarily looking holistically at the continent’s development problems. This, she says, was like treating the symptoms of a disease without being mindful of its underlying causes.

For instance, she said, a scientist conducting a study in medicine today requires an anthropologist to help understand how to integrate complementary medicine into modern healthcare systems.

For the continent to ensure a healthy balance between humanities and social sciences and STEM, the experts are calling for a few universities to emerge as incubators of high quality research that will find innovative approaches to this. This could also be done by African universities partnering with foreign universities to solve local problems, either at institutional or individual level.

Hierarchy of disciplines

The emphasis on STEM subjects has also created a hierarchy in disciplines. Arnold Musungu, a postgraduate student of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Nairobi’s College of Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, said universities should address the stereotypes and fallacies that posit STEM courses as superior to humanities and social sciences.

“We have low enrolments because our Kenyan education system has set high admission requirements in terms of academic performance for STEM courses,” said Musungu, adding that a review of admission requirements for STEM courses is needed.

He said social science students feel inferior to STEM students because it is believed that STEM graduates stand a higher chance of getting jobs, especially in government. This, he said, discourages enrollments in the humanities and social sciences and if not addressed could lead to some students foregoing higher education.

Musungu said calls for students to pursue STEM courses and careers should be balanced with calls for more focus on the social sciences, liberal arts and humanities. “Africa should build an ecosystem of both social and applied or natural sciences research and academic environment, to turn things around," said Musungu.

He argued that such ecosystems could produce individuals who can innovate and find lasting solutions to problems facing Africa, such as climate change and disease burdens.

“It is prudent that African universities and higher education policy-makers innovate and work on mechanisms that integrate STEM with the social science and humanities. Scientists may become less important without ‘soft’ skills such as communication, sociology and leadership, which will help persuade people to adopt new technologies, for example. Therefore universities need to innovate and find ways that will ensure integration of STEM with the reality in the communities where people live,” said Musungu.