The STEM conundrum

Saturday, 1 August 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been roundly criticised for dismissing Arts subjects at A/Ls in preference for STEM subjects, but there are multiple reasons as to why this may be a problematic stance to take, and gainful employment is possible with humanities subjects.  

The majority of unemployed graduates in Sri Lanka are from the Arts stream, and as a result of this the subjects are often dismissed as requiring less effort, and those pursuing these subjects are often seen as unemployable or lazy. This is a blatantly unfair view to take. 

Arts subjects promote critical thinking, innovativeness, and abstract analysis that can equip students in a world where AI and automation are changing conventional employment so drastically that no one can even imagine what the jobs of the future will look like. There are also other reasons, such as the dearth of lucrative private sector jobs in the provinces, that drive people to public sector jobs, as well as attitudinal and social biases that dictate job preferences. 

Students are also hampered by a lack of resources. According to research carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in 2017, the lack of qualified and experienced teachers is particularly prevalent in the areas of Science and Mathematics. Though Sri Lanka has a surplus of teachers at the national level, IPS points out in its findings that there is a dearth in qualified and experienced teachers at both the national and sub-national levels, especially for the subjects of Mathematics, Science and English (in that order), in schools across the country.

Considering the Government is focused on improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education at the university level, it goes without saying that schoolchildren, particularly at the all-important O/L juncture, ought to receive a sound foundation in these field-relevant subjects if those students are to pursue higher studies in the STEM fields. Broader career guidance is often absent in schools, and children have limited choices in making career decisions.  

Any education reforms that may be on the cards must prioritise advanced teacher training, to provide well-rounded education opportunities for students.

The study also revealed that in 2015, 45% of students who sat for the O/Ls failed or only conditionally passed the exam, due to failing Mathematics. This is especially alarming given that passing O/Ls remains a prerequisite for most further education courses currently available in Sri Lanka, including the GCE Advanced Level.

Tertiary-level teacher training in Sri Lanka, experts point out, does not cater to the needs of the country’s education system, what with only two out of the 17 State universities housing Faculties of Education, and only three with their own Departments of Education. This is an area the Ministry of Education needs to look into when formulating plans for reform. Another problem that has plagued the public school system for decades is the disparity between ‘big’ schools and ‘small’ schools. 

Unsurprisingly, the study has shown that the lack of qualified teachers is particularly prevalent in the latter. The number of teachers in privileged schools, according to IPS, exceeds the number of recommended teachers, while underprivileged and low-achieving schools did not have enough teachers, leading to an inequitable allocation of teachers. 

Sri Lanka would be ill-served by just addressing the STEM shortage, and should instead focus on broad reforms that will update the entire education system and give students the option of studying what interests them.