The future for STEM in Europe

[Shutterstock]

As Europe reels from the aftereffects of the coronavirus crisis, talk in Brussels is moving towards how the bloc can retain the momentum garnered from the deployment of innovative digital tools.

In the education sector, with European educational establishments being closed since mid-March, students have taken to the digital domain as a means of preserving a sense of normality amid the crisis.

In terms of the subjects students in Europe however are studying, there however remains a deficit when compared with other nations all around the world in terms of Skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. And while there is a general shortfall across these subject areas, there are disproportionately fewer women, for example, who decide to pursue a career in STEM fields.

This policy brief examines the recent actions that the EU is looking to foster and encourage a greater uptake in STEM subjects across educational establishments on the bloc.

Over recent years, the importance of education across the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics has become more prominent due principally to industry trends and, by extension, the weight of these subjects in the job market. Moreover, an approach has emerged which attempts to harmonize teaching across STEM subjects and focus on their interdependency, rather than treat them distinct fields.   

While devising school curricula is a member state competence in the European Union, in 2020, the European Commission will put forward several actions devised to foster an uptake in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects, these include the revised European Skills Agenda, the Youth Employment Support Package, and the Digital Education Action plan, details of which are outlined in this policy brief.

This has long been a concern of the European Commission, which has consistently produced data explicating the shortfalls in this respect. Most recently, the executive’s Digital Economy and Society Index demonstrated that in terms of digital skills specifically, Europe’s population is at a disproportionate disadvantage when analyzing the bloc’s use and deployment of technologies, against the percentage of the population with skills in this field. 

Moreover, the Commission also recently published its innovation scoreboard, which found that particularly innovation-friendly environments in terms of human resources were well supported by a commitment to educational initiatives at the tertiary level.  

Along this axis, one principal observation of the 2020 DESI report was that although 85% of European citizens have used the internet in some form in 2019, only 58% of the population possesses basic digital skills. The recent figures also demonstrated the divergence between member states themselves, with Finland leading the way in terms of ‘human capital’ for digital skills, followed by Sweden, Estonia, and the Netherlands. At the bottom of the table were Italy, Romania, and Bulgaria.

One challenging area that has consistently arisen in terms of the extension of STEM skills in Europe, has been fostering women’s involvement in these fields.

GENDER

2019 data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics revealed that less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and that there have been a series of indicators impacting women’s decisions to pursue a career in STEM fields, including the fact that  in this field, women “are paid less for their research and do not progress as far as men in their careers.”

Research compiled by UNESCO states that in Central and Eastern Europe in 2016, 39.3% of researchers across these fields were female, while in Western Europe the figure was 32.7%.

With such realities in mind, a report produced for the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality in April noted that positive trends in Europe include the fact that there has been an annual mean increase of 2.9% between 2013 and 2017 for women obtaining posts as scientists and engineers. In further promising figures, in terms of ‘knowledge-intensive’ work, the proportion of women outsights that of men by around 15%.

Despite these figures, however, the general picture in Europe for women in STEM fields is gloomy. Particularly when analyzed through the lens of females in ICT careers, which remains below 2% of women’s total share in the European labour market.

In terms of qualitative data, the report highlights that women are just as motivated as men to pursue careers in STEM fields, should they not be discouraged by systemic gender bias. The benefits for companies of employing more women across different levels has also been broadly highlighted for improving the potential for innovation, team performances, and business prospects. Despite such advantages, there is a particular lack of women across upper-level positions and board posts, and many workplace protocols are not flexible enough for women to pursue an ambitious career in the STEM domain while also supporting their families.

Meanwhile, additional figures from Eurostat show that there have long been divergences in the subjects taken up by males and females. 2014 figures showed that women had predominantly graduated from subjects associated with health, welfare, humanities, the arts, social sciences, business, and law, while men dominated fields including technology, science, maths, engineering, manufacturing, and construction.  

There have also been those keen to make the business case for great female involvement in STEM subjects. Research conducted by the European Institute for Gender Studies (EIGS) states that increasing the participation of women in STEM subjects is likely to have a strong positive GDP impact at EU level.

The institute notes that “closing the gender gap in STEM would contribute to an increase in EU GDP per capita by 2.2 to 3.0% in 2050.” In monetary terms, closing the STEM gap leads to an improvement in GDP by €610 – €820 billion in 2050.”

Meanwhile, cutting down on gender gaps in STEM education, EIGS finds, would help to raise employment in the EU from 850,000 to 1,200,000 by 2050.

“The new jobs are likely to be highly productive because women graduating from STEM often progress into high value-added positions in sectors such as information and communication or financial and business services,” EIGS note, adding that higher productivity of STEM jobs could well result in higher wages and perhaps lead to finally closing the pay gap between men and women.

In addition, the executive’s Digital strategy published earlier this year highlights the priority of ensuring women have more ‘rewarding careers’ in the tech sector, and that the industry should actively and fairly ensure that women are able to participate in the bloc’s digital transition.

“More women can and must have rewarding careers in tech, and European tech needs to benefit from women’s skills and competences,” the strategy states. “The digital transition must be fair and just and encourage women to fully take part.”

The Commission also holds its EU Prize for Women Innovators, an award that recognizes women working on innovative solutions to modern problems, as well as having previously embarked on the Girls 4 STEM in Europe initiative, which sought ‘to promote and teach Science, Engineering, Technology and Maths subjects (STEM) to girls in attractive and engaging ways.’

 

GLOBAL CONTEXT

In the past decade, the United States has shown itself to be a leader in this field, after having previously recognised under the Obama Administration, a shortfall in those pursuing a career across STEM fields. In 2009, Obama put forward his ‘Educate to Innovate’ program, with a view to foster interest in STEM subjects for young students.

In addition, another global power, China, has been recognized as making progress in the fostering of STEM education, particularly in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which has highlighted the necessity of building up capacities in their areas as a means of ensuring long-term resilience in the job market. With geopolitical tensions rising between China and the West, student flows from China to Western countries are currently in decline, and “the return of Chinese scholars to China is expected to rise further,” according to Marijk van der Wende, professor of higher education at Utrecht University.  

“Before the pandemic, it was clear global flows had been shifting eastwards, and China was gaining influence as a global scientific power especially in the so-called STEM fields,” she noted as a recent online panel. “These trends are being enhanced due to the crisis.”

For China, the coronavirus may prove to be a further accelerator in their pursuance of STEM graduates. World Economic Forum figures from 2016 found that China had 4.7 million recent STEM graduates. In second place was India, with 2,6 million STEM graduates. 

 

POLICY SOLUTIONS

In 2020, the European Commission will pursue several policy initiatives in order to foster the EU’s landscape for STEM skills. These include the European Skills Agenda, the Youth Employment Support Package, and the

At the beginning of July, the executive presented its Youth Employment Support Package alongside its European Skills Agenda.

In terms of the latter, the skills agenda introduces twelve actions that the Commission hopes to coordinate with member states, industry groups, and social partners to ‘place skills at the heart of the EU policy agenda,’ as a means of charting recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Generally, such actions include fostering skills to support the green and digital transitions, increasing graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects, and introducing a new Europass platform.

Specifically, in terms of STEM, Action 7 of the plan focusses on Increasing STEM graduates and fostering entrepreneurial and transversal skills. In a breakdown of how this action could be achieved, the Commission identifies three pathways within this objective. Such includes increasing STEM graduates in the EU, which will be achieved by promoting the attractiveness of STEM studies and careers, helping to address the shortage of STEM teachers, fostering science education in research and innovation actions, and promoting an integrated framework and learning continuum inter alia between secondary and higher education systems.

Moreover, the executive plans to boost entrepreneurial skills in the STEM field, by launching a ‘European Action on Entrepreneurship Skills, focussing on the development of entrepreneurial mindsets and a more resilient workforce.’ Further to this, as a means to promote transversal skills across the STEM domain, the Commission will present ‘a strategic framework for the recognition of transversal skills to support validation practitioners in Europe.’  

More generally, as part of the Commission’s Skills Agenda presented in July, a series of objectives have been outlined as a means of meeting the actions laid out in the plan. One such goal relevant to the STEM field is the objective of ensuring that 70% of the EU adult population has basic digital skills by 2025.

In terms of the Youth Employment Support Package, which the Commission also presented in July, the Commission wants to earmark €22 billion from its proposed recovery fund and revised multiannual financial framework, to be spent on youth employment support.

Specifically, the Commission would like to see such an outlay go towards ‘start-up grants and loans for young entrepreneurs, mentoring schemes and business incubators, bonuses for SMEs hiring apprentices, training sessions to acquire new skills needed on the labour market, capacity-building of public employment services, career management training in formal education, and investments in digital learning infrastructure and technology.’

Meanwhile, the Commission is planning to introduce a revised Digital Education Action Plan this autumn, which it says will ‘apply the lessons learned from the crisis and set out a long-term vision for the digital transformation of education & training in the EU.’

This marks a contextual departure from the previous Digital Education Plan for the EU, which ran from 2018 to 2020, and presented measures to help member states and education and training institutions to ‘reap the opportunities and meet the challenges presented by the digital age,’ be introducing 11 actions across three priorities including Making better use of digital technology for teaching and learning, developing digital competences and skills, and improving education through better data analysis and foresight.

Building on from the 2018 plans, a public consultation on a new Digital Education Action plan was opened on 18 June 2020 and is ongoing until 4 September 2020. 

The consultation seeks to gather the views of citizens, institutions, and organizations on their experiences and expectations during the COVID-19 crisis (both to-date and in the recovery period), as well as their visions for the future of digital education.

The European Commission has long recognized the importance of fostering talent across Europe’s STEM landscape. On the issue of encouraging women into taking up careers in such areas, the EU Commissioner for Research and Innovation Mariya Gabriel, said recently that women continue to face structural and systemic obstacles in obtaining a position in the tech industries.

“Europe is not only losing our talent and our diversity, women-led companies are in better positions to understand female customers, who influence 85% of consumer decisions globally,” Gabriel has said.

Specifically, Gabriel has also noted how Europe should look to “intervene” in the period between secondary school and university, where she believes many young women are diverging from the path of gaining skills that equip them for life in Europe’s digital sector, and that even if they do gain a foothold in the industry, they are held back from charting out a clear career path.

“The growth of women in tech careers is being held back,” she said. “More than 5% of women over 35 in the tech sector remain in junior level positions.”

Industries themselves have also noted the importance of fostering more female involvement in STEM. Director-General DIGITALEUROPE, Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, has attempted to make the business case for having women employed in management-level roles.

“The higher you get, the fewer women there are,” she said. “It’s even a good business case to have a diverse management team. It’s a shame not to use all the talents we have.”

For their part, the European Parliament has also attempted to raise the issue on the lack of women in STEM roles up the agenda in Brussels. A 2019 initiative report, entitled, Promoting gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers, led by Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, aims to redress the gender imbalance at play in the STEM field. The initiative is currently waiting to be adopted by the lead committee. 

More generally, across different sectors, there has also been a concerted effort to encourage an uptake of STEM subjects from an early age. For their part, energy firm Equinor has introduced initiatives including the Teach First Norway project and the Young Imagineers competition, as a means to boost the relevance and importance of STEM subjects for young people.

In the European Parliament, the importance of STEM has been highlighted consistently. Bulgarian EPP MEP Eva Maydell believes the broad teaching of subjects across the EU yields man benefits. In her home country, she has co-founded Education Bulgaria 2030, a platform that aims to analyze and respond to the challenges the education system faces in the country.

“The latest project we are involved in is with the Ministry of Education, on developing Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) environment at schools,” she told EURACTIV.

“We see a great interest from teachers and headmasters to get on board and be active because they saw just how easy it is to implement remote online learning.”

Maydell also believes that the wider benefits of the EU single market, such as the freedom to live and work in any member state, are dependent on the uptake of digital solutions at an equal rate across the continent.

“Bridging the digital divide for me means making sure that every company or organization has access to digital solutions and can participate in the digital economy,” she said.

In terms of the Digital Education Action Plan, EURACTIV caught up with MEP Victor Negrescu, who is the rapporteur for the file, to talk about why this issue has risen to the top of the EU agenda.

“The big challenge is matching qualifications with actual labour market needs. The current Skills Agenda mentions a concept which sounds pretentious, but describes a real necessity – “skills intelligence”, that is understanding the current trends in demands for jobs and skills,” he said.

“There are skills shortages in many economic sectors, both traditional (like construction) and new, and we need to build cooperation networks to address them – including education institutions, companies, trade unions.”

“Digital skills are needed in many fields and occupations now, in farming as well as in business start-ups, in healthcare as well as in e-government or cultural heritage protection.”

For the Digital Education Action Plan itself, which the Commission will present in September, Commission Vice-President Margaritas Schinas has noted that it will build upon the importance of the uptake of digital tools that has taken place during the coronavirus pandemic. Schinas said recently that the intention with the Digital Education Action plan is to: “harvest the new interest in digital skills that was so reinforced during the pandemic.”

Digital Education Action Plan

June 2020: Commission opens public consultation.

June 2020: EU Education Ministers discuss priorities in this field.

September 2020: Commission presents proposals and Parliament commences institutional procedure. The lead committee is the Culture committee.

European Skills Agenda

January 2020: Commission outlines, as part of the fifth priority, ‘Promoting our European Way of Life’, its intention to launch a non-legislative initiative on a European Skills Agenda.

July 2020: College of Commissioners adopts its European Skills Agenda.

Youth Employment Support Package

July 2020: College of Commissioners adopts its Youth Employment Support Package.

European Commission New Skills Agenda 2020:https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_1196

European Commission Skills Agenda Communication: https://www.euractiv.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/07/Communication_30June_v2.pdf

European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the Digital Education Action Plan.

Digital Education Action Plan (2018-2020), European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/education/education-in-the-eu/digital-education-action-plan_en

Public consultation launched on the new Digital Education Action Plan, European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/education/news/public-consultation-new-digital-education-action-plan_en

Does the EU need more STEM graduates? European Commission report, 2015: https://www.euractiv.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/07/Does-the-EU-need-more-STEM-graduates.pdf

Youth Employment Support Package Communication, European Commission, July 2020: https://www.euractiv.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/07/COMM_1_EN_ACT_part1_v5.pdf

Digital Education Action Plan (2018-2020), European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/education/education-in-the-eu/digital-education-action-plan_en

Public consultation launched on the new Digital Education Action Plan, European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/education/news/public-consultation-new-digital-education-action-plan_en

Council of the European Union, Video conference of ministers of education, 23 June 2020

European Commission, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, Commission Work Programme 2020, A Union that strives for more.

European Commission, European Commission launches a public consultation on a new Digital Education Action Plan.

Council of the European Union, Artificial Intelligence in education and training, presidency discussion paper.

Gabriel: Women ‘continue to face obstacles’ in tech sector, EURACTIV: https://www.euractiv.com/section/digital/news/gabriel-women-continue-to-face-obstacles-in-tech-sector/

EU Prize for Women Innovators, European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/info/research-and-innovation/funding/funding-opportunities/prizes/eu-prize-women-innovators_en

Girls 4 STEM in Europe, European Commission: http://www.europeannetforinclusion.org/opportunity/pilot-project-girls-4-stem-europe

Parliament Initiative Report, Promoting gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and careers: https://oeil.secure.europarl.europa.eu/oeil/popups/ficheprocedure.do?lang=en&reference=2019/2164(INI)

Parliament FEMM Committee Study, Education and employment of women in science, technology and the digital economy, including AI and its influence on gender equality: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2020/651042/IPOL_STU(2020)651042_EN.pdf

Women in Science, Unesco Report 2019. http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/women-science

Economic benefits of Gender Equality in the EU. European Institute of Gender Equality Report: https://eige.europa.eu/gender-mainstreaming/policy-areas/economic-and-financial-affairs/economic-benefits-gender-equality

World Economic Forum, Measuring Human Capital Report 2016: http://reports.weforum.org/human-capital-report-2016/measuring-human-capital/?doing_wp_cron=1486038808.8636078834533691406250

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe
Contribute