There has been considerable discussion around the world in regard to changes to government funding of university STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
In response to changing workforce needs, the UK made the controversial decision in 2010 to increase funding for STEM subjects while cutting funding to others. Earlier this year, the New Zealand government made a similar decision, increasing funding for STEM. Fortunately, unlike in the UK, funding to non-STEM subjects in New Zealand was not cut below 2012 levels, but in the absence of a CPI increase for non-STEM subjects, in 2013 there will be financial pressure on the humanities, commerce and social sciences.
Although Otago does not have a school of engineering, we do have expertise in many engineering- and technology-related subjects (e.g., surveying, bioengineering, software engineering); some of these areas may benefit from new funding. Our extremely successful science programmes will also attract some additional funding under the STEM system. But the larger question is, does the government’s current emphasis on STEM funding come at some other, non-financial cost to New Zealand and the rest of the world?
As they earn their degrees, Otago students clearly acquire the skills they will need to succeed in their chosen profession, but they also learn other things that will help them to achieve their full potential as leaders in the local, national and international contexts in which they will ultimately work and live. What will a leader in the 21st century need to know in order to adapt and respond to the major challenges that are currently facing New Zealand and the rest of the world?
With respect to STEM subjects, in particular, it is no longer sufficient for students to simply acquire deep knowledge about science and technology. They must also understand the moral, financial and ecological impacts of new developments in these areas. Furthermore, Otago graduates have a scope of influence that extends well beyond their professional boundaries. As such, they will need to know enough about history, ethics and philosophy that they can contribute effectively to on-going debates about important social issues ranging from same-sex marriage to euthanasia. If they plan to live in New Zealand, our graduates will also need to know something about the Treaty of Waitangi and the way in which partnership is both expected and valued in this country. If they plan to live outside New Zealand, as many of our graduates do, they will need to understand something about the wider political pressures that shape the world. In short, it is not sufficient for a university graduate in any discipline, whether it involves a STEM subject or not, to simply master their core area of expertise. The world our graduates now enter requires interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary levels of expertise, as well as the necessity to think critically, evaluate evidence and solve complex problems. In that world, a narrowly-focussed education in any single discipline will limit, rather than enhance, employment and leadership opportunities.
As we move into this new funding environment at Otago, we will use the additional funding that is made available to our STEM subjects to continue to grow our capability in these areas, enhancing our ability to provide a world-class education in science and technology. We will also continue to translate our science and technology research into tangible, marketable products particularly in the areas where we have long-standing expertise. But, at the same time, we will jealously guard the other non-STEM subjects that we offer at Otago. When this University was founded in 1869, there were only four professors – between them, they taught mathematics, chemistry, philosophy and classics. From its inception, Otago recognised the importance of academic breadth. During these strained financial times, we recognise the government’s need for a bit of additional workforce planning, but that planning must also incorporate the broader value of a university education. In the pages that follow, you will have the opportunity to sample some of the valuable contributions by researchers across all four of our academic divisions. The impact of the breadth of education that we continue to offer at Otago is further reflected in stories about the success of our current students and distinguished alumni.
Professor Harlene Hayne, Vice-Chancellor, University of Otago