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Cutting the STEM of future skills: beyond the STEM vs art dichotomy in England

Heidi Ashton (corresponding author), ORCIDhttps://orcid.org/0000-0002-6964-6550 email:heidi.ashton@warwick.ac.uk
Centre for Culture and Media Policy Studies, Faculty of Arts Building, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL, UK


For the last decade education policy in England has been underpinned by a dichotomisation of education into STEM versus Arts. The rationale is that STEM graduates gain more lucrative employment via the desirability of the "STEM skills" which it is stated are increasingly in demand and imperative for economic prosperity. Through a literature review and analysis of policy documents and reports this paper examines evidence regarding the assumptions that are inherent in this claim. In doing so it reveals that the rationale for this approach is deeply flawed, particularly in relation to future skills needs. This raises questions not only for the current direction of policy but fundamentally the notion of STEM as a useful and meaningful acronym in this context. The evidence instead calls for an integrated, dynamic and strategic approach to education policy that fundamentally moves beyond the false dichotomy of STEM versus Arts.

Keywords: STEM, policy strategy, skills, education policies, rhetoric, future work

Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, Volume 22, Issue 2, April 2023, Pages 148-163, © The Author, 2023, Creative Commons License (CC BY 4.0), Article Reuse Guidelines, original DOI:10.1177/14740222231156893


Introduction and the english context

Over the last decade, in England, successive education policies, government reports, responses and media communications have persistently engaged in a dichotomous view of STEM versus Arts. That is to say that STEM is repeatedly presented as a "strategic priority" whilst the Arts is presented as a frivolous "nice to have" which is neither economically useful nor worthy of substantial public funding.

It is important to note first that both educational policy and cultural policy have been devolved to UK member countries since the late 1990s. Scotland and Wales have taken a strategic approach to education policy with over-arching policy narratives that emphasise inclusivity in economic growth, social inclusion, a reduction of inequality and long-term sustainability (Keep, 2019). Education strategies are underpinned by integrated systems and commissions to provide expert evidence and advice. England on the other hand is largely bereft of a strategic vision or relevant, coherent education strategies. Keep (ibid) argues that England now has market regulators such as Ofsted and OfS which have replaced expert commissions and advisory boards that can inform policy as part of a wider strategic direction. The "strategic priority" of STEM therefore is not part of a coherent strategic approach but an ideological belief that Arts are of little value and that people simply need to learn to fulfil the tasks required to perform a particular job. This approach was articulated in 2020 by the incumbent education secretary who stated, "We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job." (cited in Lothian-McLean, 2020). This is where we find the crux of the problem detailed in this paper.

The STEM versus Arts approach assumes that jobs in what are deemed "STEM occupations" command higher salaries - access to these jobs can only be achieved via HE qualifications in "STEM subjects" as these provide the requisite "STEM skills" and therefore these specific subjects are the most useful and cost effective in the context of publicly funded education in England. Allied to this is the assumption that there are insufficient graduates of STEM qualifications which are key to gaining "STEM skills".

This paper first looks at the origins of the STEM versus Arts rhetoric detailing the various ways in which it is constructed, enacted through policy and communicated directly. The narrative itself is deconstructed raising questions and seeking answers in respect of definitions and assumed linear connections. Finally, reports and research evidence relating to future skills is considered. It is argued that STEM v Arts is a false dichotomy that has led to a narrow, short-term approach with the potential for longer term damage to the needs of future citizens and employers.

Finding the root of STEM

STEM is an acronym often used in policy and education, the four letters representing Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. The origins are claimed by both the UK and USA. What both contexts have in common is the defining of these 4 terms as key areas that are linked to a high demand in well paid jobs but with a short supply of students taking related subjects at HE (higher education) level.

The emergence of STEM coincided with the introduction of the "Programme for International Student Assessment" (PISA) rankings. PISA is a worldwide study that is intended to evaluate national educational systems by measuring the scholastic performances of 15-year-old school students. It was developed and is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and uses big data to create national comparisons. The focus is on Reading, Mathematics and Science (PISA 2018). The first PISA study was launched in 1997 and first administered in 2000. The USA found itself somewhere in the middle of member countries but not significantly out-performing others. This prompted a report by the Institute of Medicine (2007) stating that the USA needed to act with urgency in order to stay ahead of other countries. The PISA scores prompted a fear that "Students in the United States are not keeping up with their counterparts in other countries." (Institute of Medicine, 2007: 30). Leading to an increased focus on testing pupils in "key STEM areas".

In the UK, there was a similar concern for the lack of perceived competitiveness in the rankings. This, combined with a lower uptake of these subjects at HE level, led the 2005 Higher Education Funding Council to label STEM subject areas "strategically important and vulnerable subjects (SIVS)" under the presiding labour government. The perceived threat to the provision of higher education in these areas was linked to the additional cost as these subjects often require labs, equipment and technical support, coupled with the falling demand for these subjects which it was feared might lead to diminishing provision. The extent to which there was an actual threat of diminishing provision at that time is unclear but the introduction of student fees in England in 1998 forced Universities to operate on a business basis and this contributed to a fear that supply-demand and cost-effective models of provision might ensue making these "key" STEM subjects less economically viable in a business based HE environment. Again, this prompted a strong focus upon "key" subject areas, despite pleas from within the government to take a more integrated approach that foregrounded creativity (Gross, 2020) and the higher PISA rankings of other nations that emphasise the importance of artistic and cultural education (such as Finland, see Strahle, 2017).

Prior to this period arts, culture and creativity were considered an important aspect of education for personal growth, social cohesion, inclusion and social and cultural participation. Following the Butler Act of 1944 which increased access to secondary education provision Art colleges emerged providing training and education for those not going on to University; these Art colleges particularly served the working classes, women and other marginalised groups. The schools were largely autonomous and free to generate their own curriculum culminating in a National Diploma in Design. These arts institutions combined craft and technical skill with high art amongst socially diverse student cohorts (Beck and Cornford, 2012). The people emerging from these institutions in the 1960s and 1970s had a significant impact upon British culture and the emergent creative industries through fashion, music, design and media.

The art schools have since been dismantled and subsumed into the "new universities" of the 1990s. This forced the Arts into a tight "academic" framework locked into costs as universities move from a funded approach with an ethos that education is a good in itself, to education as a business that serves the perceived needs of the economy. The monetarist ethos that is currently driving the narrative has superseded a narrative that education was good for society more generally.

In the latter years of the 1990s Chris Smith attempted to reinvigorate an ethos that foregrounded the Arts and creativity by stating the need to embed them in all areas of policy, stressing the importance of creativity, arts and culture for the future needs of economies and societies. This ethos however did not sufficiently persuade the government of the time and the focus on "key" subjects was the over-riding narrative and one that subsequent governments have pushed to the current dichotomous extreme. The current ideology of arts as unviable in economic terms is therefore a relatively recent albeit enduring phenomenon.

STEM versus the arts: Policy rhetoric and action

Whilst world educational rankings and the lower uptake of STEM at HE level may have been the catalyst for the increasing focus upon STEM, in England this translated into, and was actioned through policy; significantly through the introduction of the EBacc (English Baccalaureate). The EBacc was introduced in 2011 and is awarded when a student has gained at least 6 GCSEs at grade 4 or above in the following subjects: 2 sciences (including computer science), English, Maths, either History or Geography and a modern language (Department for Education (DfE), 2021).

This qualification primarily serves as a measure of school performances. Schools are measured on the percentage of pupils gaining the EBacc with a target of 75% of pupils in England achieving the EBacc by 2022 (DfE, 2021). The controversy surrounding the introduction of the EBacc was not only the use of the specified subjects to measure schools retrospectively but more controversial was the choice of subjects. The exclusion of the Arts, and the lack of consultation in selecting subjects for inclusion led to a House of Commons Inquiry. Evidence was presented and heard from a range of practitioners, researchers and experts who provided compelling rationales for the inclusion of the Arts for any qualification or measure of educational achievement and provision. The response from the government was that it had to make "difficult choices" in selecting subjects for inclusion (House of Commons Education Committee, 2011).

The practical implication of this policy is that publicly funded schools have been forced to divert diminishing resources towards subjects included in the measurement of EBacc attainment. A report by Ofqual (The Office of Qualifications and Examination Regulations) in 2020 highlighted a significant reduction in both the number of teachers and teaching hours for arts-based subjects in schools with increases seen in both of these resources in relation to EBacc subjects (Ofqual, 2020). The measurement and value attached to EBacc subjects in schools has in turn shaped wider discourses around the value attached to Arts subjects and qualifications more broadly. The EBacc has reduced opportunities for students to engage in creative subjects, and the Arts in particular, even prior to tertiary education. It has consequently been a very effective way of increasing the focus and resources onto "STEM" subjects and has secured the place of Arts subjects as being of lesser value.

The exclusion of the Arts from the EBacc continues to be contested but this has not discouraged further policy rhetoric and action that pitches the Arts against STEM in a fight for scarce resources. The justification for not including the arts in the EBacc was that they are not a "strategic priority". This comment has since been used as a justification for reducing funding for arts and media-based subjects at HE level (OfS, 2021: 17). This was most evident in a response from the Department for Education when challenged about the consequences of arts courses closing following the proposed cuts to the funding for these subjects at HE level in 2021.

"The reprioritisation [of funds] is designed to target taxpayers' money towards subjects that support the NHS, science, technology and engineering, and the specific needs of the labour market..." (cited in Weale, 2021).

As this statement was made during the pandemic with the exceptional and visible work and suffering of those working in the NHS (National Health Service) to support the country at that time, there is a clear positioning of the "value" of STEM versus Arts. This places the latter as being of little economic value or use to the taxpayer who ultimately provides the funding. It is also oxymoronic as the professions mentioned rely on creative subjects such as design, architecture, and allied health.

A more recent development in the post-16 education system is the introduction of T-levels and apprenticeships which are alternative vocational qualifications based on practice and industry engagement. However, the degree level apprenticeship scheme has had little success in the creative industries due to the high number of SMEs and reliance upon specialist freelance workers in the sector. Of the 23 T-levels created only "craft and design" and "media, broadcast and production" are related to art and creativity but these will not be available until 2023 (DfE, 2022). The Arts therefore are currently falling through a gap between academic "STEM" subjects on the one hand and "technical skills" on the other as it is not considered relevant to either and as such further devalued.

Alongside the rationale for cuts other government communications consistently positioned the Arts as peripheral and of low value or use. One example is the government's campaign to recruit young people into cyber. It featured images of people working in jobs deemed low skill with the slogan "rethink, reskill, reboot" suggesting that they could retrain in cyber. One such poster featured a professional ballet dancer with the same slogan which upon rerelease in 2020 was withdrawn from the campaign only after a significant backlash on social media.

In policy terms therefore, education is stated as an either STEM/or Arts provision rather than something that taxpayers expect to be holistically applied and inclusively available with opportunities for young people to develop their own talents - as is the case in the private education sector and elsewhere in Europe (Ashton and Ashton, 2022). The suggestion that this approach speaks to the "needs of the labour market" is addressed below.

Defining STEM

A key issue with the narrative is the lack of any coherent definition of STEM. We have seen how the acronym STEM is often used in policies concerning education even though the links to specific subjects is unclear, but the problem of definition is not confined to subjects in secondary education. The term "STEM" has been used to imply variously, a group of individual disciplines, a separate and integrated discipline, a set of skills, and a broad approach to productivity across a range of policy documents, industry documents and reports. This lack of clarity has not gone unnoticed, as Siekmann (2016) states; "While STEM is recognised as a key enabler for national skills, its various (and occasionally conflicting) meanings and excessive use render it increasingly meaningless" (p. 1).

In England, the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) use a standardised list to define STEM subjects at HE level known as the JACS list (HESA, 2022). A parliamentary report from 2012 found the JACS definitions to be problematic (Parliament uk, 2012). This led to a definition used in HE that is increasingly narrow and yet includes some subjects, such as architecture, that are considered creative or artistic subjects in other policy realms. There is an acknowledgement that different departments and industries outside of HE define the term in different ways making it impossible to develop a coherent approach across policy, industry, skills and education based upon this contested acronym.

There are also doubts about the existence of any shortage of students taking STEM subjects at HE level. In 2014 the Higher Education Funding Council (Hefce) recorded the highest number of students accepted to study STEM at HE level with a similar increase in student applications (Thomas, 2014). Similarly, in a recent study, Smith and White (2019) found no evidence of a shortage of STEM graduates with official statistics from HESA reporting an increase in enrolment in STEM related subjects between 2017 and 2019 (HESA, 2021).

STEM is in essence a simple list of four items which is used in policy terms to signify and simplify complex relationships between education, employment and productivity. This has led to a large degree of conjecture in the UK government's attempts to translate the term into meaningful policies relating to education, training, skills acquisition and labour market returns.

The rationale for STEM: Some problematic assumption about the link between STEM and labour market returns

The rationale for the focus upon STEM is the assumed economic advantage of STEM subjects juxtaposed to the lack of economic or market value of the Arts. As technology and engineering are not subjects in their own right, at secondary level the focus is upon those subjects that are deemed to provide the "skills" required for studying STEM at HE level. As noted above the selection of subjects for the EBacc was not part of any consultation or research and therefore the link between these particular subjects "skills in STEM" is highly questionable.

The ill-defined character of STEM subjects has also led to confusion in policy discourse with regards to what STEM means in terms of skills and employment. In 2015 a report by the UK Commission for Employment Skills (UKCES) provided a classification of STEM versus non-STEM occupations (Giles, 2015) which is determined by the extent to which "STEM skills" are required in a given occupational role. The result is a list of STEM and non-STEM occupations that are at times incongruous. For example, higher education teaching professionals are deemed to be in STEM occupations whilst further education teaching professionals are considered non-STEM in 2015 by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) despite the similarity in skills required for work in those roles. Given that many in HE teach non-STEM related subjects and consequently are unlikely to have a STEM based HE qualification the link between "STEM skills" gained via STEM qualifications as defined in HE and occupational status as STEM or non-STEM is methodologically flawed. The main issue here is the definition of "skill" which incorporates a circular rationale:

"STEM skills are widely accepted to be of critical importance to the future international competitiveness of the UK …. In particular, ensuring that businesses have access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills is critically important since these skills play a central role in developing innovative products and services that can be effectively positioned in world markets. Under this approach holding particular [STEM] qualifications is generally used as a proxy for 'skills'" (Giles, 2015)

In view of this confusion we turn to an examination of the problematic nature of the assumptions which inform this policy discourse. Because of the confusion of what constitutes STEM subjects in secondary education we look at the link between subjects studied at HE and subsequent earnings where more systematic research has been undertaken.

The economic link between STEM and the lower earnings of those who study the Creative Arts was highlighted by Britton et al., in 2016 (5 years after the EBacc was introduced), using a national data set. Summarising the results of their research into the link between subjects studied and subsequent earnings they state, "We find subjects like Medicine, Economics, Law, Maths and Business deliver substantial premiums over typical graduates, while disappointingly, Creative Arts delivers earnings which are roughly typical of non-graduates." (Britton et al., 2016: 1). Whilst two of these five areas are not considered STEM and many in higher occupations such as government ministers, CEOs and similar do not have STEM qualifications there are more fundamental problems with this statement. Much of the variation presented is accounted for by differences in the characteristics of students taking these options, which includes the disparity in access to arts and cultural education with those from the independent sector having greater access and therefore benefitting from the skills derived from that broader education regardless of the degree they choose. Similar, more comprehensive findings can be found in Britton et al. (2021). When it comes to STEM specifically, they found that for the lower earners (at the 20th percentile), the subject studied has little impact, it is at the top of the earning profile, the 90th percentile, that they found the variation by subject more evident. Furthermore, research by Smith and White (2019) found that the career trajectories of STEM graduates varied considerably stating that "most STEM graduates never work in highly skilled STEM jobs – in any case, the majority of professional STEM workers do not have (or presumably need) degrees" (p. 26). Thus questioning the very premise that STEM skills are developed only through STEM subjects at HE level.

On the other hand, there is also evidence that the earnings of Arts graduates has been significantly under-represented. The British Academy (BA) in 2020 for example finds that graduates of the arts, humanities and social sciences (AHSS) are more likely to climb the ladder and reach higher salary levels in the longer term. Similarly, with the creative industries providing economic growth during the last recessions when other industries were experiencing a downturn Bloom (2020) finds that "when controlling for demographic, attainment and work-related characteristics, there is no statistical difference in the effect on average earnings between studying a creative subject and studying biology, languages, or psychology." (p. 3). Furthermore, 75% of creative graduates work in architecture which is deemed STEM in some official definitions such as the JACS list used by HESA.

Beyond this there are many jobs outside of the creative industries and creative economy more broadly that require creative workers. The BA, 2020 study also found that AHSS graduates are more likely to build careers across a range of sectors, the evidence showing that they were more adept at cross-applying and translating skills across sectors than their STEM peers. The report finds that AHSS graduates underpin 8/10 of the fastest growing sectors and work across STEM and non-STEM occupations.

A further and significant issue with the linear STEM - earnings narrative is that there are a range of other factors that affect earnings, of which subject studied is only one. These include the university attended, level of parental income, level of achievement in education prior to entry to HE, name of university attended and region, all revealed by Britton et al.'s (2016) analysis. In addition, others such as Green et al. (2021) highlighted that the type of school attended, whether private or state, also has a significant impact on the earnings of graduates.

A final factor crucial in understanding differences in post HE earnings is the extent to which the occupations graduates enter are regulated. Thus, medicine and law are both highly regulated by strong and powerful professional associations. In the case of medicine this means that those who enter find themselves in a situation where their pay is so highly regulated that it is not affected by many of the factors that affect the pay of most graduates, such as type of school or university attended. On the other hand, those who enter the creative arts find themselves in occupations which are among the most de-regulated in the labour market, where competition is intense between individuals, where wage rates are subject to strong downward pressures and the percentage of freelance and self-employment is very high.

Finally, as implied above, we know from a long tradition of research into the transition from school to work that over the last four decades many young people move into and between jobs, the content of which have little relationship to the subjects they studied at school (see for example; Furlong and Cartmel, 1997; Furlong et al., 2011 for a full discussion). Given this well documented complexity of education to work transitions it is surprising that occupations and skills are split into binary opposites in studies and reports. Given the wealth of data available it is bizarre that this pernicious narrative has gained such popularity when it has no real basis in evidence. It is obviously an oversimplification but more significantly it does not assist in developing understanding and evidence that can support useful policy recommendations.

In summary, it is clear that the links between the types of subjects studied in educational systems and subsequent experience and pay secured in the labour market are complex and not fully understood. Part of this lack of understanding concerns the extent to which the skills acquired in education contribute to the individual's success once they enter the labour market. In some occupations such as engineering and medicine, the technical skills acquired in higher education are a pre-requisite for entry to the job. Yet once in the labour market there are numerous skills that are required to ensure continuing success in an era of labour market dynamism. It is to this question that we now turn.

Future skills and labour markets

The term "STEM skills" frequently found in official reports and policy documents is generally presented without definition. The term can, and is, used to cover knowledge, "competencies", physical skills, cognitive processes, behaviours, self-awareness or values. In a large part the demand for different skills derives from employment opportunities in the labour market and it is to an examination of this that we need to turn in order to realistically identify the type of current and future skills required by the economy.

In order to start on this task we need first to identify the underlying changes in the economy that are taking place in order to locate changes in the demands employers are making for the attributes they expect from employees. Perhaps the most fundamental change has been the decline of manufacturing industry and the growth of the service sector, with the latter generating a demand for relatively low skilled service occupations as well as knowledge intensive highly skilled professional occupations. The consequences of this is reflected in the report commissioned for the Department for Education "working futures" (Wilson et al., 2020) which examines long-run labour markets and skills projections for the UK. Unsurprisingly they found that employment in manufacturing was projected to see a continued decline, in line with the move from manufacturing to a "knowledge economy". The manufacturing sector included chemicals, chemical products, electronics and electronic equipment which are listed as STEM occupations, whilst business and "other services" (including the creative industries) are forecast to grow in both output and employment faster than the economy as a whole. These researchers also predicted that the supply of highly qualified people will grow faster than the demand for those qualifications. This is a finding which raises questions around the extent to which STEM degrees and qualifications are really indicative of future "skills" needs. Furthermore, research by Frenette and Tepper (2016) demonstrated how the transferability of skills gained through arts-based qualifications align with "boundaryless careers" that span both STEM and non-STEM employment.

Apart from changes in the types of occupations available these underlying changes in the economy and with it, ways of organising work, are also creating a demand for relatively new types of skills. For example, Binkley et al. (2012) found that new knowledge-based economies were characterised by modes of production within which "decentralised decision-making, information sharing, teamwork and innovation are key". This is in line with a whole range of evidence from employers such as the national employer skills survey which has uncovered a wide range of specific and generic gaps in skills, creating different challenges across various sectors. At a macro level, a lack of people and personal skills was reported across 66% of all occupations with a lack of time-management reported by 72% and a lack of leadership skills 57%, (Winterbotham et al., 2020).

Similarly, in 2017 Bakhshi et al. (2017) produced a report on the future of skills in relation to anticipated labour markets and employment in 2030. They found that "higher-order cognitive skills" such as originality, active learning and fluency of ideas would gain in importance across occupations, these skills are not restricted to any particular HE qualification or discipline. The report presented a surprising amount of existing research that points towards a greater role for "non-cognitive" skills such as social and leadership skills since the 1980s. Conversely, highly analytical jobs with a low social skill requirement decreased during the same time period. Similarly, a report by the National Research Council (2012) recommended that underlying policy definitions of skill should include "the full panoply of cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal competencies".

As automation is continuing to transform jobs and occupations, studies into the consequences of this process provide further insights into the future demand for skills.

Bakhshi et al. (2015), using data from the Office for national Statistics (ONS) in the UK and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in the USA, found that occupations in the creative industries are significantly more resilient to automation due to the high levels of creativity required. They estimate that 24% of UK jobs have a high probability of being creative across occupations that include education, management, computers, engineering and science in addition to arts and media that are more commonly attributed to creative skills. They conclude that economies with a large proportion of creative occupations may be more resilient to the labour market consequences of increased computerisation.

Given these broad changes in the economy and the skills they demand, we are now in a position to locate the role of the ill-defined STEM skills in economic growth. Overall, research suggests a strong probability that demand in education, legal, community service, arts and media occupations will rise above computer, engineering and science occupations. Collaborative, interpersonal, creativity and problem-solving skills were likely to be in demand with knowledge fields such as English language, administration, management, sociology, anthropology, the Arts, education and training strongly associated with growth occupations.

In summary the evidence points to three key developments: (1) The creative sectors and the creative economy more broadly is growing creating more jobs that require Arts training. (2) The skills that creative and Arts degrees develop such as problem solving, interpersonal skills, communication, creativity and collaboration are becoming more important to individuals in modern workplaces and dynamic labour markets. (3) The rapidly developing capabilities of AI and automation systems means that the skills developed through education in the Arts will be increasingly valuable to employers and the economy. This is of course in addition to the value of the Arts to society, social inclusion, sustainability and other areas of social life.

Responses to the STEM debate

The dominant policy response is informed by the belief that STEM education is the only route to economic success and the sole route to attain valuable skills. The term STEM and the assumptions now inherently associated with it, are pervasive and enduring across contexts. With an over-simplistic view of the relationship between academic study, skills at HE level and job requirements, a lack of any clear strategic direction overall, the marginalisation of the Arts and a lack of any definitions or consideration of skill formation, the public are left with the narrative of the false dichotomy espoused and the devalued role of Arts-based education.

There is a clear translation of policy actions that directly impacts the decisions of students and parents in relation to the perceived value and prospects of studying in the Arts. This is explicitly stated by UK policy makers. For example, in 2014 Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary made a speech in which she warned young people not to study Arts subjects as doing so would "hold them back for the rest of their lives" (Garner, 2014). There is little here to signal a change of focus or narrative.

What then are the alternatives? One proposed solution is to incorporate Arts into the STEM subjects. In academic literature and beyond there has been a consistent push to include the arts by changing the acronym from STEM to STEAM. There are a number of articles that support the idea and provide evidence for the role of arts in creating diverse skills (Welch, 2012; Perignat and Katz-Buonincontro, 2018; Allina, 2018 etc). Land (2013) makes a strong case for this inclusion suggesting that all subjects contribute to skill formation and together can foster both analytical and creative thinking. Based on the USA context she points to "a lack of creativity and innovation in recent graduates" concluding that STEM subjects are very effective at providing skill in executing tasks but "rarely foster curiosity and self-motivation" which she argues is a requirement for employers who need to innovate.

In a comprehensive and critical review of the STEAM literature, Colucci-Gray et al. (2019) point to the ambiguity and complexity in the uses and various philosophical foundations of the term STEAM and indeed the problems inherent in defining "Art". This complexity also interrogates the underlying philosophical approaches when operationalising the term in an educational setting. Thus, whilst incorporating the Arts through a STEAM approach can provide an opportunity to move away from an anthropocentric approach to learning, if the dominant philosophy underpinning policy is that education is only there to serve the economy as defined in a neoliberal and instrumental sense, the adoption of Arts within the STEM acronym will be of little consequence.

Rather than trying to incorporate the arts into STEM subjects, a more fruitful and potentially more productive solution is to incorporate the arts into education more generally. The idea that the Arts and creative education is as crucial for the economy as it is for social cohesion and developing self-esteem is not new. The "All our futures" report (a UK report by the National Advisory Committee of Creative and Cultural Education (NACCCE)) in 1999 evidenced that arts education is essential to promote inclusion and combat exclusion in a world of rapid change and diversity. It argued that existing education systems were appropriate for the post-war, industrial environment within which they were created but that this no longer equipped future citizens with the creative skills required for modern life and work.

In terms of quality of life, Frenette and Tepper (2016) found that workers with an arts-based education were more likely to be happy in their work and demonstrated comparatively high job satisfaction compared to those who studied STEM subjects. Arts-based graduates were also more likely to work for or create not-for-profit organisations or work within the 3rd sector suggesting that the focus on economic contribution in terms of income alone ignores the significant contribution made by the 3rd sector even though it may not appear in monetarist calculations of productivity.

Moving on from STEM and an instrumental model of education and skill

We have already seen that STEM graduates work in non-STEM occupations and visa versa, the evidence across sectors does not support the assumption that the STEM acronym is useful in gaining an understanding of future skill requirements. The BA report warns that following a "narrow and increasingly specialised curriculum" will leave us significantly behind other countries as more students are directed exclusively towards what is deemed STEM.

These dangers are echoed by STEM allocated organisations such as the Royal Academy of Engineering (Morgan and Kirby, 2016). They have called for the inclusion of arts in school curriculums and the English EBacc, voicing concern over the narrowing of the curriculum and highlighting the importance of art and design related subjects for the future of the engineering profession.

At a global level, Relly et al. (2021) in their recent report examining world skills in the "skills economy" found that "successful skills systems comprise networks of macro, meso, and micro level actors and organisations across local, national and international contexts" (p. 13). In this report the term STEM skills is not employed at all, suggesting perhaps a move away from the pervasive dominance of STEM skills of the past two decades.

In many respects these findings are aptly summarised by Hargreaves who notes:

"While the compelling need for creativity, care and compassion across the world has been growing, the greatest global educational trend of the past two decades ran completely contrary to it, driven by the promise of short-term results" (Hargreaves, 2016, 36 in Huddleston and Ashton, 2019)

The evidence overwhelmingly points to the need to move past this current rhetoric that centres around an ill-defined concept, instrumentalises it and then pitches it against other areas of education and in particular seeks to marginalise the Arts. Our brains do not function in a linear way and the implications of reducing opportunities to engage with creative subjects is potentially harmful not only to the economy but to the self and society more broadly.


Given the changes that are taking place in the economy and labour market there is clearly a need for education at all levels to embrace a more collaborate and creative approach with opportunities for integrated and interdisciplinary learning in order to develop the range of cognitive and social skills required in modern societies. Yet the STEM versus Arts approach continues to be pervasively and aggressively communicated. On examining the underlying assumptions and claims that are made in relation to the approach, no evidence has been found to support the STEM versus Arts rhetoric and action found in UK policy. Indeed, the evidence from STEM based organisations themselves, finds the skills gained through Arts education to be valuable for learning and skills development and the "narrowing of the curriculum" is a threat to the prosperity of the sector. The Arts are not the enemy of economic growth but neither is economic growth its only function. Arguments for the broader values of the arts are well articulated elsewhere (see Belfiore, 2015 for example) the point here is that the current rhetoric and trajectory is likely to cut the very skills that are needed to face challenges of the future, be they economic, social, environmental, technological or medical. Communication, collaboration, creativity, adaptability and learning are key.

Whilst the arguments for including arts within the acronym (STEAM) are well articulated, the STEM versus Arts rhetoric is so deeply entrenched that it would be difficult to embed it in a meaningful way and it could still be used to exclude other disciplines and associated learning. An argument that simply seeks to move arts onto the positive side of a false dichotomy or suggest that art is beneficial to academic subjects and therefore deserves consideration falls into the trap of engaging with this false, dichotomous narrative. The point here is not to dismiss STEM qualifications, or the potential for short-term gains for graduates motivated by earning potential, or the global need for people to study subjects currently denoted as STEM. The point here is that the acronym and the associated claims and assumptions used in policy are no longer useful as an approach to education at any level.

This paper argues for a fundamental shift in policy rhetoric and action beyond a relatively meaningless group of words towards a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the complex and web-like nature of processes and forces that shape the interactions between individuals, education, work and society. This requires a more relevant and integrated approach to learning. As Keep (2019) notes the current focus on market regulators as opposed to "expert intermediary bodies" that can advise on education and skills suggests that there is little in the way of infrastructure to support the paradigm shift that is required at this time. By employing a narrow and simplistic approach Westminster currently risks falling behind other UK countries and global economies by cutting the learning and skills that are at the base of future skill needs.

This evidence, in the UK and overseas, refutes a simplistic notion of STEM versus Art as a useful "strategic" approach to education. HE level STEM qualifications alone cannot provide the answer to the various skills challenges of the future. Rather the evidence points towards an integrated and interdisciplinary model of education as providing the strongest foundation for future skills needs for all aspects of life.

Declaration of conflicting interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Heidi Ashton ORCID


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Author biography

Heidi Ashton is associate professor in cultural and creative ecologies researching work, employment, skills, education and the intersection between practice, society and policy.

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