“By the time the fool has learned the game, the players have dispersed” – Ashanti Proverb
Competition fuels markets. Nigeria, the giant of Africa, is often seen as a leader in the race towards development. Why then does it lag in investment in science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM)?
A cynic would argue that it reflects a declining priority on education, and synonymously, STEM subjects. Let's look at some examples. The 2018 Budget, developed along the principles of the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) 2018 – 2020, proposes ₦606 billion for education, just 7% of a ₦8.6 trillion Federal Budget. For the Giant of Africa, this is atrocious, significantly smaller than its counterpart in population, Ethiopia, which devotes 24% of its budget to education. This prioritisation of education in their development agenda has positively impacted the sector, resulting in an increase of 15 million students from 2005/06 to 2014/15.
It is an open secret that a significant investment in STEM subjects is positively correlated with economic development. Experts have unremittingly pressed for the government to increase its commitment to developing STEM subjects, for its ability to enhance human capital enabling innovation and production of high-value products. This theory is also echoed by World Bank’s President Mr Jim Yong Kim, who stated in an annual World Bank Group meeting:
“The conversation we need to have with Nigeria, I think, is in many ways, related to the theme that I brought to the table just this past week which is, investment in human capital”.
As the world becomes more technology-driven, the government needs to ensure the labour market is technology-enabled. In OECD countries, over 95% of businesses have an online presence, highlighting the importance of digital skills in the global environment for businesses. Basic supply and demand theory tells us that due to the rising demand for STEM graduates and shortfall in supply, the economic value of this skill is high. Creating an environment where young students can engage with STEM subjects expands the supply of STEM graduates, which then increases the human capital of individuals as they can fulfil the demand of the global market. Simple economics, or so it would seem.
Nigeria also falls short in research & development (R&D). According to UNESCO, South Africa devotes 0.73% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to R&D. As for the Giant of Africa, it devotes just 0.22% of GDP. It is no surprise then that South Africa has a higher rate of technology patents and academic publications produced in the country. Needless to say, STEM investment is essential in reinforcing long-term development and innovation. Will Nigeria catch up?
The private sector offers some hope. Members of the Agbami initiative have invested over ₦8.4 billion in the Agbami Medical and Engineering Scholarship (AMEPS) and have spent ₦2.5 billion on education infrastructure support since 2008. Financial support of this kind has been praised for providing students with the opportunity to study STEM subjects and helping equip the next generation. Then again, the reach and impact of such schemes are limited.
Public-private partnerships can come in here. The government could subsidise apprenticeships in STEM-related firms, allowing the private sector to groom domestic talent. A substantial increase in government-funded apprenticeships in the United Kingdom resulted in a 42% increase in the number of students undertaking apprenticeships in STEM-related sectors. If implemented properly, an increase in regional private sector efforts in Nigeria can lead to more tailored outcomes for each region, which might have varying development needs dependent on its regional skill gap and pre-existing STEM sectors.
Looking at the bigger picture, it could be argued that although investment in STEM could prove quite tricky looking at Nigerian current economic climate (inflation, high unemployment and an oil crisis), more effort should be given to its education policies. For example, inspiration can be taken from Norway's cost-effective education policy which increased hours of mathematics instruction at primary level. If adopted in Nigeria, the impact of this policy is dependent on the quality of its implementation, as increasing the hours of STEM subjects implies more hours of teaching, which means more cost for schools. It is advisable for the government to make sure that they have focus groups with various states to ensure that the policy is feasible. Better yet, they ought to engage with each state to figure out the best approach.
STEM investment can foster development as it enables the creation of new jobs and industries, which in turn increases the economy’s GDP as STEM empowers the country to compete globally based on high-value technological goods. Nonetheless, the greatest benefit can be seen in its ability to foster scientific breakthroughs to solve challenges that persist within the society. This is evident in the case study shown in South Africa, which witnessed both an expansion in technological innovation and scientific research based on the premise of STEM investments.
It is important for the government to view STEM investment as a priority lest it falls further behind in a technologically-driven world. If not, Nigeria risks looking like the fool that turns up to the game in high spirits having learnt the rules, only to find that all the players have moved on.