Nicky Morgan’s STEM Dilemma

You are minister Nicky Morgan MP. You have reached the dizzying heights of the cabinet under a superficial pre-election ‘binders-full-of-women’ cosmetic reshuffle of not one but two ministerial government offices, and still almost no one knows or cares who you are. You eat your tuna-mayo sandwich alone on a Whitehall bench at lunch, uninterrupted by even the most informed of fracking protestors or disgruntled NHS nurses. They pass by, assuming you to be a civil servant or a SPAD. No one important. Not really.

Sometimes people almost mistake you for Lorraine Kelly. And in those initial glistening moments of grandiose public recognition, you almost let them.

And though you are minister for equalities, education and Not Being Michael Gove, you are disheartened that your largest and most prominent department (Education, most of us are surely not Michael Gove) has been tamed quicker than a Lib Dem. Sure, that’s what Big Dave brought you in to do. Quietly, away from view or scrutiny: like a new episode of The Simpsons.

But remember the grand old days of your Aberdonian predecessor, when the department of education was run like the Death Star? Those were good times. When everything even remotely linked to state schooling – teachers, children, curved walls, Harper Lee – were quick-moving targets in a hilarious game of verbal whack-a-mole. What you need are some fresh targets, some controversies: pick anything at all, so long as it leads to a fifty-two minute Twitter storm on a Tuesday morning. Give it your best shot.

“STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths] skills can help you succeed no matter what you choose to do,” wrote the Education Secretary, conjuring a dreamy utopian land where physicists design clothes and chemical engineers become poet laureates.

Not content with overstating STEM’s reach in the style of a JML thirty minute Wonder Mop advert, Morgan really stuck the boot in later, during a speech: “If you didn’t know what you wanted to do [at university]… then the arts and the humanities were what you chose because they were useful, we were told, for all kinds of jobs. We now know that this couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Please assume, dear reader, that the ‘we’ our beloved secretary refers to here is society as a whole, and not some secret grand council of Long Term Economic Planners, whose solemn duty is the delegation and herding of young minds into their appropriate government-assigned pens.

“Because the skills gained from studying [STEM] subjects will come in useful in almost any job you care to mention,” she continued, “from the creative and beauty industries to architecture.” Take THAT, historians.

There are several reasons why Morgan’s comments are alarming: least of which is her apparent belief that aspiring architects studying – of all things – architecture is a radical new wave of thinking.

The underlying implication Morgan’s comments perpetuate are an all-too-common notion that working class young people – and make no mistake, post-financial crash educational scaremongering is squarely aimed at working class young people – are not wrong to aspire per se, assuming of course that those aspirations remain confined to government-defined remits.

Morgan’s approach to higher education as a bought-and-sold commodity emits that familiar odious worship of markets above people without any attempt being made to understand how the two are interlinked. For all the throwback rhetoric of personal freedom and choice, modern Conservatives attempting to cut off working class access to certain professions are not much more than a disfigured mutation of their predecessors, who advocated social mobility as a centerpiece to the Conservative agenda. Can any parliamentarian declare themselves pro-competition whilst overtly dissuading young people from pursuing their personal interests and ambitions via arts and humanities degrees? These are, after all, key entry opportunities to careers in media or in culture.

Comedian and English Lit graduate Josie Long told the Independent that the Education Secretary’s comments would “silence creative voices”.

Long said, “Nicky Morgan’s comments betray an immense, ingrained snobbery. The message is clear: arts degrees are fine for those like us, but you lot should study more functional things.”

Benefit of the doubt generously given, it can be assumed that Nicky Morgan just wants to fill up those STEM jobs before our impending overseas overlords run the world. But such a move away from education as a form of enrichment and personal development towards treating universities like CV factories shrinks our collective capacity for brilliance and pushes students into lives of unenthused tediousness. No thank you, Nicky.

[Rhys Harper – @RhysRHarper]

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