06.10.2018 - Natural Sciences Sector

Report explores efforts to match skills with market needs

© Marcelo Rodriguez / Shutterstock.com.

Their level of development may vary but, as the UNESCO Science Report demonstrates, countries everywhere are searching for that special formula which will give youth the skills they need to take the economy into the 21st century. Faced with the spectre of a skills shortage, many are fostering public-private partnerships and internationalizing education to fill the gap.

Switzerland tops Europe’s innovation scoreboard. It spends what the European Union (EU) considers an ideal proportion of GDP on research and development (R&D), 3% in 2013, almost two-thirds of which comes from industry.

However, a strong commitment to R&D alone does not explain Switzerland’s strong performance in innovation. The country also has a highly trained labour force, with more than half of the working-age population being qualified for demanding jobs in science and engineering. As the UNESCO Science Report points out, ‘this results less from having a high percentage of people with university degrees – Switzerland doesn’t particularly shine in this regard – than from having a labour force that has obtained the requisite qualifications through other means’.

How does it manage this? The Swiss system has two key characteristics: an excellent vocational curriculum provided through apprenticeships and universities that specialize in applied research and vocational training and, secondly, the hiring of top professionals from abroad. With a population of just 5 million, Switzerland is the world’s seventh-top destination for PhD students in science and engineering: one in three of its doctorate-holders were born elsewhere and close to half of research personnel in the private sector are non-Swiss.

A sense of urgency in many countries

If Switzerland seems to have hit on the right formula, elsewhere, a sense of urgency has been injected into the national debate on how to provide the requisite skills for the 21st century. In Canada, a drop in performance in higher education rankings has set off warning bells; in Malaysia and Brazil, the alert has taken the form of a poor performance in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

In 2012, Canada had only half as many doctoral graduates per 100,000 inhabitants as Switzerland. Two years later, Canada ranked first in the world for primary school enrolment, 23rd for secondary school enrolment but only 45th for post-secondary enrolment. Just 11.5% of personnel employed in science and technology work in the manufacturing sector, one of the lowest proportions among OECD countries. Public investment in R&D in the higher education sector had shrunk to 0.65% of GDP by 2013. For the UNESCO Science Report, there is a ‘lack of a strong national agenda for talent and science education when it comes to orchestrating skills, education and training for the 21st century’.

Canada does better when it comes to attracting international PhD students in science and engineering. It ranked fifth worldwide in 2012, the year an expert panel recommended doubling the number of international students in Canada to 450,000 by 2022 and creating opportunities for 50,000 Canadian students to go abroad for study and cultural exchanges.

In the 2012 PISA exams, just one in 100 Malaysians could solve complex problems, compared to one in five in Singapore, the Republic of Korea and Japan. Malaysia has responded to the challenge by introducing an education blueprint (2013–2025) which seeks to upscale quality learning by leveraging information and communication technologies (ICTs) and to improve the Ministry of Education’s delivery capabilities through partnerships with the private sector. A central goal is to promote creativity, risk-taking and problem-solving, fields where Malaysian pupils perform poorly.

Malaysia is also attempting to attract more international students. It aims to host 200,000 international students by 2020. By 2012, it already ranked seventh ex aequo with Japan for the number of PhD students in science and engineering enrolled in its universities. The UNESCO Science Report recommends that the Malaysian government encourage citizens to pursue tertiary education at world’s leading research-based universities. It also advocates upgrading the academic qualifications of university teachers, strengthening scientific links between Malaysian and foreign universities and turning science and technology parks into launch pads for innovative start-ups.

In the 2012 PISA exams, the average 15-year old Brazilian scored roughly one standard deviation (100 points) below the OECD average in mathematics, despite Brazilian youth having recorded the biggest gains in mathematics of any country between 2003 and 2012. Brazilian teenagers also scored relatively poorly in reading and science.

Brazil, too, has invested generously in a programme to send university students abroad and attract young researchers. Between 2011 and 2014, Science without Borders sent more than 70,000 students abroad and paid for Brazilian researchers employed by private companies to undergo specialized training abroad. The programme was not extended, however, after Brazil fell into recession in 2014.

At a time when Brazilian labour productivity is stagnating, the UNESCO Science Report observes that it is ‘of strategic importance for Brazil to raise the educational level of the average adult’. This is because greater capital investment and new technologies will be required to raise labour productivity – and it will take a skilled labour force to develop and incorporate these new technologies.

In 2012, a study by Hanushek and Woessmann found that it was not the number of formal years of education that mattered for economic growth but, rather, how well that education had developed the requisite skills. In 2011, the Brazilian government launched Pronatec for technical and vocational education. According to government data, 8 million people had benefited from the programme by 2015.

Quality is not the only aspect of basic education that should be attracting the attention of Brazilian policy-makers, the report cautions. The number of secondary-school graduates has stagnated since the early 2000s at about 1.8 million a year, despite efforts to expand access. This means that only half of the target population is graduating from secondary school, a trend which limits the further expansion of higher education. Many of the 2.7 million students admitted to university in 2013 were older people coming back to study for a degree, a source of demand that is unlikely to evolve much further.

Even the relatively small fraction of the population that is able to complete a university degree (about 15% of the young adult population in 2013) is not developing high-level skills and content-related knowledge, as evidenced by the results of the National System of Assessment of Higher Education.

Faced with a low level of innovation, other countries have developed internships at home and abroad. In the Russian Federation, for instance, the mismatch between professional training programmes and market needs ‘ is reflected not only in the composition of educational programmes, graduate specializations and diplomas but also in the relatively small scale and low level of applied research, experimental development and innovation performed by universities’, states the report.

The Presidential Programme for Advanced Training of Engineers adopted in 2012 offers internships at home and abroad, with emphasis on strategic industries. Between 2012 and 2014, the programme enabled 16 600 Russian engineers to obtain higher qualifications and 2 100 to train abroad. The ‘customers’ of this programme were the 1 361 industrial companies which seized this opportunity to develop their long-term partnerships with tertiary institutions.

Catering to gifted pupils

Like Malaysia, Kazakhstan is bent on developing pupils’ creativity, risk-taking and problem-solving skills. Kazakhstan’s 20 or so elite secondary schools foster critical thinking, autonomous research and a deep analysis of information. These Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, as they are known, supply most of the students for Nazarbayev University, an international research university founded by the president in 2009 which provides free undergraduate courses.

It is the university’s partner, University College London, which selects pupils on the basis of merit for the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools then later, for the university. Although students may apply directly for undergraduate programmes, most choose first to complete a one-year programme at the Centre for Preparatory Studies run by University College London.

The government is determined for all of the country’s secondary schools to be of the same quality as the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools by the end of the State Programme for Educational Development in 2020.

The shortage of both skilled and unskilled labour remains a chronic problem for Thai businesses. A pilot programme was initiated in 2008 to establish science-based schools for gifted pupils with a creative streak and a bent for technology. Teaching and learning are project-based, the long-term aim being to help pupils specialize in different fields of technology. Five schools have since been established within this programme: the Science-based Technology Vocational College (Chonburi) in central Thailand; Lamphun College of Agriculture and Technology in the north (agricultural biotechnology); Suranaree College in the northeast (science-based industrial technology); Singburi Vocational College (food technology); and Phang-nga Technical College in the south (innovation in tourism).

Founded in 2010, the Caribbean Science Foundation had initially planned to focus on strengthening university–industry linkages. However, it soon realized that economies in the Caribbean Common Market (Caricom) remained primarily mercantile, with most companies having no research budget at all. Acknowledging that it would take time to develop an innovation culture in the region, the foundation changed tack. It decided to focus on education. Its Student Programme for Innovation in Science and Engineering (SPISE) runs an intensive annual four-week summer school for gifted Caribbean secondary school pupils with an interest in science and engineering.

A second programme, the Sagicor Visionaries Challenge, is sponsored jointly by the foundation and two other partners, Sagicor Life Inc., a Caribbean company offering financial services, and the Caribbean Examinations Council. This programme runs stimulating workshops in secondary schools for pupils and their teachers to brainstorm ideas for innovation and ways of improving the teaching of science subjects and mathematics. The aim is to encourage pupils to develop effective, innovative and sustainable solutions to the challenges they face. The scheme includes mentorship and competitions.

Using public–private partnerships to develop technical skills and innovation

Sagicor Life Inc. is not the only company that has developed a partnership to tackle the skills shortage. In Armenia, the Enterprise Incubator Foundation runs a project with Microsoft called the Microsoft Innovation Center. The project offers training, resources and infrastructure, as well as access to a global expert community. The Enterprise Incubator Foundation was established jointly by the government and the World Bank in 2002. It acts as a ‘one-stop agency’ for the sector of information and communication technology (ICT), including education reform and labour force development.

The Enterprise Incubator Foundation also runs a Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Programme to help technical specialists bring innovative products to market and create new ventures, while encouraging partnerships with established companies. Each year, the Foundation organizes the Business Partnership Grant Competition and Venture Conference. In 2014, five winning teams received grants for their projects of either US$7 500 or US$15 000. The Foundation also runs technology entrepreneurship workshops, which offer awards for promising business ideas.

Developing countries that host multinationals can ‘draw on the knowledge and skills embedded in the activities of large foreign firms, in order to develop the same level of professionalism among local suppliers and firms’, observes the UNESCO Science Report. ‘By encouraging foreign high-tech manufacturers to run training programmes in the host country, governments will also be drawing manufacturers into national training strategies, with positive spin-offs for both producers and suppliers’.

The many foreign multinational firms implanted in Malaysia tend to be engaged in more sophisticated R&D than national firms. They are currently heavily dependent on their parent and subsidiary firms based outside Malaysia for personnel, owing to the lack of qualified human capital within Malaysia to call upon.

To develop talent and satisfy the research needs of the electrical and electronics industries, which employ nearly 5,000 research scientists and engineers in Malaysia, a group of ten multinationals established a platform in 2012 to promote collaborative research among industry, academia and the government. Agilent Technologies, Intel, Motorola Solutions, Silterra and six other multinationals have utilized government research grants extensively since 2005 when the government decided to extend these grants to beneficiaries beyond domestic firms.

In the USA, meanwhile, concern among company executives focuses on how to fill research positions after the retirement of the ‘baby boomers’, those born between 1946 and 1964 in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Launched in December 2014, the American Apprenticeship Grants competition encourages public–private partnerships between employers, business associations, labour organizations, community colleges, local and state governments and NGOs to develop high-quality apprenticeship programmes in strategic areas, such as advanced manufacturing, information technology, business services and health care. The programme was entrusted to the Department of Labor with an investment of US$ 100 million.

The business of corporate universities

Over the past two decades, top companies such as Cisco, Mastercard, Motorola, Toyota and Tenaris have been creating their own corporate universities to attract and retain talented scientists and engineers.

Tenaris ceated the first corporate university in Latin America in 2005. This Argentinian company manufactures seamless steel pipes for the world’s oil and gas industry, with facilities in nine countries that employ over 27 000 people: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Romania and the USA.

Tenaris University has based its global campus in Campaña, Argentina, and has three other training facilities in Brazil, Italy and Mexico.

The university offers employees the choice between 450 e-learning and 750 classroom courses at its Industrial Schools (for company engineers), Schools of Finance and Administration, Commercial Management, Information Technology and its Schools of Technical Studies. Internal experts recruited from within the company serve as the main body of instructors.

When global demand for its products dropped a few years ago, Tenaris compensated for this by augmenting the number of hours employees spent in training. That way, ‘employees should return to the factory floor with better skills once production picks up again’, the company observes.

Using the diaspora to prepare for the industries of tomorrow

The Network for the Expansion of Convergent Technologies in the Arab Region (NECTAR) is using the diaspora to modernize the curricula of universities and technical colleges by focusing on technologies that will drive the industries of tomorrow. Convergent technologies blend biotechnology, nanotechnology, cognitive sciences and information technology.

Launched by UNESCO’s office in Cairo in June 2011, the network partners with renowned Arab scientists based at universities in the USA and in Egypt. NECTAR is also targeting technical colleges, since it is technicians who give convergent technologies their manufacturing edge.

The original plan was for professors from the USA to travel to Cairo to teach intensive courses of maximum four weeks in length each year. After the Arab Spring in 2011, Cairo and other key cities came to be considered a security risk, so the programme morphed into a virtual education programme. The e-content has been developed by Pennsylvania State University (PSU). The courses will be permanently accessible via PSU’s portal, with tutoring support on hand from the professors who own the courses.

NECTAR has developed a virtual Higher Industrial Diploma Certificate and a master’s degree in Applications of Nanosciences. Initially, both programmes are being used to train university teaching staff (mainly PhD-holders). These staff members will then serve as the core team for the development of an undergraduate minor programme in nanosciences at each university. The diploma certificate will be accredited by PSU, whereas the master’s programme will be accredited through participating universities in the Arab world.

It is expected that there will be a strong demand for NECTAR graduates from a wide range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, chemicals, petrochemicals, opto-electronics, fertilizers, surface coating, building technology, foodstuffs and automotive.

Source: UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030 (2015), various chapters

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