Why is it that the vast majority of curricula for higher education in India still centres on STEM instead of being more well-rounded and multidisciplinary? A big part of the answer lies in the fact that, over the past three decades, we have witnessed a revolution whereby increasingly sophisticated technologies have formed a ubiquitous part of our lives. From mechanisation to automation, from robotics to artificial intelligence, from miniaturisation to nanotechnology, from software to embedded systems, from the internet to the internet of things – technologies are not just transient but advancing by leaps and bounds. Not surprisingly, this has led to a greater focus on subjects that help in building careers in these fields – in other words, a curriculum based on STEM.

The acronym “STEM”, coined by the US National Science Foundation, was proposed as a new focused approach to education in response to a market problem faced in the mid- and late 1990s. Those were the heydays of the technology revolution, when demand for engineering, science, and IT skills in the US economy surpassed the number of graduates in these disciplines. It was widely believed that a sustained shortage of these niche competencies would see the US fall behind its economic competitors. This reinforced the need for a STEM-based educational system. As the technology revolution spread across the globe, particularly to countries such as India, where it played a major part in fuelling economic prosperity, STEM-based education also began to take root there.

For a long time, this system of emphasis on technical or “hard skills” continued in many parts of the world, with relatively less focus on behavioural competencies. However, 30 years on, the picture in the US has changed. The notion of a long-term, secure “STEM job” has been debunked as a myth.

Multinational giants were compelled to reverse their earlier, no-retrenchment policies, especially during the pandemic period. Further, over time, the mass outsourcing of IT and allied jobs resulted in largely stagnant wage levels in the US. As jobs and associated skills have become increasingly commoditised, the individual has been rendered more dispensable, and employer loyalty has diminished.

Demographer Michael S Teitelbaum, who has studied the data on STEM graduates and the corresponding statistics for employment for their skills, argues that there’s scant evidence of the claimed widespread shortages in the US science and engineering workforce. His work reveals that unemployment rates among scientists and engineers have actually remained higher than in other professions (eg, physicians, dentists, lawyers, and registered nurses). His conclusion is telling: “Far from offering expanding attractive career opportunities, it seems that many, but not all, science and engineering careers are headed in the opposite direction: unstable careers, slow-growing wages, and high risk of jobs moving offshore or being filled by temporary workers from abroad.”

Now, turn the lens to India. From the standpoint of the US and other economies that have outsourced jobs over the years, India has been one of the principal beneficiaries. But, viewed from an internal standpoint, within India a different picture emerges:

• Being a globalised economy, India isn’t insulated from uncertainties in other parts of the world. Consequently, recessions in the US and other economies can and do have a downside impact on the Indian market, including the prospect of retrenchment on a large scale.

• The schemes centred on skills development, as well as programmes such as Start-Up India (urgently advocated by the government), attest to the fact that state-run enterprises and corporates aren’t able to absorb the numbers graduating from colleges across the country. There is, therefore, a need for expertise building, self-reliance and employment creation at the individual, micro-level, in order to sustain economic growth.

• Among Indian engineering graduates, there is still a rush for technology or consulting jobs, where wages are relatively high and careers are perceived to be glamorous, at the expense of careers in other sectors (eg, scientific research).

STEM by itself is no longer the full answer. Expanding one’s cognitive abilities does not prepare one emotionally to adapt to an increasing pace of change, nor endow one with the abilities to continuously unlearn, relearn, and acquire new skills to influence and motivate oneself and others, and to continuously deliver value in a workplace requiring higher-order thinking. Any framework claiming to be holistic and comprehensive can no longer ignore the dimension of emotional enablement.

Given the gap between the availability of STEM-skilled resources on the one hand and the market demand for those skills on the other, two key questions present themselves. If not STEM, what disciplines in this changing order of things should education embrace?

While it is accepted that, going forward, economic growth will be largely driven by continuous innovation, how would the skills of creativity and innovation be institutionalised and standardised? There has been an ongoing debate between proponents of STEM and its critics. The champions argue that the principles of STEM can be found in virtually every discipline, not just limited to the subjects of science, engineering, technology or mathematics. Rather, they say, technical knowledge and the scientific mindset of inquiry go hand in hand with creativity, leading to innovative ideas across disciplines.

The critics of STEM contend that exposure to the wider sphere of the arts equips a person for better decision-making, creativity and innovation. In their view, it’s not deep scholarship but practical application of the arts that sets one up for success. Thus, alternative frameworks such as STEAM (ie, STEM plus arts) and STEMMA (STEM plus medicine and arts) have entered the discourse.

This also links in with the push to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce that many firms and governments have adopted, both to lower barriers to entry for traditionally under-represented groups and because a diverse workforce also brings ideas and skills that improve workforce productivity.

Moving from recruiting people from purely STEM backgrounds to hiring people from other disciplines also leads, naturally, to acquisition of a more diverse workforce. As Professor Jo Duberley, (deputy pro vice-chancellor, equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) at the University of Birmingham) points out, EDI is not just an admirable principle: “. . . research on board diversity suggests more diverse boards are more effective”. Professor Duberley feels that even when leadership is serious about EDI, “. . . barriers that certain groups face and work hard to reduce/remove” often take time to overcome. Being open to recruiting people with more than a particular type of education will make it easier to create a more diverse workforce, which brings in diverse skills and life stories, making for a more empathetic workplace.

Our own position is that there’s a need for holistic education programmes that advance empathy, understanding and creativity, alongside technological savvy. STEM undoubtedly equips students with analytical and problem-solving skills, but some of the raging problems of today’s world – poverty, intolerance, and political conflict – require capacity for ethical decision-making, compassion and creativity as well. These capabilities must also grow in tandem with our ability to operate sophisticated technology and gadgets, warranting expansion of the STEM system.

This can be supported by a framework such as ESTEEM, “EE” standing for “emotional enablement” – the process or journey by which inculcation of behavioural competencies, such as emotional intelligence, becomes second nature. Several aspects distinguish ESTEEM from other frameworks:

• With STEM, the four constituent elements provide sharp clarity to the subjects being taught. But they also end up limiting the scope of the education imparted under this model. By contrast, in ESTEEM, the focus on emotional enablement opens up a range of subjects in the arts and humanities, broadening the educational scope and, by corollary, the canvas of human development.

• Therefore, ESTEEM does not champion or prescribe any particular discipline; instead, it underscores the need to explore what disciplines would best work to provide a comprehensive, holistic education to today’s youth. Thus, a grounding in the humanities may end up being a worthy addition in the ESTEEM curricula, as may the disciplines of positive psychology or neuroscience.

• STEM, STEAM and other alternatives are all educational models that concentrate on fitment for today’s job market, but there is very little discussion on continued self-development once one enters the workforce. In the ESTEEM framework, this initial preparatory phase is merely the starting point of a continuous, long-term journey to become emotionally enabled.

• ESTEEM offers a model for longer-term success and well-being. Our gauge is that the study of a given discipline under an ESTEEM-based model may in fact make a person more employable. We believe that emotional enablement allows a person to cope better with the vagaries of an increasingly uncertain job market.

• Emotional enablement helps set up an individual for professional accomplishments over a longer time frame.

Routine and repetitive tasks across industries are increasingly getting automated, and many of the jobs previously operated manually are dying out. ESTEEM provides a broader framework for success in the jobs of the future.

It is interesting to note that the new National Education Policy (NEP), published by the Indian government in 2020, advocates a more holistic and multidisciplinary approach to education. This would involve inclusion of arts and humanities subjects for science and engineering students, and vice versa. The policy also calls for establishment of multidisciplinary education and research universities (MERUs) across the country, offering a quality of education at par with the premier institutes in the country, such as IITs (India Institutes of Technology, India’s premier institutions in the field of technology) and IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management, India’s premier set of business schools).

Excerpted with permission from Work 3.0, Avik Chanda and Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Penguin India.