Australian students have fallen behind the global pack in STEM performance. Can a new government plan help to turn the tide?
Declining STEM performance in schools coupled with lower investment in research and development are a clarion call for national action, according to Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) Chair Bill Ferris.
Last year, the OECD reported that while 50 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 and have a university degree, only 8 per cent are qualified in the engineering, manufacturing and construction fields.
An even grimmer picture was painted by an international study of student achievement in 2015, which saw Australia’s science and maths achievement levels dropping below Kazakhstan, Cyprus and Slovenia over a four-year period.
To help turn around this trend and maintain our 26-year run of economic growth, the ISA has recently released a strategic plan for Australia to support investment in innovation and STEM education to 2030.
Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation outlines some of the key economic and social opportunities that come with strong support for innovation, as well as areas for improvement. One of the plan’s 30 recommendations is that the government support industry in gaining access to the best and brightest STEM talent, both locally and globally.
“This makes a world-class education system, and a confident, outward-looking immigration policy a must for our innovation system,” Ferris said.
ISA’s board boasts some notable intellectual and industry clout, including billionaire co-founder and CEO of software company Atlassian Scott Farquhar, and Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel.
Finkel stressed that government investment in education and research is key to the plan’s success.
“We need a relentless focus on raising the bar across the entire education system, combined with investment in our national research assets, to profit from the global knowledge economy,” Finkel said.
Room for improvement
The plan has gained support from the president of Science and Technology Australia (STA), Professor Emma Johnston, who said it couldn’t have come at a better time to stop the slide of STEM results in schools and restore long-term investment in Australian science and technology.
She said investment needs to start with giving educators the tools and training they need to do the job well.
“The Plan recommends better support for teachers, and with high-quality training and opportunities for professional development, we will see better outcomes for Australian students,” Johnston said.
“We also advocate for having STEM teachers with formal qualifications in STEM, as we believe this would go a long way towards inspiring students to excel in science and mathematics, and lift results overall.”
However, Johnston noted her disappointment that the plan did not place an emphasis on curiosity-driven, or “blue sky” research, which she said is vital to building an innovation culture.
“The foundation of basic research that will underpin this success has been forgotten. It’s vital that our universities and research institutes are provided with the freedom and funding to pursue curiosity-driven research – an approach that has led to some of Australia’s greatest discoveries. Without it, there will be no ideas to commercialise,” she said.
In addition, Johnston said the government’s plan needs to do more to address the issue of job security for STEM professionals.
“STEM professionals invest a lot of time and energy in securing funding and grant writing, time that would be much more productively spent on research,” she said.
Looking out and ahead
Besides developing and nurturing home-grown talent, Ferris has stated that Australia needs to be more open to the migration of researchers and innovators from other countries. Johnston added this could only add to growing our reputation as a place where STEM professionals can thrive.
“In making this country a welcoming, supportive and positive environment for STEM professionals, not only will we attract great minds from other countries, we will also be able to achieve better retention for Australia’s greatest minds too,” she said.
Unless something changes, it’s possible that gaps between the supply of STEM workers will continue to fall short of national and global demand.
“STEM skills will be increasingly important in the future – successive Chief Scientists have said so, as have numerous reports and analyses,” Johnston said.
“When you remove health degrees from the equation, enrolments in STEM subjects at universities are falling. We need to address this if we are to have a workforce that is adequately skilled to thrive in the face of innovation,”