Mathematics and science—increasing participation

Budget Review 2012–13 Index

Coral Dow and Marilyn Harrington

The 2012–13 Budget’s $54.0 million over four years for ‘Mathematics and science—increasing participation in schools and universities’ is the Government’s response to the Chief Scientist’s report, Mathematics, Engineering and Science in the National Interest. [1] This report is one of the latest of many produced over a number of years which highlight the poor state of mathematics and science education in Australia. [2]

The Chief Scientist argued for targeted initiatives that will translate into wider economic gains:

Mathematics, Engineering and Science (MES) are fundamental to shaping the future of Australia, and the future of the world ... Our future lies in creating a high technology, high productivity economy; to innovate and to compete at the high-end of provision. To do so, the technical skills and scientific awareness of the entire workforce must be raised. The number of MES graduates needs to increase to allow industry to expand in these areas. Yet our current performance is wanting, and we compare poorly to our leading Asian neighbours.[3]

The concerns about mathematics and science education in Australia have focused on declining school and university enrolments, the supply of qualified school teachers and Australia’s declining attainment relative to other countries. [4] At senior school level enrolments are declining accompanied by students increasingly opting for lower levels of study in mathematics and the ‘softer’ sciences.[5] These trends have continued despite a range of government programs targeted at overturning the declines.

The budget measure is an acknowledgement that mathematics and science education in the senior years of schooling and at the university level are linked and cross-sector initiatives are needed to redress the state of mathematics and science education in Australia. Towards this end, the major element of the measure ($20.0 million over four years) is directed towards university-led outreach projects to encourage school students to study mathematics and science. There are also other elements (with expenditure of $10.9 million) to raise the ‘engagement, curiosity and participation’ of school students.[6] Other initiatives focus on improving the quality of teacher training and providing support and training for teachers ($18.9 million). The remaining $4.3 million will provide for a National Mathematics and Science Education and Industry Adviser to ‘champion’ the role of mathematics and science.[7]

There are inconsistencies and mixed messages in recent government decisions on mathematics and science education. The budget measure reverses the Government’s decision last year not to extend its support for the Australian Academy of Science programs, ‘Primary connections: Linking Science with Literacy’ and the ‘Science by Doing’ projects. This decision was widely criticised by the science community and resulted in the Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt donating $100 000 of his prize money to sustain the Primary Connections program.[8]

Increased higher education student contributions for mathematics and science

The budget measure to increase the contribution rate for higher education students who study mathematics, statistics and science may be at odds with the measure to increase student participation. [9]

University applications and enrolment data indicate the demand for science subjects is strong, possibly due to the 2008–09 budget measure (a 2007 election commitment) which reduced the mathematics and science student contribution amounts to the lowest level in order to increase enrolments.[10] The reduction had an immediate effect on undergraduate applications for Natural and Physical Sciences which increased by 17.1 per cent from 2008 to 2009. [11] In 2012, of all university applications, Natural and Physical Sciences recorded the largest increase (10.9 per cent).[12] Reporting on 2010 increases, the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) stated ‘the two years’ growth more than reversed the declines in demand for this field between 2004 and 2008.’[13] However, such improvements at the broad discipline level of Natural and Physical Sciences, may disguise trends within the various science subjects.

The Government’s rationale for the new budget measure, which increases student contribution rates, is that the lower contribution rates had not been ‘effective in substantially increasing the number of students undertaking maths and science at university’ and announced budget savings would be made by returning the student contribution amounts to the Band 2 level.[14] The increased contribution (from $4696 to $8361 per student) will apply to all continuing and new students from 2013, resulting in savings of $314.9 million over four years.[15]

The state of university science and mathematics enrolments is complex. Despite reported increases in applications and enrolments, a more detailed analysis of enrolment data commissioned by the Chief Scientist reports:

… higher proportions of students discontinue their study of enabling sciences after first year. In other words, students are less likely to complete majors in chemistry, mathematics and physics than they are in biology and other narrow disciplines within the Natural and Physical Sciences.[16]

Measures aimed at improving the numbers of university graduates in these enabling disciplines might be required if productivity and economic gains are to be achieved. Such initiatives are not obvious in this budget measure, which appears to be more directed at encouraging student engagement and participation generally, and improving teacher training and support.

[1].       Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2012–13, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2012, pp. 230–31, viewed 10 May 2012.

[2].       Australia. Office of the Chief Scientist, Mathematics, engineering and science in the national interest, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, Canberra, 2012 viewed 14 May 2012.

[3].       Ibid., p. 12.

[4].       Teacher supply problems were also highlighted recently in: Productivity Commission (PC), Schools workforce, Research report, PC, Canberra, 2012, viewed 15 May 2012. For Australia’s international performance, see Office of the Chief Scientist, op. cit., pp. 15–17.

[5].       See, for example, A Falkiner, National trends in Year 12 course completions, Policy note, no. 6, Group of Eight, 2012, viewed 15 May 2012.

[6].       C Evans (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research) and P Garrett (Minister for School Education), Investing in science and maths for a smarter future, media release, 8 May 2012, viewed 15 May 2012.

[7].       Ibid.

[8].       See, for example, D O’Keeffe, ‘Maths and science education the key challenge’, Education Review, October 2011, p. 6, viewed 15 May 2012; and ‘Schmidt donates to primary science program’, Education Review, 8 December 2012, viewed 15 May 2012.

[9].       Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2012–13, op. cit., p. 227.

[10].     Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2008–09, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, 2008, p. 133, viewed 10 May 2012; K Rudd (Federal Labor Leader) and S Smith (Shadow Minister for Education and Training), New directions for maths and science: encouraging young Australians to study and teach maths and science, Australian Labor Party policy document, Election 2007, viewed 15 May 2012.

[11].     Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR), Undergraduate applications, offers and acceptances 2010, DEEWR, Canberra, 2011, p. 2, viewed 15 May 2012.

[12].     Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE), The demand driven system: Undergraduate applications and offers, February 2012, DIISRTE, Canberra, 2012, p. 4, viewed 15 May 2012. See also C Dow, Are maths and science enrolments increasing? FlagPost, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2 December 2011, viewed 10 May 2012.

[13].     DEEWR, op. cit.

[14].     C Evans (Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations), Band 2 student contribution reinstated for maths and science, media release, 29 November 2011, viewed 15 May 2012.

[15].     Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2012–13, op. cit., p. 227.

[16].     I R Dobson, Unhealthy science?: University Natural and Physical Sciences 2002 to 2009/10, Network for Higher Education and Innovation Research, University of Helsinki, Centre for Population & Urban Research, Monash University and the Educational Policy Institute, 2012, viewed 15 May 2012.

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