The Costs of Australia’s Drive Towards STEM-based Education

The Costs of Australia’s Drive Towards STEM-based Education

‘Innovation’, the ‘digital revolution’ and ‘STEM’ have become popular buzzwords in Australia’s socio-political landscape. Australia’s major political parties, the Australian Labor Party and Liberal National Coalition have both outlined their plans to reinvigorate Australia’s professional job market and transform Australia into an internationally recognised intellectual power. Consequently, high school and tertiary education institutions have become highly politicised topics.

Both of Australia’s major political parties are financially and politically committed to the support of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in high school and tertiary education. However, minority political parties and community organisations have argued that teaching practices, funding, market outcomes and the promotion of certain subjects in the education sector have become overly beholden to the Federal Government’s preoccupation with STEM disciplines.

While the economic, social and political importance of STEM subjects are indisputable, it is clear that the Government’s widespread push for STEM subjects has negatively impacted the attitude of students in relation to their engagement with the social sciences. In addition, creative expression and cultural pursuits within high school and tertiary education institutions are being increasingly relegated to the background in the national education agenda.   

The Push for STEM

Australia’s Federal Government is committed to forming a cohesive, unified national curriculum with STEM at the forefront. To this end, millions of dollars have been spent on advertising campaigns, promoting STEM principles and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing in 2015, the allocation of $48 million towards digital technology and a STEM literacy program in primary and high school [1]. Additionally, the rising tide of political support for STEM has also led to increased private investment aimed at establishing and expanding specialist STEM schools and development programs. High schools are increasingly integrating and synthesising STEM teaching practices and learning goals into their entire core curriculum. Consequently, many high schools are consciously and unconsciously inculcating students with the idea that university education and study of a STEM-focussed degree are the most viable paths following the completion of secondary education.

Increasing the integration of STEM subjects within Australia’s education curricula is not necessarily a bad thing. Australia and the rest of the world are faced with a variety of complex, interdisciplinary challenges, both anthropogenic and natural. Increased support for STEM disciplines creates an ideal climate for budding scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technologists to contribute to solutions for contemporary issues, including global warming, transnational terrorism, cyber-crime, famine, antibiotic resistance, disease and poverty. However, in the quest to optimise Australia’s knowledge-based economy using STEM principles in education, Australia’s politicians have implicitly rejected the value of creative expression and the social sciences.

An Overburdened Job Market

The Australian Government’s bullish attempts to increase the number of students studying STEM subjects, while largely effective, may have negative effects in terms of employment prospects and graduate satisfaction. A study released by the Productivity Commission asserts that a large proportion of university graduates from STEM degrees are faced with a limited number of employment opportunities, declaring that “Labour supply initiatives to encourage more STEM skills may also need to consider any barriers on the demand side” [2].

In practical terms, the Commission revealed that 3 years after gaining their degree, 20% of STEM graduates remained jobless. However, exceptions do exist for surveying, healthcare and mining engineering graduates, due to heightened demand in these sectors. Moreover, it appears that modifying regulatory education barriers can actually reduce the number of motivated, intelligent and studious individuals working in STEM-based careers.

The Productivity Commission reported that approximately 25% of employed science graduates consider their qualifications irrelevant in their current employment [2]. However, it could also be argued that the breadth of work available to university graduates and the increasingly non-linear definition of a ‘Bachelor Degree’ signify  that university graduates are no longer committed to employment in their tertiary field of study. However, the research conducted by the Productivity Commission does emphasise growing disenfranchisement amongst STEM university graduates and current STEM students, a large percentage of whom are unemployed or uninterested in their chosen career pathway.

The Importance of Creative Expression and ‘The Arts’

Creative expression and ‘The Arts’ have an essential role in developing a vibrant, diverse, socially mindful culture within Australian society. Whilst STEM subjects use quantitative data and empirical observations to practically and theoretically study and interact with the world around us, social science and creative expression use introspective societal analysis and imaginative ideation to study and enrich humanity itself. For this reason, modelling an education system focusing its curricula around STEM principles risks alienating students within the education system who are more interested in creative pursuits or the humanities.

The advantages of creative mediums are manifold, for instance, student exposure to creativity in education can develop critical thinking, enhance communication skills, widen perspectives and help insular students express themselves. This view is shared by the NSW Teachers Federation with (acting) President, Gary Zadkovich, commenting that “A stronger emphasis on STEM subjects should not undermine the social, cultural and economic benefits gained through the study of the broad range of subjects, including those in the humanities and arts at Extension levels” [3]. Furthermore, student engagement in the varied branches of human creativity, including art, drama, painting, music and literature, has also been linked to increased academic achievement alongside heightened social and emotional development [4].

In education, ‘The Arts’ also encompasses a multitude of subjects that investigate and elucidate the various aspects of human society and history. Language, historical analysis, political science and international relations are some of the more popular subjects within ‘The Arts’. The recent shift of school curricula in Australia towards STEM subjects has negatively impacted ‘Arts’ subjects. For instance, in 2016, the University of Sydney and University of Melbourne announced a restructuring of their degrees, eliminating close to 100 degrees, including a disproportionate number of social science and fine art degrees [5].

Incongruously, the study of history, social dynamics and language has been found to positively impact cultural awareness and tolerance in students. Contemporary Australia faces a variety of international, regional and domestic challenges, including conflict in the South China Sea, rising populism, climate change and economic downturn. Students can only understand and involve themselves in these complicated, multi-lateral issues when they have an appreciation of history, language and collective societal traits. Studying subjects within the social sciences give students the knowledge and judgement skills to consider and evaluate problems from more flexible and creative perspectives in contrast to students studying scientific, technical, engineering and mathematical subjects.

The renowned Polish sculptor, Magdalena Abakanowicz, famously said once that “Art does not solve problems, but makes us aware of their existence” [6].

In order to solve, identify and learn from problems in Australia, education curricula must balance STEM principles with art and social science learning philosophies. Entrenched employment platforms, changing graduate requirements, evolving technologies and new regulatory measures have brought STEM study and employment to the forefront of Australian education. Political support and media attention have highlighted the many advances in innovation, entrepreneurial spirit and technological development, brought about through STEM study in secondary and tertiary education. However, the forceful push for STEM by the Federal Government and education institutions risks a dramatic reduction in the number of students studying and working as painters, musicians, sculptors, historians, sociologists, linguists, cultural educators, political scientists and international relations scholars. These educated members of the community are integral in fostering tolerance, diversity, equality and transformation within society. Moreover, an active appreciation of art and all facets of human knowledge enriches and unifies society. In a period of technological revolution, economic uncertainty and global instability, it is more important than ever to have a cohesive, holistic education curriculum that plays to the strengths of all Australians, rather than constrain the majority of students within a STEM-based education.     

Alex is currently nearing the final stages of university life, and will graduate with a dual-degree in Geospatial Engineering and International Relations. He is passionate about travelling, modern history and contemporary social issues. When he isn’t maniacally attacking a keyboard, he spends his time exploring Sydney, butchering the Spanish language and unsuccessfully learning to cook.


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