Birmingham signals government could intervene to ensure more STEM undergraduate places

STEM students and lots of them: Simon Birmingham wants more specialist STEM teachers in schools to enthuse students to stick with science and maths. “We really want to lift students’ interest in sticking with these subjects so that we can get more science, technology, engineering, maths graduates in the future and then into the workforce,” he said yesterday. To accomplish it he wants the states and territories to cooperate on working out which specialist teachers are needed and where.  And “if need be, federal funding powers over university places could be used to help the states to influence teachers we need for the future.”

“It’s just madness that universities are accepting students where they have to then run remedial maths programs because they didn’t do advanced or intermediate Year 12 maths, the minister said in one, of many, interviews.

That sounds like a threat, which could well become a promise if the government decides to use its proposed university teaching performance metrics to micro-manage universities enrolments.

A less central-planning solution to encourage more students into STEM study: –Make it a pre-requisite for science and maths based degreesChief Scientist Alan Finkel has exhorted academic engineers to require high-level HSC maths for UG enrolment. Yesterday Senator Birmingham noted ANU and the University of Sydney were making maths a requirement for relevant subjects.  Down the track, high school student demand would be a sure way to make the states recruit STEM graduates into teaching diplomas that set them up for new classroom careers.

But the minister’s meaning was plain, the federal and state governments could intervene in teacher education. This is part of a trend which should alarm deans of initial teacher education faculties. It follows the states and commonwealth agreeing last month to empower the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership to oversee ITE standards.

Reaction: Yesterday response was positive to Senator Birmingham’s message, with broadcast media giving the minister a good run, a remarkably good run with some interviewers actually sticking to his subject for more than a couple of questions.

The Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering was quick to back the minister proposal; “secondary school STEM teachers needed deep discipline expertise that gave them self-confidence in the classroom if they were going to inspire students,” president Hugh Bradlow said.

Science and Technology Australiawelcomed” the announcement, although CEO Kylie Walker added ““we hope Minister Birmingham’s commitment to developing teacher skills extends to encouraging and incentivising universities to attract more students to undergraduate science and maths degrees.”

And the always on-message Catriona Jackson from Universities Australia said while the minster’s intent is welcome, “the real way to supercharge science teaching was to reverse the $2.1 billion funding cut to universities and end the government’s funding freeze on university placesthanks to the government’s university funding freeze, there will be fewer students studying science technology engineering and maths, along with all the other disciplines, next year.”

But for turning an announcement into an opportunity there was no beating the Academy of Science, which warned that increasing the supply of trained STEM teachers was no short-term solution, because “only about five per cent of the teaching workforce turns over each year.”

In the mean-time “professional development for existing teachers without formal training in the subject they teach “is critical and urgent.” How fortunate the Academy has programmes that provide such PD. “The Academy stands willing and able to work with State and Federal Government to do more.”


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