Stokes sees the sense of STEM

NSW education minister Rob Stokes responded yesterday to the federal government’s push for more qualified STEM teachers in schools, with the Daily Telegraph reporting his plan for teachers taking science and maths classes to have extensively studied their subjects at university. Commendable focus from a minister who in March warned the focus on STEM, “places academic disciplines into silos – pitting the sciences against the arts in a self-defeating zero-sum game of intellectual snobbery,” (CMM March 26)

Unis Australia calls for action on research funding

Universities Australia says government and business must muscle-up on research, increasing investment to support the university systems’ work. “Research expands Australia’s economy. Research saves lives. Research creates new products and industries that generate jobs, UA CEO Catriona Jackson says.

UA sets out seven recommendations, which are part of its submission to a House of Representatives committee inquiry on research funding.Including one that urges the committee to propose nothing for immediate action, until research policy changes now being implemented bed down.

Other recommendations include returning dividends from the Education Investment Fund to research support. The government’s long-established intention is to transfer the $3.8bn EIF to support the National Disability Insurance Scheme (CMM May 24).

“Australia also needs capital funds to build research capacity at universities across the country. Closing EIF will deny our world-class researchers the proper resourcing and security they need to keep doing what they do best – making breakthroughs for the betterment of all,” Ms Jackson says.

UA proposes:

governments, business and the higher education sector should “develop a strategy and commit resources” to “significantly increase,” “the intensity of R&D”

* “recapitalise the EIF and start spending returns on research

* a moratorium on changes to the research funding system “until the effects of the current suite of changes are apparent”

* a commitment to peer review “as the core determinant” for funding

* restoring demand driven funding of undergraduate places, “to ensure the widest possible participation in the postgraduate research cohort

* a regulatory impact statement on the cost of reporting/compliance requirements to higher education

* more support for international research links

UA has a point in suggesting a new policy pause, what with the research system adapting to a raft of reforms. There is the National Health and Medical Research Council’s imminent new grants scheme, implementation of the Australian Council of Learned Academies’ recommendations on research training, the as yet unknown impact of the new Australian Research Council’s research impact and engagement metrics and changes to investments resulting from the as yet to be legislated R&D tax concession variations announced in the budget.

McCulloch endorses Colin Long for NTEU Vic election

Outgoing general secretary of the National Tertiary Education, Union Grahame McCulloch has endorsed a ticket in the contested Victorian branch election. Mr McCulloch is backing candidates led by state secretary Colin Long, in office since 2010, who is running for a third term. Dr Long is, “one of the union’s most dedicated and effective senior leaders with a track record of high quality collective agreements … he has been responsible for leading big membership growth and a substantial increase in union influence,” the general secretary states.

Dr Long leads a full ticket for the state branch leadership which is opposed by RMIT industrial relations academic Melissa Slee and colleagues.

There’s bad news and good-ish news

Last week the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported state and federal government expenditure on research and development dropped $446m from $3725m in 2012-13 to $3279m in ‘16-17 (CMM July 6). However yesterday the ABS reported employment in professional, scientific and technical services has just increased by over 13 per cent, the fastest of any industry in the economy. Sadly, they are not all in the lab the category includes lawyers and accountants.

Education also expanded; with a 1.5 per cent rise in employed persons and 0.5 per cent increase in hours worked.


The CRC Association reports Jennifer Kay is the new manager of the cooperative research centre programme in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Gary Thomas is the University of the Sunshine Coast’s first dean of indigenous engagement and advancement. Professor Thomas moves from Batchelor Institute, where he was acting CEO. From 2013 to 2017 he was an associate professor at QUT.

Chief Scientist’s Five Point Plan for STEM education

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s timing was impeccable yesterday, speaking at the Australian Science Teachers Association Annual Conference, just hours after the education minister backed the apogee of his agenda – to lift the level of Australian STEM education.  “momentum is growing – in a good way,” Dr Finkel said.

But he warned that there is a drag on momentum, the idea that an education for the 21st century is about “knowing less and talking more.”

“I say ‘students should be work-capable’ – and people hear ‘we need to teach generic skills like collaboration, instead of content knowledge like chemistry’.”

It was a classic Finkel speech, as engaging as it was erudite and as usual there was an eclectic illustration of his argument, using Frank Herbert’s not universally admired other-worldly novel, Dune. But the Chief Scientist’s point was firmly planted on this planet – the education system must not teach soft skills at the expense of hard knowledge.

“There is still a fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles. Taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation. “

And because he always acknowledges the achievements and obligations of his audience, Dr Finkel had a message for science and maths teachers, that what must happen next is up, in part up to them.

“You are the expert teachers who can see the future and are already striving to lead the change.

“We don’t awake spontaneously to a knowledge of our talents and passions. We develop them by mastering the foundations – and that means sticking with it.

Your passion, as teachers, is the glue. It’s particularly important to inspire children towards mathematics. Mathematics is the language of science. And none of us arrive in school at the age of five as native math speakers. We only gain fluency by learning things in sequence. And there is no substitute for the precious years of learning mathematics, in sequence, in school.

“It is time for Australia to recognise that contribution, resource that contribution, and extend that contribution.

Dr Finkel laid down five ways to set up STEM education.

“We must ensure that our students are taught to master content, lots of it.

“We must ensure that all specialist teacher are subject-matter specialists.

“We must restore the relationship between universities and schools through prerequisites that send signals to principals, teachers, parents and students.

“We should make data on outcomes available for the benefit of students and for impact research.

“We must clarify the role and operation of the ATAR so that it does not inadvertently send the wrong signals.

Rod Camm exits ACPET

Rod Camm is leaving the Australian Council for Private Education and Training, which he has led since 2014, saying his “work as a change agent is complete.”  Mr Camm will go after the association’s August conference.

ACPET chair Bruce Callaghan calls him “a tireless and uniquely well-informed advocate for independent education,” adding, “Rod has worked through closures of registered training organisations, relocating displaced students and adjustments to major funding and contract changes in the sector.”

However, the board now wants a CEO to fill a “a very different role leading an industry association focussed on professional standards and on working with government and the public education sector on policy settings for the future.”

Comment: Rod Camm had the hardest job in Australian education for years, defending the for-profit training sector as its reputation was trashed by the very few but very greedy shonks and spivs who rorted the VET FEE HELP system. Mr Camm was always calm, always on message as he defended his members from reputational damage which will take years and years to repair. And throughout it all he remained across the labyrinth that is state and federal training policy and practise. That the worse for ACPET is over has a great deal to do with him.

European cancelling subscriptions

The German Alliance of Science Organisations has ended negotiations with Elsevier, the biggest for-profit journal publisher, due to, “excessive demands.”  This follows Swedish universities breaking talks with the company over subscription costs.

The Europeans are standing up to the big for-profit publishers. The EU wants research to be open-access on publication by 2020 and deals in various nations along these lines are already done.

Of course, there is open access and open access – the publishers preferred model is pay to publish and free to read. But the OA argument in Europe is extending into a dispute over subscription costs.