By Misha Schubert, CEO STA
We know STEM skills will help us to seize the future. Science, technology, engineering and maths can unlock a new era of Australian job creation, sovereign manufacturing, industrial reinvigoration and economic growth.
This insight makes it hard to reconcile a curious contradiction in the higher education legislation before the Senate. The bill now hangs in the balance for the crossbench to decide, and with a Senate inquiry due to report by Friday.
The government says it wants to boost graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths – and encourage more students overall to acquire STEM literacy and skills – because these are areas where Australia will see strong future jobs growth.
Science & Technology Australia (STA) shares the Government’s goal of boosting STEM graduates.
However, the proposed changes to university funding in the legislation as currently drafted would actually cut base funding for STEM education and research.
Of all the disciplines, along with communications degrees, STEM would bear the biggest brunt of the cuts to base funding proposed in the legislation.
If passed unamended, without restoring STEM cluster rates, base funding would be cut by 16 per cent for degrees in science and engineering, 17 per cent for maths and 29 per cent for environmental science.
It would make it harder to deliver “heavy engineering” disciplines – which involve expensive large-scale facilities and infrastructure.
Those cuts would mean fewer dollars flowing into STEM education and research – and they would create a stronger disincentive against universities expanding STEM places. The cut to STEM is estimated to be more than $600 million in 2021 alone.
In evidence to the senate, University of Adelaide interim vice-chancellor Mike Brooks noted the structure of the proposals “opens up the potential for a strange driver”.
“Let’s suppose a university is one science student below its quota, its cap,” Professor Brooks told the inquiry. “Then adding one science student takes it up to its cap. A university could instead add 15 humanities students to take it up to the cap. Now the science student is going to net you $24,000 or $25,000. Fifteen humanities students will net you around $235,000. There’s the potential for universities to be driven by that factor.”
And while he said his university had STEM “in our DNA” and would strongly try to resist that incentive, “there’s a tension here in that there are drivers that might push some institutions towards, ironically, more humanities students than STEM students.”
To deal constructively with the disincentives in the legislation, STA has proposed a key amendment to ensure base funding for STEM degrees does not fall.
We’ve proposed adding a “science loading” onto the cluster rates, topping STEM degrees back up to their current level of base funding. This is important because the proposed model (based on a Deloitte costings review of the costs of teaching and scholarship) doesn’t properly take into account the high costs of maintaining STEM education facilities, how high-quality training is informed by research, or the equipment needed to prepare our graduates.
Our amendment would ensure current funding for STEM degrees remains the same as it is now, so universities aren’t pulled in the opposite direction from the goal of boosting STEM.
South Australian crossbencher Senator Rex Patrick – who asked forensic questions of witnesses at the hearings last week – said he could not see any circumstances in which he could support the legislation.
That leaves Centre Alliance Senator Stirling Griff and Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie, plus One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, to decide the bill’s fate.
Each of them now has an opportunity to propose amendments that would stop the legislation’s proposed cuts to STEM as one condition for their support.
There’s also an opportunity in the federal budget on October 6 for the government to invest in STEM research – and to protect that funding with legislation.
In recent years, STA has advocated strongly for a Research Translation Fund to turn more science into start-ups with rapid applications in industry. Former research scientist and Liberal MP Dr Katie Allen made a case recently for a Science Future Fund with a similar mission. New funding for science would be a clever move for Australia – and we would welcome it warmly.
This year has been an incredibly challenging one for our nation’s scientists. The demand for their skills has never been greater, even as COVID-19 has pummelled many of the very institutions that employ them.
The nation is pinning our hopes for a return to normal on scientists working on a vaccine, and on engineers and technology experts developing diagnostic tools and safety equipment.
To expand our skilled workforce of STEM saviours, we need universities to be funded to teach and qualify them.
We also need a bridging strategy to get our current science and research workforce through to the other side of this crisis, when the nation can welcome back our international students.
We’ve proposed that bridge could be a one-off boost to the Research Training Program, overseen by Education Minister Dan Tehan, and help for early-career researchers.
Such a lifeline would help us to deploy STEM talent to help us rebuild our economy and create new jobs in the huge economic reconstruction project ahead.
Strategic investments in STEM now will pay for themselves many times over with decades of job creation and economic growth. They can help us all to seize the future.
This op-ed was originally published in The Australian.