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Alternative solutions to address Australia's STEM paradox

By Alan Yap - posted Thursday, 8 December 2016


As our nation continues to wrangle over the skills gap debate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), I think we can take a leaf out of India's response to its sanitation crisis.

Despite successfully sending a Mars probe into space, less than 50% of its people defecate in proper toilets. It turns out that toilet rejection is deeply ingrained in the culture of many Indian rural communities. This insight turned the problem on its head: to drive social change, consumers buy-in is as important as technical solutions.

Similarly, we need to move on beyond debate towards real progress by educating and empowering university students (the consumers of education) to take ownership of their careers.

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STEM skills: shortage or surplus?

The shortage of skilled workers in STEM gained national attention in 2013 when the Australian Industry Group reported a lack of applicants with STEM skills is stifling business innovation. As part of its innovation agenda, the Turnbull Government committed $48 million to promote STEM subjects at schools and universities. But is there really a STEM crisis?

There is growing evidence that our universities are churning out more STEM graduates than available jobs. This year, the Productivity Commission reported a STEM skills surplus in life sciences, chemistry and the physical sciences while data from the Australian Department of Education and Training revealed more than 100,000 students graduated with a STEM-related degree in 2014. The number of graduate jobs available in Australia each year is nowhere close to that level.

Given the opposing views of this muddled debate, is there indeed a STEM skills shortage or surplus in the workforce? I would argue that the answer is 'yes' for both. For instance, employment statistics show that the STEM labour market is heterogeneous: the academic sector is oversupplied while the government and private sectors face shortages in specific areas.

A heavy reliance on policy engineering to fill STEM workforce gaps is not a sustainable approach, at least not at the tertiary education level, because many STEM graduates do not end up in scientific roles for various reasons. Sure, we need urgent measures to incentivise students to study mathematics and science in schools given the humiliating slump in our international rankings. However, I believe a different approach for university students is warranted if we are to nip the skills gap debate in its bud.

Treating education as a commercial product

Between 1985 to 2015, the number of students studying at Australian universities soared from less than 140,000 to well over a million. The Bradley review essentially opened the floodgates by recommending that allocation of university places be determined through a student demand-driven system. Interestingly, most of the additional enrolment demand post-deregulation has been in the health, science and engineering disciplines.

Although the policy was designed to provide universities with greater flexibility in responding to the skill needs of the labour market, it assumes that students always make informed decisions about their study options. Too often, students choose a university degree based on irrational reasons such as a university's brand value or falsely assuming certain disciplines such as medicine as being more glamorous than others.

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The Social Research Centre's Quality Indicators for Learning and Teaching (QILT) is an incredible resource, in this regard, to ensure students have access to transparent information that will help select the best university education for themselves. Based on extensive data from several nationwide surveys on student experience and employment outcomes, QILT is a first-in-kind comparison website for education 'products'.

A recent report by the Grattan Institute showed that despite poor employment outcomes, demand for universities' science courses continues to grow. As QILT becomes more widely used, prospective science students would realise that a science graduate may not fare well in the job market. The decision to invest in a degree needs to take into account how it bridges the gap between education and professional work.

Knowing what employers want

That being said, students should not choose a course solely because there is a good chance of landing a graduate employment. Instead, students need to identify their interests and skills, and visualise the type of professional roles that will suit their personality. Understanding inner motivations and strengths is the first step toward choosing the right career path.

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About the Author

Alan Yap completed a PhD in Medical Biology at the University of Melbourne/WEHI, where he genetically modified malaria parasites to study protein function and to improve the design of next-generation malaria vaccines. He is currently a strategy implementation and alignment consultant at BTS, a global professional services firm headquartered in Stockholm.

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