Is there a STEM crisis in Australia?

As I mentioned in my previous post, the ‘STEM crisis’ was, unsurprisingly, been a frequent topic of conversation at the STEMtech conference I attended last week. In short, there’s too many STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) jobs and not enough graduates with STEM majors. Long term, there are fears that the US’s technology-driven economy will stagnate if more students are not attracted into the STEM fields.

Enrolments in HSC Science Subjects

Is there the same STEM problem in Australia? It’s not as dramatic, for sure. For one thing, NSW has been bucking the worldwide trend for declining enrolments in science courses in year 12. However, the full picture is a little more complicated than that article makes out, as you can see in the graph below.

 (Disclaimer: I whipped these graphs together by extracting data from 1998, 2002, 2006, and 2011 from the NSW Board of Studies Statistics Archives.  Obviously, this is not an extensive picture and I have skipped some years as analyzing the data was quite fiddly and I had a limited amount of time. Forgive me for my lack of accuracy, but I think this can show som general ideas.)

Although NSW’s net enrolment in science subjects may be increasing since 2001, there remains a gradual, if subtle, decline in Physics enrolments. This has been made up with by a large increase in Biology numbers since 2002. It’s great that Biology numbers have increased, but that doesn’t help lead students into the physical sciences and engineering at university.

(Side note: it’s also interesting to note the dip from the 1998 to 2002 in every subject except Earth and Environmental. This coincides with the introduction of the ‘new’ syllabus in 2001, as well as the removal of 3 unit and 4 unit science. With more time I’d love to track the years in more detail and really see what happens around this time, but that’s for another day.)

So overall, although there’s not a huge decline in science enrolments over the last 10 years, it’s also not a picture that is particularly rosy. However, there’s a far more alarming statistic which is familiar to pretty much everyone who has ever stepped into an physics classroom at a co-ed school, or an engineering class at a university. The three plots below show the problem quite clearly.

Girls are under-represented in all sciences at HSC level, which surprised me somewhat as I thought at least Biology was edging towards 50/50. The worst plot, unsurprisingly, is Physics: approximately 25% of male HSC students take Physics, but less than 10% of girls. Worst of all – this has been going down slowly but steadily in the past 10 years. What are we doing wrong?

So does NSW have a STEM problem?

Enrolments in science subjects are declining across the country, although in total they are not going down in NSW. However, the motivations for students to choose science at HSC level are complex and not something we can see from looking at the graphs I’ve made. Are students choosing science subjects because they are interested in the sciences, or because they think science ‘scales well’? How much does their choice to study science at HSC level contribute to decisions to study science at university?

The US ‘STEM crisis’ isn’t based on numbers of students in studying science in schools – in many states, students have to study a science subject for all four years of high school and they don’t have the choice to drop it. Although many solutions to the problem are targeted at schools, schools are not where the problem is seen: it is later in jobs and universities where the problem manifests.

I don’t have any easily accessible data to crunch to show enrolments in science and engineering courses at Australian universities, however this article in The Australian describes Australia’s STEM enrolments at university as ‘anaemic’. This suggests that nationwide students are not getting excited about science, even if they are taking it through year 12. To me, this is a STEM crisis just as valid as the US one.

The next question is: how to we fix it?

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3 responses to “Is there a STEM crisis in Australia?

  1. Why would you waste your time going through a STEM study stream… Im a 4th year engineering honours student, half of my class can’t even get an interview for a job, less have been offered a job and of those that have, they are to work for a wage less then the labourers who will build thier designs…

    My advice, pick up a hammer, go through an apprenticeship under the EBA, you’ll make more money and not have to waste your time with this nonsense.

    • You make a really interesting point that made me have a look at GradStats to see how employment of enginering grads has changed over the last few years. This suggests the situation isn’t quite as dire as you describe, but still pretty bad: in 2012, when I wrote this post, between 77%-94% of engineering grads, depending on discipline, were in full time work four months after graduation. However, in 2015 that has shifted to 60-90% of engineering grads in full-time work. Although this marked decreased in employment rates does correlate with an overall shift in employment rates for university grads in general (from 76% in 2012 to 69% in 2015), it is a bit worse than average: most disciplines have fallen by about 10 percentage points and mining engineering has decreased from 94% to 76%. This is unsurprising giving the end of the mining boom, which influences most fields of engineering employment. Also unsurprisingly, computer engineering is an outlier which hasn’t changed much in this time (only a 1% drop).

      I can’t comment on the salaries although I would argue that long term engineering graduates will earn more than labourers – although relating to the employment drop, there is also a small drop in average starting salaries for engineers.

      Overall, although coming from a place of depressed cynicism, you make an interesting point. Is there still a STEM crisis at all, given current employment rates? I don’t know the answer, but it’s worth discussing.

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