Grattan Institute STEM perspective 'very narrow' - Jillian Segal
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Jillian Segal – Grattan Institute’s view on STEM ‘very narrow’

STEM argument very narrow

Last week, Education Matters shared findings from The Grattan Institute’s Mapping Australian higher education 2016 report alongside comments made by its Higher Education Program Director, Andrew Norton.

While the Government has announced its focus on promoting STEM in schools, Norton suggests that students shouldn’t be further encouraged to follow STEM pathways at a tertiary level, citing concerns regarding the employability of these students after leaving their bachelor degree.

“If people think doing a Bachelor in Science will give them skills that are highly valued in the labour market then they should probably look at studying something else,” he said.

Read last week’s article on STEM pathways here.

After sharing this story, Education Matters was contacted by the office of Jillian Segal, Chairman of the General Sir John Monash Foundation, which raises money and administers postgraduate scholarships for Australian students.

Ms Jillian Segal
Jillian Segal, Chairman of the General Sir John Monash Foundation.

Ms Segal, a prominent businesswoman, also holds the positions of Chairman of the Australia Israel Chamber of Commerce NSW, Non-executive Director of the National Australia Bank and The Garvan Institute of Medical Research as well as being Deputy Chancellor of UNSW Australia. She contends with The Grattan Institute’s thesis in this matter and raised a number of specific points for educators and parents of students to consider.

The full transcript of our interview with Ms Segal appears below.

The Grattan Institute (GI) has used data to show a significant drop in the ability of science and other STEM-field graduates to secure full-time employment in a relevant field after completing their bachelor degree. Do you question the integrity of this data, GI’s analysis of it, or the conclusions they have drawn as a result?

The Grattan Institute is making the assumption that a science degree is a vocational degree which trains people to be scientists. This very narrow interpretation leads them to the observation that “science graduates are pushed into a general labour market in which they must compete with graduates from other fields”, and to the dangerous conclusion that “ideally more of science students who would already prefer another course could take it instead”. We would argue that a science degree teaches skills which are important in any workplace: it is a foundational degree which encourages scientific literacy and challenges students to value the critical lessons learned in the process of discovery – creativity, patience and attention to detail. The Grattan Institute report actually states that “STEM employers report that their employees with STEM qualifications are better at problem solving and critical thinking than are employees without STEM qualifications”.

We do question their conclusions. We know that almost all of Australia’s industries, including the mining industry, the banking industry as well as the retail industry, will be subject to major, technology-driven disruption and will need technology-literate people to counter that disruption with new innovation. Moreover, most of the jobs of the future will exist in industries we cannot yet predict. The key attributes of successful workers will be an enquiring mind, an analytical approach to problem solving and a sense of curiosity and enquiry. These are the attributes fostered in a science degree that will make graduates attractive to a whole range of different disciplines.

What information has been omitted that may paint a clearer picture?  

GI has drawn a very tight circle around their definition of ‘science careers’ and emphasises that “only a minority of bachelor-degree science job seekers utilise their science qualifications at the start of their career”. However, a bachelor’s degree (defined as a coursework degree, excluding even an honours year) is not considered to be a qualification for a science career. If science graduates want to work in science then (like many other professions, such as medicine or law) postgraduate study is required. According to the GI report, almost 50 per cent of science coursework graduates go on to further study, and of these 89 per cent find employment in their area.

We’ve seen the coalition government actively defund and remove science-based jobs from the CSIRO in the past year. Do you believe the government should be leading the charge by creating jobs for innovators, or is this something best left to the private sector? 

In relation to science based jobs I do not think the issue is as narrow as jobs with the CSIRO. As noted above, I think the majority of jobs in the STEM sector will not be government jobs but will come out of the private sector, out of start-ups and new services whether it be data, technology, or research related to more traditional industries within the private sector.

What is the government actively doing to support science, technology and innovation jobs in Australia?

Key initiatives will improve linkages between research and academia where universities are teaching the STEM disciplines, and business which needs innovation to manage disruption. Government is not purely for creating jobs but to create an environment which encourages investment in the start-up economy and an ecosystem of innovation. The Government’s Innovation Statement identifies important elements of this ecosystem: from tax incentives to educational initiatives to changes to insolvency laws. As these are rolled out, including the work of the digital transformation office (the DTO), the engines of the innovation economy will be fired. This will require more workers with science mindsets.

What else can be done to help Australia reach its potential as an innovation nation? What can educators at the primary and at the secondary level do?

We believe that in order to support the government’s innovation agenda (and in fact to support 21st Century skills throughout the workforce) we need more science grads, not fewer. Educators at the primary and at the secondary level have a major opportunity and obligation to excite young people about the study of science and the development of investigative skills. The CSIRO’s scientists in schools program is one such example of important organisations reaching out to schools to excite young people about science. Another example is Technoda— an Israeli science/hands on facility, which is looking at establishing themselves in Australia with private sector involvement.

We need to encourage an understanding among educators, students and the broader community that an undergraduate science degree is a broad foundational degree which develops the skills for understanding and contributes to any modern workplace. No other degree is as focused on training in numeracy, analysis, and an appreciation of the pace and drivers of change; thus enabling students to make lasting contributions in any role.

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