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Where do universities fit in push for STEM teacher strategy?

Every high school in Australia will have at least one specialist STEM teacher if a workforce strategy floated by Minister for Education and Training Simon Birmingham was to come to fruition and meet its goals.

In a speech in Sydney, the minister called on the states and territories to work with the government on a workforce strategy focused on STEM teachers.

He said: “I hope that by year’s end the states and territories will agree to a new school reform package… [that] will include requirements for a national teaching workforce strategy which can identify and pinpoint the areas around Australia where we’re lacking particular skills in our teachers and ensure we get our universities to train future teaching graduates in those scientific disciplines that are needed.”

Following the announcement, chief executive of Science & Technology Australia (STA) Kylie Walker said two decades of declines in high school maths and science results and enrolments were a significant risk to Australia’s future capability and prosperity.

“Intermediate and advanced maths enrolments are most worrying, with declines from 54 per cent in 1992, to 36 per cent in 2012,” Walker said.

“We already have skilled workforce deficits in some areas of technology, and we know the major growth in future jobs will be in science, technology, engineering and maths. We need to support teachers with the right skills to prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Dr Anne Forbes of Macquarie University commended the Government’s STEM plan. “The research is clear that all science and mathematics high school teachers should have deep knowledge of their subject areas,” Forbes said.

“Imagine your child being taught piano by a ‘music’ teacher who couldn’t read music.”

The trick to its success will be recruiting and monitoring compliance, she added.

But Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek took to Twitter to question how the Liberal party will pay for the move.

The role of universities

Dr Jane Hunter of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) said the government’s plan misses the mark.

“Where are these people who are going to teach the STEM disciplines going to come from? Recruiting teachers to teach the STEM disciplines has been historically difficult in Australia – there is a worldwide shortage of teachers in these disciplines,” Hunter said.

Universities Australia (UA) said to get more specialist science, maths and technology teachers into Australian classrooms, the government needs to end the university funding freeze.

UA chief executive Catriona Jackson said the freeze means that next year there will be fewer students studying STEM, along with all the other disciplines.

“The Government’s freeze makes it more difficult – not easier – for our nation’s universities to meet the growing demand for STEM skills across the economy, including as teachers.”

STA echoed some of UA’s points. Walker said the body hopes Birmingham’s commitment to developing teacher skills extends to encouraging and incentivising universities to attract more students to undergraduate science and maths degrees.

“Current caps on funding for undergraduate degrees pose significant challenges to building a STEM-qualified education workforce.

“STEM degrees are important to securing Australia’s prosperity, and though they are costly to deliver, they will pay dividends,” she said.

When asked by a journalist at the event whether he would be using federal funding powers over universities to ‘strong-arm’ them into providing more STEM places, Birmingham said: “We have to do whatever it takes to get skilled, science-focused teachers in classrooms teaching science.”

While he voiced his confidence that the states and territories, and universities will be on board to address the issue, he added that should the government encounter any problems it “does have the powers in terms of funding agreements with the universities to be able to require them to focus in certain areas”.

“There have been in recent years record numbers of people enrolled in teaching qualifications; we need to make sure they’re studying the subject specialisations that are needed in the science disciplines and ultimately, having known about this problem for many years, we must take whatever steps are necessary to fix it for the future,” Birmingham said.

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One comment

  1. One ‘specialist STEM teacher’ per school, eh? Science Technology Engineering and Maths, at least 5-6 distinct disciplines, one teacher…

    And this will magically solve the problem of engaging students in complex subjects over 10+ years of schooling…

    Our education minister is really the minister for destroying education.

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