AUSTRALIA faces a national skills crisis as students abandon unpopular subjects such as math, science and humanities in response to tertiary deregulation.
Student choice rather than quota systems has led to a glut of graduate skills in certain areas and a shortage in others, undermining key industries, including engineering and agriculture; threatening our international standing as a leader in research and innovation.
In fact, fears deregulation will reduce university standards are better turned to the preservation of these essential disciplines.
Australia’s chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb recognises these trends in his report, The Health of Australian Science, identifying agricultural sciences, physics, maths and chemistry, as “vulnerable”.
Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, the only Australian women to have been awarded a Nobel Prize has also called on government assistance to stop the decline of students studying tertiary-level science.
The nation’s future prosperity is dependent on having a strong supply of graduates in the right areas moving through the education system, and at the moment, there are not enough students in key areas to meet future demand. If Australia continues to lose skill sets, it risks losing capacity.
Deregulation, part of the Bradley Review’s target to lift Australia’s current university participation rates from 17% to 40% by 2025, has created a new subject battle ground, with the student demand driven system resulting in the rise of popular subjects and the demise of others.
And, as funding follows students – also part of the Bradley Review –this inevitably creates a funding shortfall for “untrendy” subjects. Of course; as student numbers drop in particular areas, so too do staff numbers, and as staffing levels dry up so too does research and innovation.
The Bradley reforms need to be more than just a numbers game.
For example, how sensible is it to raise university participation rates in order to be internationally competitive but then fail to produce sufficient graduates with the mathematics and science skills it needs to be a player on the international stage?
And how do we ensure that student demand now will equate to graduate employment and skills needed three to five years down the track in a deregulated system?
The deregulated sector heightens the risk of student demand failing to match employment needs.
This year, Australia’s oldest Agricultural College in Richmond, NSW, suspended its first year offering because of insufficient enrolments –just 10 people applied.
Australia, as a major food producing nation, cannot do without its own professional skills base in agriculture. We as a nation cannot allow this to occur.
The question is not whether “unpopular” disciplines need to be supported and nourished for the national interest; but rather how can this be achieved in a free market system?
How we respond to the challenges this creates is critical to the future success of our community and our culture; and to our economic viability, sustainability and competitiveness, as I cannot contemplate a successful Australian economy without the historians that provide us with the wisdom of hindsight and the philosophers that prepare us for facing the future.
Yet, there has been no serious attempt to date to deal with this question.
We must ask ourselves whether the closing of a faculty or school should be more than a business decision by a particular University executive?
If not, how do we persuade and support a university for making decisions that may not be in their best economic interests, or may, in fact, be detrimental to these interests?
These issues have a particular resonance when one considers the likelihood in the future of private providers entering the higher education sector and cherry picking students in the more profitable and popular disciplines.
Public universities therefore face the prospect of feeling obligated to maintain unpopular disciplines while at the same time competing with private institutions with no such commitments.
And what happens when commercial decisions work against public interest or when the public interest cannot be supported by sound economic arguments?
Who decides, who pays and who picks up the pieces if the wrong decisions are made?
Extensive public debate is needed to deal with these challenges before the popularity game see Australia importing knowledge, skills and innovation rather than creating and embracing its own.
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