Maths & Science

I spoke in parliament this morning about evidence-based policies to boost the number of students studying maths and science.
Higher Education Support Amendment (Student Contibution Amounts and Other Measures) Bill 2012
27 June 2012


Graham Freudenberg recalls in his book A Certain Grandeur Gough Whitlam was asked for concrete example of equality. Whitlam replied, 'I want every kid to have a desk with a lamp in his own room to study.' One can argue that for Whitlam the light on the hill shone from that lamp on the desk. I would like to think that at some of those desks they would be studying the sciences and mathematics, fulfilling their curiosity and passion for new insights and a deeper understanding of the world, building and developing skills that will enable them to make new discoveries, create innovations and be part of breakthroughs that will revolutionise our way of life. The sciences and mathematics are vital fields of knowledge for our prosperity and for our place in the world. Labor recognises this, which is why we are taking evidence based steps to ensure we foster the critical thinking, reasoning and creativity the sciences engender.

I want to outline the importance of supporting study in the sciences and mathematics and how this bill targets incentives for study in these areas. The Mathematics, Engineering and Science in the National Interest report noted:

'There is a global perception that a workforce with a substantial proportion educated in Mathematics, Engineering and Science (MES) is essential to future prosperity.'

But it noted that Australia's graduation rates in maths, engineering and science are low by international comparison. Globally, policies are emerging that focus on science and technology recognising that Australia, like the rest of the world, needs to increase our investment in sciences and mathematics. I commend Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, formerly my vice-chancellor at ANU, for his activism on these issues.

The Chief Scientist recently published a paper comparing Australia's science, research and innovation system with other developed nations. He found we had a similar percentage of researchers in our workforce compared to North America and Europe. We have a low number of researchers working in business enterprises with relatively high numbers working in higher education. So the bulk of Australia's research and development in these areas takes place in universities. We are fortunate to have that base in universities, but the challenge for Australia is to capitalise on this and build more researchers and innovators in industry. The more students we have educated in maths and science, the more workers we will have in the workforce who are pursuing research in these areas.

I recently visited the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering. Prof. Stephen Buckman, the director of the school, invited me to visit and to see the research taking place there. ANU physics is built around three big picture themes: quantum science and technology; advanced materials and technology; and energy and environmental science and technology. I got a chance to see Australia's largest accelerator and the H1-NF National Stellarator Facility. They are doing impressive work at the ANU.

Earlier this year Prof. Brian Schmidt, winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, made the following comment when talking about funding extension of his research. He said that hiring extra staff at the facility allowed him to spend more time promoting science as a career prospect for young Australians. He said:

'Science is a great career and I think we undersell it. There's this misbelief within the community that somehow by being a scientist, you're making a sacrifice. We are very well supported in this country right now ... and I think it really shouldn't be anything other than the first choice for our best young men and women across the country.'

This was an optimistic vision from Prof Schmidt when he took time from his busy schedule to speak to a cross-parliamentary group of members and staff organised by myself and the member for Bowman. At the announcement of the extension of the Prof. Schmidt's laureate fellowship, the minister Senator Evans commented:

'Everyone understands that we've had a drop off in interest in science. It's been true of most western democracies and advanced industrial societies and what we've got to do is try and arrest that decline in the learning of science, in the promotion of science, in the engagement with the community. And one of the greatest vehicles we've got for that is using Brian's abilities to communicate and his standing in science.'

I want to take a moment to note a few other innovations in this area. Melodie Potts Rosevear, Teach For Australia's founder and CEO, and Tanya Greeves, a teacher at Lanyon High School, came to parliament this week to speak with members of staff about the Teach for Australia program, which is, I think, one of the great ways of getting talented scientists into high school classrooms.

Indeed, in the 2012 Public Education Excellence Awards in the ACT it was a Teach for Australia teacher, Igraine Ridley-Smith of Calwell High School, who received the New Educator of the Year award—a testament to the ideas that she is conveying to her science and mathematics students.

Australia is fortunate to be hosting the International Olympiad in Informatics in July 2013, at the University of Queensland. I commend Dr Benjamin Burton and his colleagues for the work they are doing to organise that important international event. Last week in this House the Parliamentary Friends of Women in Science, Maths and Engineering was convened by the members for Kingston and Higgins. The guest speaker was Professor Elizabeth Blackburn. I had the pleasure of chatting with Carola Vinuesa, Mahananda Dasgupta and other scientists in the ACT about the research they are doing.

Mathematics, statistics and science are classified as national priority units of study, so students are charged a reduced maximum student contribution amount for those units. But the 2008 Bradley Review of higher education found that there was no evidence that lower student contributions had a positive impact on student demands. We thought when we were setting this policy up that it would have a positive effect, but the evidence found otherwise. We are therefore changing the policy. I would call on those opposite to likewise listen to the evidence when it is as clear as it is in this case. The policy was found not to be well targeted. It did not deliver value for money. Accounting for growth in the higher education sector, it was estimated the government paid over $150,000 for each place gained through transitional loading in 2010.

This bill amends the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to increase the maximum student contribution amount for mathematics, statistics and science units of study for all students from 1 January 2013. The maximum student contribution for students enrolled in science and maths units will increase to $8,363 in 2013. We will be using the savings from that to support additional investments in the new demand driven funding system for universities.

Just as the expansion of Australia's universities supported by HECS in the 1980s and 1990s brought about a revolution in higher education, so too will demand driven funding under this government expand the number of students who go to university. It is always pleasing to me when I meet a student who is the first from their family to attend university. There will be many more of those students thanks to these reforms. The total level of funding provided to universities for these units will be maintained with the government reinstatement of the maximum student contribution amounts for students who enrol in mathematics, statistics and science units.

As priority units of study, we still want to encourage and provide incentives for students to study mathematics and sciences. In this year's budget we announced $54 million for a range of measures to encourage the study of mathematics and sciences. Graduates from a natural and physical sciences course with a HECS-HELP debt who work in a relevant field can have their compulsory repayments reduced by more than $1,600. Those who work as a maths or science teacher—as Ms Ridley-Smith does—may qualify for both the HECS-HELP benefit for maths and science graduates and the HECS-HELP benefit for teachers. They can have their compulsory repayments reduced by more than $3,000. We believe these measures will be more cost-effective than allowing students to pay a reduced student contribution amount and having the government paying transitional loading to universities. We are moving from policies that did not work to policies that will.

The government does not believe it is appropriate that students residing overseas continue to receive large subsidies towards obtaining a higher education degree from an Australian university. So the residency amendment ensures government assistance is restricted to study predominantly completed within Australia. I am somebody who benefited from overseas study, but I believe it is appropriate that the Australian taxpayer support higher education that takes place in an Australian university. The funding priority should be those students who are most likely to pursue a career in Australia, to commence repayment of their HELP debt and use their education to benefit Australia's workforce and economic needs.

The number of students currently enrolled with an Australian providers and not residing in Australia is relatively small. In 2010, for example, there were only about 1,000 full-time students enrolled in Commonwealth supported places or accessing FEE-HELP who resided overseas. With the growth in Commonwealth supported places under the demand driven model for university funding and the growth in online delivery, it is important to clarify eligibility conditions before there are further increases in the number of students being assisted by the government who do not live within the borders of this country.

The bill removes eligibility for Commonwealth supported places and the HELP schemes for Australian citizens who commence a course of study on or after 1 January 2013 where a higher education provider reasonably expects the person will not undertake any of their course of study in Australia. Students undertaking study as part of a formal exchange or study abroad program for some of the units in their course, including those students receiving assistance through the OS-HELP system, will not be affected by this change. The amendments ensure that government assistance is restricted to people who will retain a strong attachment to Australia.

The reduction in student contributions for mathematics, statistics and science units has not been effective in substantially increasing the number of students undertaking study in these areas at university. This government has a passion for education and we have a passion for evidence. Because of those two goals, we have doubled investment in school education. We are providing more information to parents than ever before through the MySchool and MyUniversity websites. We now have an additional 150,000 students attending university. It is absolutely vital that we support the study of mathematics and science. It is critical education policy and is vital to Australia's productivity in the future. But we must have the right tools to do the job.

The third year university students who dedicate their summer holidays to work at the CSIRO and be part of new research and innovation show that the passion for mathematics and science is still there. You only need to take a stroll through Questacon to see the excitement in science among young Australians. We need to encourage that excitement at school through such things as: Teach For Australia; at university, the hard work of groups such as the ANU physics school; here in the parliament, groups such as the Parliamentary Friends of Women in Science, Mathematics and Engineering; and the right, effective policies at our universities.

The light of opportunity Whitlam spoke of as shining from a desk lamp is for our maths and science students also the light of discovery, of innovation, of prosperity. This government wants the light to shine even brighter. I commend the bill to the House.

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8/1 Torrens Street, Braddon ACT 2612 | 02 6247 4396 | Andrew.Leigh.MP@aph.gov.au