The Australian education system should introduce information technology skills such as coding and computational thinking much earlier than it does now, according to the country's Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Turnbull, who made the comments during a speech opening National ICT Australia's (NICTA) Techfest 2015 event in Sydney on Friday, said that school students as young as five or six should be introduced to "technology creation" rather than just the "passive consumption" of IT.
"How do we ensure that we are going to remain a highly prosperous, developed country with a generous social welfare? How are we going to be able to maintain that in a world that is vastly more competitive?" said Turnbull. "It's very clear to most people what we need to do. We need to be more technologically sophisticated. It is quite clear that we, as a nation, need to have many more students studying STEM subjects.
"We really should have every student acquiring some familiarity, if not expertise, to machine languages -- I mean, that is the new literacy: Reading, writing, arithmetic, and coding," he said.
Referencing NICTA's history of spinning off successful technology companies from postgraduate research projects carried out by PhD students in the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), Turnbull warned that Australia has seen a dramatic drop in students occupying the STEM fields of study over the past two decades.
"At the moment, only half of year 12 students are studying science, down from 94 percent 25 years ago. So we've got to reverse the trend away from STEM subjects," he said. "NICTA is a very important part of that. NICTA is one of the most significant technology PhD training institutions in Australia, and it is unrivalled when it comes to linking PhD students and business."
However, Turnbull's comments come only 10 months after the government's 2014 Budget revealed that federal funding for NICTA will completely dry up following the 2015-16 financial year.
The Abbott government announced in the Budget that it would maintain the funding announced by former Treasurer Chris Bowen in 2013 for NICTA; however, after the financial year ending 2016, it would need to be funded entirely by the private sector.
This leaves NICTA with a total of AU$84.9 million over the next two years, with the Department of Communications and the Australian Research Council equally contributing to the AU$42.8 million in funding for this year, and AU$42 million to fund the agency in 2015-16.
While Turnbull would not be drawn on future potential funding options for NICTA after the financial year ending 2016, he said that he does "expect NICTA to continue to thrive and prosper", and that the organisation is in discussions with "other parties".
However, Turnbull suggested that if Australia wants to achieve an "insurgency" around innovation and technology, it would have to be led by an attitudinal change.
"We have to recognise the world in which we live is changing rapidly. The velocity of change has probably never been greater," he said. "And so you have to have an attitude, whether you're running a business or a government department or a newspaper or a website, which is agile.
"You can't be like King Canute trying to turn the tide back; you've got to be like the great surfer who says, 'Yep, there's a very turbulent sea out there, I can ride that,' so in other words, make volatility your friend," he said.