Australian STEM skills hindered by school ATAR score: Intel MD

While Australian students are urged to take up STEM subjects in order to avoid being affected by the global skills shortage, Intel Australia managing director Kate Burleigh believes ATAR fear is holding students back from studying such subjects.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) is hindering the nation's challenge of getting more students involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), according to Kate Burleigh, Intel Australia managing director.

Speaking at the Data 61 Live 2016 event in Sydney, Burleigh said it was obvious that Australia has a crisis in terms of not enough students adopting STEM-based subjects whilst at primary school and high school.

"I have two daughters of my own and one of them is a great humanities student and the other is more maths and science focused," she said. "My year 11 daughter said it's just not practical playing for the best score in her ATAR [to choose STEM subjects].

"The ATAR is not helping our challenge at the moment around getting more students taking up STEM."

The ATAR is the primary criteria for entry into most Australian undergraduate university degrees and is usually provided to a student upon completing high school as a numeric score between zero and 100.

Canberra Girls Grammar School year 12 student Laura Johnston said she has chosen non-STEM subjects for her final years at high school, opting to take humanities-based subjects.

"I've done this for two different reasons, not because I was pressured into humanities because I'm a girl, but first off because there's an opportunity cost when it comes to choosing a STEM subject," she said.

"For a lot of people, choosing a subject like maths or science takes a lot of extra time to study hard enough to be good at that subject and so for me, in order to be good at maths or science, I had to do a lot of extra study, whereas humanities came more naturally.

"The second reason is that I really just like humanities-based subjects."

Johnston said venturing down the humanities path was a smarter and more informed decision when it came to her ATAR, adding that she knew she would get better grades if she did not participate in STEM-related subjects.

"It's all to do with my ATAR," she said.

Additionally, Johnston said that a lot of her peers do not see the practical application of continuing maths or science through their senior years.

As previously highlighted by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, the world is facing a global skills shortage. Infosys also reported earlier this year that young Australians were ill-prepared for the digital economy that stands before them.

Infosys found 50 percent of young Australians believe their education did not prepare them for what to expect from working life, and 58 percent of respondents expect those with computer science skills to be more likely to have a successful career.

Despite this view, young Australians were found to be the least confident of their technical abilities and job prospects in the innovation age, and whilst they are highly aware of the need to learn new skills, Australians are also the least interested in improving their STEM knowledge.

Less than a fifth wanted to develop data skills, build mobile apps, or learn how to code; even fewer -- just 3.41 percent -- had a desire to work for a startup over a large company.

In December, the federal government pledged AU$51 million in a bid to help students in Australia embrace the digital age and prepare for the jobs of the future, along with AU$48 million to inspire STEM literacy over five years as part of its AU$1.1 billion National Science and Innovation Agenda.

A focus on STEM has become a hot topic on both sides of Australian politics, with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull having pushed the idea even before he came to power. Turnbull had previously highlighted that 75 percent of the fastest-growing occupations require STEM skills, but only half of year 12 students are studying science, which he said is down from 94 percent 20 years ago.

"That is really a retrograde development, and we have to turn that around," Turnbull said.

Also forming part of Turnbull's innovation agenda is the creation of an Entrepreneur Visa, which would allow those from overseas to live and work amongst Australia's tech industry.

The government begun the consultation process for the visa in February, releasing a discussion paper to tackle concerns including: Individual nomination procedure, third party backing, length of stay, visa extension length, and whether the individual should be given permanent residency if their innovations prove to be a success.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-CEO and co-founder of startup darling Atlassian, believes bringing in overseas talent while the country waits for its own students to be trained up is crucial.

"We've got to be importing a lot of technical talent," he said. "We've got a lot of very talented engineers here. We always say at Atlassian that we don't have any experienced engineers.

"Most of our guys have come in for the first time. We're doing it for the first time and we realise that; most of the people we are hiring locally are very, very smart, great engineers, but they're all doing it for the first time. We've got to bring in as much overseas talent as we can."

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