The Australian Government has promised $12 million to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in primary and secondary schools, despite a Government-commissioned review recommending digital tech subjects only be offered to year nine students and above.
The announcement, made today as part of the Government's 'national industry investment and competitiveness agenda', follows sustained criticism around a lack of focus on science on a federal level.
Of the promised $12 million, $7.4 million will go towards mathematics resources, $3.5 million will provide greater exposure for computer programming, and $500,000 will be set aside for a pilot program “to help develop the next generation of innovators and job-ready graduates”.
The remainer will cover the funds to support travel and accomodation for students participating in summer schools for STEM subjects.
The Government has also appointed a new Commonwealth Science Council to advise on science and technology issues in Australia.
The 10-member council currently includes Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt, cancer vaccine investor Professor Ian Frazer and Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone.
It will be chaired by Prime Minister Tony Abbott and will include the industry, education and health ministers, as well as Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, who has previously been critical about the Government's focus on STEM.
Chubb just last month handed down a set of recommendations calling on the Government to be more active in promoting science and technology to students, including by ensuring every primary school has at least one specialist STEM teacher on staff at any one time.
The council will advise the government on areas of national strength, current and future capability and on ways to improve connections between government, research organisations, universities and business. Its first meeting will be held before the year and it will meet twice annually.
The government previously cut $111 million from Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO, over the next four years as part of its May budget, forcing the CSIRO to let go up to 1000 workers and close several of its sites.
Industry hits back at proposed changes to tech curriculum
The Government's STEM commitment follows contradictory recommendations made as part of its commissioned review of Australia's national curriculum, which said Australia should ditch plans to teach digital technologies to all students and only offer the subjects from year nine.
The review [pdf], released earlier this week, proposes to shift the recently-created digital technologies curriculum into other subjects rather than as a standalone course, and only offer dedicated technology courses as electives from year nine.
The recommendation sparked outrage from members of Australia's technology industry, who complained the proposal would set Australia back on the international stage.
Australian Computer Society CEO Alan Patterson said the recommendation, if adopted, would put Australian students at a "significant disadvantage" against students from the UK, who learn technology from the foundation level.
He said it was critical students were given 'at least' education in digital literacy such as basic coding from an early age so they do not fall behind internationally.
"By year 9, students will have already missed critical opportunities to build their digital literacy and capability," he said.
“If we don’t step in today and start providing the right digital education from a young age, we are at risk of having a generation of school leavers who will miss out on the education they need to be the innovators, entrepreneurs and digital leaders of tomorrow.
"It is these students who will lead the economy in years to come. We owe it to them to give them the very best chance.”
His comments were echoed by the Australian Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology (ACDICT), which said it was "dismayed" at the proposed "axing" of the digital technologies curriculum.
ACDICT president Professor Iowna Miliszewska said cutting the development of "fundamental computational thinking so necessary for the jobs of tomorrow" was equivalent to "reducing the capabilities of school leavers to second class citizens on a global scale".
"This move (if implemented) will have long-term effects on student capabilities as well as our future economy that increasingly depends on digitally focused jobs," she said in a statement.
"The proposal is the more difficult to understand as only today did the Government release its competitive blueprint .. [which] plans to champion new programs to enhance the standing of science, technology, mathematices and engineering in schools, and produce workers with the skills the industry needs."