Stemming the Australian brain drain

THE educational principles that led to some of Australia’s greatest resource discoveries are sadly languishing, according to a prominent industry advocate and former Rio Tinto boss.
Stemming the Australian brain drain Stemming the Australian brain drain Stemming the Australian brain drain Stemming the Australian brain drain Stemming the Australian brain drain

BMA's graduate program provides recent graduates work experience, training and mentoring opportunities. Courtsy BHP Billiton Mitsubishi Alliance.

Justin Niessner

Speaking at the 39th annual Essington Lewis Memorial Lecture in Adelaide Friday, University of South Australia chancellor Ian Gould emphasised that technical and selective high schools could help curb a technology brain drain threatening the future competitiveness of the domestic resources industry.

Gould – who also served as an executive of Normandy Mining and founding chairman of Toro Energy – applauded a 2012 government commitment of $A54 million towards technological education, but questioned whether enough was being done.

“If we are to secure ourselves as a world leader, and an international minerals province and processor of influence, then it is the quality and the relevance of the knowledge we create and impart that will largely help us reach that goal,” he said.

“What technical high schools, for example, did so well was to act as great champions and practitioners of STEM subjects – the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects that are fundamental to ensuring we’re able to train and utilise the skilled, professional workforce that the mining and processing industries amongst others require.”

“It is a grave concern for our nation today that quality STEM education is languishing.

“In 2002, Australia had 22% of graduating first degree students in STEM subjects, and that compared to 64% in Japan and 52% in China. A decade later, that proportion in Australia had dropped to just 18%.”

Gould also cited a report released by the Australian Industry Group earlier this year that found Australian employers could not find the STEM skills they needed.

One potential solution was mooted as an increased application of academic “streaming”, or selection processes whereby students were grouped according to their performances and strengths in various fields.

While the chancellor acknowledged many educators rejected the system as undesirable and inequitable, he noted the process had been effective in Australian technical schools, which dominated the top echelons of schools rankings.

“Streaming is a major element in the education system of Germany, which is a powerhouse of applied scientific and engineering excellence, and where high quality crafts and trades are traditionally accorded the respect they deserve,” Gould said.

“Perhaps we should look more objectively for an Australian version of this approach.

“Education of secondary students capable of fulfilling their academic and career potential is essential to the social and economic wellbeing of South Australia, and the nation.

“And by ensuring our schools are producing students with the capacity and the curiosity to succeed in STEM-based degree studies, then universities can meet their time-honoured mandate, which is to continue to educate and to enquire more deeply.”