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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11506

Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (11:15): I have to say that a wry smile crept across my face when this PMB came across my desk: a coalition motion trumpeting the importance of STEM, research and development and innovation to ensuring the jobs of the future in Australia. It is pleasing at least that irony is not dead. A government that have spent two years systematically gutting our nation's STEM research infrastructure are now positioning themselves as the champions of the future; a government that kicked the science minister out of cabinet when they was elected; a government that cut $115 million from the budget of the CSIRO; a government that took the knife to research and development to the tune of $878 million; a government that proposed $5 billion of funding cuts to universities; a government that presided over an education review that proposed removing digital literacy from our nation's schools' curriculum; a government that have voted not once, not twice but three times to remove the R&D tax incentives that keep Australia a competitive and desirable place for large companies to undertake research and development; a government that took all of these actions ahead of their innovation review and tax white paper, as though STEM and R&D funding were somehow peripheral to these policy agendas; a government that listened to Labor's comprehensive package of policies announced in the 2015 budget reply, STEM policies designed to secure the jobs of the future, and did nothing; indeed, a government that literally laughed at our proposal to teach computational thinking, a crucial STEM literacy for the jobs of the future, in our primary schools. Yet they now come into this chamber with a PMB to acknowledge that the government are delivering on STEM.

The sad reality is that Australia is not currently delivering on STEM. We are not equipping our kids with the skills that they will need to compete for the jobs of the future with the kids growing up in our peer countries in the Indo-Pacific. We are not producing the specialist graduates with the skills necessary to make Australia a hub for STEM research and development and innovation. As Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, has said:

As the economy becomes increasingly dependent on technology, our national competitiveness will be underwritten by our real-world capability in mathematics and science.

Unfortunately, this real-world capability is going backwards. While our peers in the Indo-Pacific apply an ever-greater focus on building their STEM capabilities through schools and universities, we are stalling. Fewer than one in 10 Australian high school students now complete the advanced maths courses necessary for the increasingly fundamental workplace skills, like data analysis or data modelling. The percentage of Australian university students studying math degrees in Australia is only 0.5 per cent, roughly half the OECD average. In Victoria, the number of VCE students studying an ICT subject is at a 20-year low. Survey research undertaken by Microsoft suggests that around only a third of Australian students even have the opportunity of learning code in school. Unsurprisingly, this decline is flowing through to our universities in this area too. The number of Australians enrolling in tertiary ICT courses fell by 52 per cent in the 10 years between 2003 and 2013, from 8.1 per cent of all students to 3.9 per cent. We are simply not producing a workforce with the STEM skills needed to compete in the global economy for the jobs of the future. Labor recognise this and we are acting.

During the 2015 budget reply speech, the Leader of the Opposition unveiled Labor's plan for the jobs of the future. Under a Shorten Labor government, we will ensure computational thinking is taught in primary and secondary schools across the country. We will establish a national coding in schools centre, where business and industry can connect with teachers, giving our children insight into the real-world application of the skills that they are learning. We will establish a STEM teacher training fund to support 25,000 primary and secondary school teachers to undertake professional development in STEM disciplines, tackling the chronic shortage of STEM-literate teachers in our education system. We will offer 100,000 STEM award degrees which will provide a financial incentive for students to enrol in and complete a STEM undergraduate degree, in recognition of the significant benefit of growing Australia's STEM capacity. There will be 100,000 STEM graduates instead of $100,000 degrees.

We will reverse the cuts the Liberals have made to university fees. We will establish a $500 million smart investment fund that will partner with VCs and licensed fund managers to co-invest in early-stage companies, providing a Commonwealth investment of up to 50 per cent of the start-up capital needed to help Australian companies commercialise innovations. We will work with industry on StartUp Finance, a partial guarantee scheme to improve access to finance to microbusinesses. We will offer 2,000 graduates a 'Start Up year', fuelling their entrepreneurial spirit by providing income-contingent loans to up to 2,000 students to support their participation in university accelerators or similar incubators run by successful entrepreneurs. This would be a government delivering on an innovation agenda. This would be a government putting science at the centre of industry. But it will take more than a new prime minister to realise it; it will take a new government altogether. At the next federal election, whether it will be in the coming months or whether it will be late next year, the Australian Labor Party will offer that choice to the Australian public.