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Sorry about this, but Aussie kids won’t have a choice about studying maths

There has been lots of debate about how easy it is to get a place at an Aussie uni, but it’s about to become much harder.

There’s a push from both sides of parliament to strengthen Australia’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) curriculum.

We’ve always prided ourselves on being the Clever Country, but it might be more of a well-loved myth than a reality.

When compared globally via the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), Australia’s levels of mathematics literacy are… Well, they’re not terrible, but they sure aren’t anything of which to be proud.

It’s genuinely worrying that Australia is under-performing internationally compared to STEM strong countries.

Malcolm Turnbull lamented the fact that STEM subjects are no longer compulsory in Australian schools. “In my generation, you had to do maths or science to complete high school. Many parts of Australia now, you don’t have to do that,” he said.

“We’ve got to get back to that and ensure that everyone is very literate in those STEM subjects. Science, maths, technology – that’s the future.”

Surprise surprise, he’s actually right on this one. Competency in STEM skills is the best way to equip students who will eventually work in the digital world. CEO of recruitment site Search Party Ben Hutt told Business Insider that some of this year’s most sought-after skills will take advantage of the digital economy:

“New and emerging jobs such as data scientists and user experience (UX) designers will be highly popular in 2016,” said Hutt.

“Data scientists will be in high demand due to the increasing availability of consumer data and the rise of truly powerful machine learning. Companies are getting more sophisticated with how they use data and it is defining business success.”

As it stands, most Aussie students have the option of dropping maths in either year 10 or 11. In fact, between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of kids studying Advanced Maths dropped from 30.6 per cent to 14.2 per cent. Further, the amount who chose to kick maths to the curb altogether rose from 4.8 per cent to 15.6 per cent.

I was one of the 15.6 per cent who swapped maths for Extension 2 English, but I did that because 1) I hated maths, and 2) I knew I’d get a better ATAR if I studied humanities subjects. I ended up doing a communications degree (obvs) and have never regretted my decision to drop maths. BUT I probably would if I was studying the HSC this year, because a bunch of Aussie unis are making mathematics a prerequisite. The tried-and-true back-up option of a bridging course may not be feasible anymore.

In NSW alone, the University of Sydney has made maths compulsory for 62 degrees, UNSW is thinking ’bout it (i.e. they’ll jump on board soon), and UTS is making every student complete a numeracy subject before they can graduate.

Shirley Alexander, deputy VC at UTS, explained, “We think that to produce graduates that are really going to contribute to society every single graduate needs to have numeracy.”

These moves are supported by USyd’s resident mega maths boss, Nalini Joshi. The Chair of the National Committee for Mathematical Sciences says that compulsory STEM subjects “absolutely have to become a national policy. We are leaching out the mathematical skills from the majority of the population”.

Joshi told Fairfax that apprentices are becoming bricklayers “who don’t know how many bricks to order and students are becoming nurses who are unable to work out dosages”.

If you have some spare time, please watch her chat to Charlie Pickering on The Weekly. She’s so passionate she even makes me think maths is a bit cool(ish), and definitely a necessary skill for the young ones.

About the author

Larissa is Techly’s Assistant Editor. She watches so much Youtube that she’s narrowed down her favourite categories – goats, innocent dads getting pranked, and toddlers falling over.

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