Schools, universities and the ATAR system are driving students away from vital science, maths and technology subjects, according to chief scientist Alan Finkel, who has strongly defended the importance of STEM in a report to the country's education ministers.
Dr Finkel has urged a review of the university entrance system, the reintroduction of maths as a prerequisite for relevant university courses and the tracking of students' performance from cradle to grave using a controversial ID system.
"Teachers, parents and businesses agree: we need a better conversation about the purpose of the ATAR, with an emphasis not just on getting into university, but getting in prepared to do well."
The report found that "while there has been a slight decline in the number of year 12 students studying STEM subjects over the years, the more concerning trend is what appears to be a reduction in the level of difficulty of the subjects chosen by students". It noted participation in science subjects dropped to 51 per cent in 2013 from 55 per cent in 2002.
Dr Finkel argued students were receiving the "wrong signals" from universities, and consequently bad advice from their own schools. Another "unhelpful signal" was the erosion of maths as a prerequisite for many university courses, he said.
The report noted just five out of 37 universities required intermediate or advanced maths to get into a bachelor of science - while out of 34 institutions offering engineering degrees, only one required advanced maths and two did not require applicants to have studied maths at all.
Dr Finkel backed a "phased in" reintroduction of mathematics prerequisites for relevant courses on the basis that "mathematics is the language of science, and that mathematics skills need constant development and cannot be acquired effectively in a short bridging course".
The chief scientist also recommended introducing a national "unique student identifier" to track student outcomes in tests such as NAPLAN from birth to death. A similar tool is already used in schools in Victoria, the ACT and Western Australia.
The data would be de-identified for aggregation and analysis at a national level, but could also be used by students at an individual level. "Strict access and privacy controls" would need to be built in to the scheme, the report acknowledges, much like eHealth records.
Dr Finkel's report repudiates that view without addressing those comments specifically. It says industry is concerned about graduates' capabilities in the areas of science and maths, and urges: "Student attitudes to STEM are established in primary school and this is when the work on engagement and excitement needs to begin."
The report did not recommend making mathematics or science compulsory all the way through to year 12, which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has previously supported. Shortly before the last election he said it was a "big priority" that "maths or science should be a prerequisite school subject to have completed to go onto university".
Among the other recommendations of Dr Finkel's review are:
Clarifying the future needs of the STEM industries.
Setting minimum standards of continued professional development for STEM teachers.
Engaging more students in STEM by focusing on real world problems rather than careers.
The STEM Partnerships Forum, headed by Dr Finkel, was briefed with improving school-industry partnerships and conceded it took "a broad view of our mandate". Federal and state education ministers are expected to respond to the recommendations shortly.