Raising the Bar of Aspiration

Dr Alan Finkel, former Chief Scientist of Australia, President of the Australian Academy of Engineering, and Chancellor of Monash University

Raising the Bar of Aspiration‘ was the theme and focus of a presentation by Dr Alan Finkel as the opening address at the ACDS Annual General meeting held on Friday 9th May 2024.

The AGM was held via videoconference and was attended by Deans of Science (or equivalent) from 28 of the 35 ACDS member universities.

Dr Finkel gave a wide-ranging, engaging and thought-provoking presentation. Topics covered included the role of universities in supporting the transition to net zero carbon emissions; concerns about mathematics education in schools and the implications for university courses and policies.

The following summarise key issues and themes raised by Dr Finkel.

Concerns about maths education in schools

Dr Finkel:

  • Noted concern about the prevalence of out-of-field maths teaching, with statistics showing 40% of maths teachers have not specialised in maths.
  • Highlighted the importance of high-quality instructional materials (HQIM), mentioning the efforts of Stile Education in creating HQIM school science materials.
  • Noted and commended the work of AMSI and others in advocating for CPD to upskill out-of-field teachers.  These programs will help, but there are challenges and costs involved.
  • Observed that the best solution would be to train more maths teachers, but this is difficult because we are in a downwards spiral of fewer students choosing maths at school thus fewer who can potentially become maths-trained teachers.
  • Suggested that, given the chronic shortage of qualified maths teachers, schools should turn to HQIM in mathematics.  Curriculum resources are not an alternative to qualified teachers, but they can strongly assist.
  • Expressed his concern that school ‘rankings’ overly influence educational priorities and lead to a ‘teaching to the test’ culture, where educational strategies are designed to improve rankings rather than addressing the learning needs of students.
  • Called for better support systems for teachers and the integration of HQIM resources to improve educational outcomes.
  • Considered that the system should make it easier for maths trained people from industry to enter teaching.  Bringing back the Dip Ed would provide a more attractive pathway compared with the Masters of Education currently required.

Implications for university courses and policies

  • Impact of Prerequisite Policies:
    • Elimination of prerequisites maths in some Universities has resulted in students who are less prepared, impacting the quality of higher education outcomes.
    • The absence of prerequisites in mathematics is a signal to principals not to try hard to recruit maths teachers and instead encourage students to do other subjects.
    • Risks to numeracy skills in university programs affecting graduate outcomes.
    • Risk of hybrid classes in universities with some who have studied maths at school and some who haven’t.
    • Risks to incentives for schools to offer mathematics if it is not required for entry into university.
    • The goal should be to produce T-shaped graduates.
  • Professionalisation of Teacher Education:
    • The shift towards longer, more costly professionalisation in teacher education (e.g., two-year master’s programs) may deter potential teachers.
    • Need simpler, more direct routes to enter the profession such as by re-introducing 1-year Graduate certificate of Education, or engagement in the ‘Teach for Australia’ program.
    • Touched on innovation in educational resources, particularly the transition from traditional textbooks to digital resources, and the challenges of maintaining quality in this shift.

Role of universities in supporting the transition to net zero carbon emissions

  • Universities are at the forefront of research and innovation, especially in developing technologies and strategies underpinning the transition to net zero – includes enhancing long-distance transmission technologies and integrating distributed energy resources like rooftop solar and battery systems.
  • Must tackle the societal issues of wind turbines, solar farms and transmission lines.
  • Universities lead in research and training, including the workforce needed to address these challenges – engineers, scientists, and technicians.
  • Need for unique Australian customisation of technologies to fit local conditions, pointing out the importance of solutions developed specifically for the Australian context – essential to integrate and optimise the grid infrastructure.
  • Noted that major impediments to slowing progress are societal (e.g. resistance from landholders and environmental activists) and regulatory.