HECS minus $400 million means Australia is a nation of dunces

Anthony Dooley

Professor Anthony Dooley, head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of NSW, has warned the cut to HECS will affect student numbers. Picture: Nic Gibson Source: The Daily Telegraph

AUSTRALIA'S ambition to become the "clever country" is in tatters because it cannot produce enough experts in the two most critical disciplines - mathematics and science.

Top scientists and mathematicians, furious about the Gillard Government's $400 million cut in HECS fee relief and axed school science programs, warn Australia is in serious danger of losing its mantle as a world leader in education, The Daily Telegraph reported.

In a bid to return the Australian economy to surplus Treasurer Wayne Swan has taken the razor to education, increasing annual HECS fees for university science and maths students from $4691 to $8353 - cancelling the incentive to study those subjects.

Barry Jones, a former science minister in the Hawke government, said just 9 per cent of Australian university students enrol in the sciences of physics, chemistry and mathematics when the OECD average is 13 per cent and in South-East Asia it is 26 per cent.

"It looks bad," he said.

"There are serious problems in maths and sciences in Australia generally."The "deficiency" starts in primary schools with a high proportion of teachers themselves uneasy with maths and science and by high school, students move on to other interests, Mr Jones added.

And the crisis is set to worsen by 2020 when Australia will have more PhD mathematicians retiring from the workforce than entering it - despite a 55 per cent increase in demand across all sectors of the economy.

The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute is so worried about the decline it is planning a national advertisement campaign on buses and trains to promote the impact of maths and statistics on people's "daily lives and on their health and wellbeing".

The head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of NSW, Anthony Dooley, warned the cut to HECS would affect student numbers in the core subjects.

"The country needs more mathematicians and scientists ... our enrolments have been going up by 10 per cent a year and that growth is a realisation that maths and science are crucial to the world's future," Prof Dooley said.

"We need the Government to realise that this is a crucial national priority ... we need to be clever and we need people with mathematical skills to drive the economy forward."

The number of advanced maths students across Australia dropped by 25 per cent between 1995 and 2008, while university maths majors fell by 15 per cent between 2001 and 2008. The Australian Academy of Science also urged the Government to do more to support the subjects.

"We are slipping behind neighbouring countries in maths and science performance at secondary school and there are growing shortages in the workforce of young people with maths and science skills," president Suzanne Cory said.

"Australia's robust economic future depends upon innovation.," she said.

A spokesman for Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans said the HECS subsidy was being abolished because it had not proven to be a cost-effective way of lifting maths and science attainment.

"By the time young people are making university choices many have already made the decision to drop the study of advanced maths and science subjects at high school," he said. "It's for that reason that the Government has asked the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, to work with the science community to develop new means for further lifting student participation rates in maths and science."

Federal Schools Minister Peter Garrett said that science and mathematics were two of the first four subjects to be rolled out under the new national curriculum.

Universities Australia said alternative programs to improve school science and maths and university enrolments were vital while the University of Sydney was seeking more funds to support the most talented students.