Australia’s innovation agenda needs more postgraduate
STEM knowledge and research training
Australia’s future innovation-led economy will have an increasing number of high performing professionals with advanced science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) knowledge, skills and qualifications. These professionals will have the high levels of creativity needed to tackle complex and multidisciplinary problems, and many will take leadership roles in both private and public sectors. Their knowledge and skills will be acquired through undertaking advanced coursework1, research degrees and work-relevant training.
The increasing demand for graduates from advanced coursework and research higher degree programs in STEM disciplines will come from industry, business and the public sector. The providers of these programs – mostly universities – will devise programs that are responsive and flexible. The programs will include development of advanced transferable and professional skills as well as technical STEM knowledge. Many programs will involve deep collaboration with employers.
The national figures for the completion of STEM higher education qualifications in 2016 show that international graduates outnumber Australians in both postgraduate coursework and research categories for information technology (IT) and engineering.
Many of the international students that Australia educates to high levels will return home to build their knowledge-based economies. Others may take up employment in Australia – to its advantage.
Having more Australians with advanced STEM qualifications is essential to increasing Australia’s capacity for STEM-based innovation. The data in the table below demonstrates the concern that not enough Australian students are doing postgraduate courses or PhDs in IT and engineering.
Australian industry and business will benefit from increased numbers of advanced graduates with skills in priority areas such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics, and autonomous systems. In the UK, engineering graduates and especially postgraduates provide the social networks, skills and absorptive capacity to not only ‘do first-rate engineering,’ but also to drive business development more generally3.
Australian universities’ STEM faculties are performing well and much of the universities’ STEM research is rated as world-class. This is recognised by the strong numbers of international enrolments in advanced coursework and research degrees. Yet, the benefit of graduate training and the translation of research into Australian industry and business is poorly rated in terms of commercialisation. Advanced coursework and research in Australia should be designed to build capacity for new innovative enterprises, advance the performance of existing enterprises with skilled postgraduate employees, and foster industry-university collaboration.
Women, on average, graduate from STEM bachelor degrees with higher levels of achievement than their male peers, however women remain a distinct minority in most areas of STEM postgraduate study and research. In particular, they remain as distinct minorities in physical sciences, engineering and IT.
Of additional concern is the decline of women in research-only positions over the 2010-2016 period, given that they are the feeder to higher level academic positions and research4 as well as role models for future female students.
A transformation of current STEM postgraduate coursework and research degrees is imperative to address the challenges of:
The Academy advocates for the following initiatives that will:
1 Advanced coursework means graduate certificate, graduate diploma and masters programs that extend STEM knowledge and skills beyond those of the first degree taken in the discipline. In engineering, the first degree – which qualifies graduates for commencement of supervised professional practice – may be an accredited coursework Masters degree.
2 Australian Government Department of Education and Training (2017), 2016 Award Course Completions, Higher Education Statistics. https://docs.education.gov.au/node/45246.
3 Technopolis Group (2015). Assessing the economic returns of engineering research and postgraduate training in the UK. https://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/reports/assessing-the-economic-returns-of-engineering-rese.
4 Australian Council of Engineering Deans (2018). Australian Engineering Education Student, Graduate and Staff data and trends, January 2018.
Promoting Australia's advancement through technology