Science enrolments not growing fast enough to meet national need

Australia faces significant challenges to its scientific future, according to a report commissioned by the nation’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, and released on Wednesday. While the rate of increase in university science enrolments has almost kept up with other disciplines, Chubb says the figures offer little relief for concerns about the future of science and technology.

“Science as a whole may be nearly keeping pace with other disciplines but how are we going to improve our sustainability and prosperity without more agronomists, technology experts and teachers?” he asks.

“Having a growing pool of science graduates will ensure Australia can continue to compete on the international stage and develop scientific solutions to problems facing our nation, such as food and water security, climate change and urban population growth.”

The 80-page report, Unhealthy Science? University natural and physical sciences 2002-2009/2010, was prepared by Dr Ian R Dobson, a correspondent of University World News who spends part of each year as a research director at the University of Helsinki in Finland and part in Melbourne, where he is a research associate at Monash University’s Centre for the Study of Population and Urban Research.

In a detailed examination of university enrolments from 2002-10, Dobson shows that enrolments in science courses increased by 30%, only just behind the sector-wide average of 33%, with18,000 more science students at the end of the decade than in 2002.

Yet the disciplines of health, and management and commerce gained the majority of increased student enrolments with 97,000 and 66,000 more students at the end of the decade, respectively. Overall, science had the fourth-lowest growth rate over the period compared with enrolments in agriculture, which experienced a 0.5% decline, information technology a startling fall of 34.5%, and education enrolments, which increased by only 24%.

Dobson says a major concern is a lack of growth in the number of science students taking the ‘enabling sciences’: chemistry, mathematics and physics. As he says, these disciplines drive innovation and are critical to the national interest, yet well over half of science bachelor degree students study them only in their first year.

The period from 2002 to 2009-10 was chosen, Dobson says, because it was a decade in which the federal Education Department did not change the way enrolment statistics were recorded by universities, so the figures for the different years could be compared. Even so, most data for 2010 are still not available, a fact that has caused Education Minister Senator Chris Evans to order his department to improve its performance.

Dobson has long had a reputation as a great number-cruncher and this report is no exception because he has compiled a vast set of figures detailing enrolments in all faculties over the decade.

More than 60 tables break these down into enrolments by field, gender, state, university, commencements and completions, as well as by citizenship status, mode of attendance, and undergraduate and postgraduate numbers.

The data show that the composition of science bachelor degrees changed little over the decade, with biology being the main discipline (36% of enrolments), followed by chemistry and mathematics (about 10% each) and physics and earth sciences (4% to 5%).

Dobson points out that 26% of an average science degree in Australia is made up of subjects from other disciplines while more than half of all teaching in science disciplines is to students enrolled in other courses, particularly those in health, engineering, and management and commerce.

He notes that biological sciences and mathematical science disciplines make up about 38% each of all ‘service’ teaching in the natural and physical sciences, with lower proportions from the other ‘science’ disciplines. This refers to the teaching of ‘science’ subjects to students enrolled in ‘non-science’ courses.

“Natural and physical sciences comprise teaching that is critical to students studying in all fields of education, not just those enrolled in ‘science’ degrees,” Dobson writes. “The ‘reach’ of science is therefore considerable, and has a major impact on undergraduate and postgraduate graduations across the system.”

As in most other countries, bachelor degree students make up the majority in Australian universities. Across all fields of study, they represented about 66% of all enrolments in 2009, whereas in the natural and physical sciences, the proportion was almost 79%.

Dobson says the relatively higher proportion in these sciences arises mainly because fewer students are enrolled in masters by coursework degrees, “a particularly popular course level in the various fields of education with higher proportions of international fee-paying students”.

But it is the rapidly increasing numbers of overseas students that has been a key driver of the trends in higher education enrolments this decade. Between 2002 and 2009, the number of foreign students enrolled in Australian universities jumped by 136,000 and they increased their proportion of all enrolments from 21% to 28% over the period.

Full-time international student numbers grew by almost 129,000 between 2002 and 2009, a growth rate of 94%, compared with a rise of 91,000, or 89%, for domestic students. These additional students from overseas boosted the size of most universities, with some experiencing a growth rate of up to 85%.

But foreign students were not opting to study science in large numbers and, by 2009, more than half were enrolled in management and commerce courses, up from 44% in 2002. Yet they have also had a major impact on engineering, Dobson says, where they now comprise 32% of all enrolments, up from 23% in 2002.

Dobson’s study is the third and final investigation commissioned by the Chief Scientist to inform his advice in his own Health of Australian Science Report due for publication this month.

* Unhealthy Science? University natural and physical sciences 2002-2009/2010 is available on the University World News website here.