Australia's Chief Scientist

The state of science enrolments

The report, Unhealthy Science? University Natural and Physical Sciences 2002-2009/10, was prepared by Dr Ian Dobson and is an examination of recent higher education enrolment figures.

The analysis showed that science enrolments increased by 30% between 2002 and 2010, only just behind the sector average of 33%, with over 18,000 more science students enrolling over the period.

However science had the fourth-lowest growth rate for 2002-2010, with only enrolments in agriculture (-0.5%), information technology (-34.5%) and education (+23.8%) faring worse.

The leaders in student enrolments were health and management & commerce, which had 97,000 and 66,000 more students by the end of the decade respectively.

Despite enrolments increasing at almost the average rate, Professor Chubb said the figures offered little relief for concerns about the future of science and technology in Australia.

“We need a growing pool of science graduates to ensure Australia will be able to continue to compete on the international stage and develop scientific solutions to problems facing our nation,” he said.

Professor Chubb was particularly concerned by the lack of growth in the numbers of students taking enabling science subjects: mathematics, physics and chemistry. Well over half of science students studied them only in their first year of university.

According to the author of the report, Dr Ian Dobson, the figures were strong reason for concern.

“Even if sciences are no longer in decline, one needs to ask whether zero-growth is god enough in a technology-based knowledge society. Typically one expects innovation to come out of science and technology rather than from say, management and commerce,” Dr Dobson said.

The report was prepared to inform Professor Chubb’s advice to Prime Minister Julia Gillard on ways to increase maths and science enrolments due in March.

You can download the media release here and the full report here.