Why it matters that student participation in maths and science is declining

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Today’s students with intentions to study at university do less maths and less science than previous generations. AAP/Dan Peled

There has been a lot of talk about Australia’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) crisis, and new initiatives have been developed to tackle it. There is talk about engaging students with mathematics and science, kindling student interest and transforming the way it is taught.

But the simple fact remains that many students are choosing not to study these subjects at high school. A new report, with my colleague John Mack, confirms that, compared with 15 years ago – in the dark ages of digital technology – recent NSW high school certificate (HSC) graduates are less well prepared to enter STEM courses at university, while 50% of them finish high school with no science study at all.

Unlike many other countries (such as Finland, the US and China), Australia does not mandate study in mathematics or science for high school graduation. Students get to choose – and in the NSW HSC they have 43 subjects to choose from, not counting the 62 language courses.

More Australian students now complete high school and more go on to university. Yet there are declines and stagnation in mathematics and science study in an era when it is evident that these subjects play an ever-increasing role in our lives and in countries’ economies.

Historical perspectives show just how low current science and maths participation in NSW is.

Declining science and maths participation in schools

The percentage of ATAR eligible students not studying science and maths subjects in NSW schools, 2001 and 2014.

Declining numbers in mathematics

Prior to the new HSC in 2001, more than 98% of high school graduates studied some sort of mathematics. By 2014, 9.7% of HSC students did no maths. The proportion of ATAR-eligible boys studying maths had fallen to 90.7%; among girls it was only 78.6%.

The proportions of students studying no mathematics at all for high school graduation in NSW has trebled since 2001. This also occurred among both boys and girls who applied for an ATAR and were planning to go on to university study.

The level of mathematics studies has also fallen. There are NSW and national declines, with a shift away from intermediate mathematics to more elementary mathematics. In NSW, twice as many students are enrolled in elementary maths as in intermediate maths.

Illogical declines in science

Although less dramatic, there are also declines in science participation. Among NSW ATAR-eligible students, science participation was substantially higher in 1991 – biology 35%, chemistry 26%, physics 24% – than in 2014 (biology 30%, chemistry 20%, physics 17%).

These illogical trends come at a time when there is increasing recognition of the important role these subjects play in educating future workforces.

Since the new HSC in 2001, the proportion of ATAR-eligible students undertaking no science study is stagnant, but at high levels – around 45%. So, nearly one in two university students went science-free in HSC.

The biggest subject in HSC science is biology. More than one-third of ATAR-eligible girls take biology. Only 16% now take a science subject other than biology.

National surveys of science participation also show declines despite rising numbers of students completing high school.

When we compare these statistics to international practice the levels are low. Most countries mandate mathematics study for high school. Many of the high-attaining countries also require science study – even for students who take arts-based streams. The UK is playing catch-up and now plans to require maths study up to 18 years of age.

Declining university preparation


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