Background Briefing

How did we get here? A deeper dive into the evidence base.

Please note that what follows is intended as a highlights reel, not a comprehensive list of relevant developments.

2015 – the National STEM School Education Strategy 2016–2026 was announced,

This was spurred on by concerns that Australian standards in Maths and Science were falling, and the lack of STEM education, as evidenced in international high stakes testing such as PISA. A new narrative about education and its instrumental benefits was taking shape, epitomised in the publication of a report in 2018 by the Chief Scientist – Optimising STEM Industry School Partnerships.

The report recommendations seek to “optimise the ways industry partnerships can assist in the provision of contemporary, internationally competitive STEM education in schools”. (p.9) The choice of Finkel as chief scientist came at the right time for the promotion of STEM and was in line with neo-liberal discourses that framed STEM as “an instrument of the neoliberal enterprise society”.  This attempted to normalise or justify the focus on STEM, by using  “crisis discourses” and adding a ‘back to the future’ traditionalist view of Science education, a context in which ethics and disciplines other than Science content were not relevant to the vision of STEM education.

2016 – Defence White Paper is released.

A key idea in this White Paper is the further integration of Defence and Defence Industries – e.g. “The Government is committed to forming a new partnership with the Australian defence industry to ensure Defence gets the equipment, systems and personnel it needs on time and on budget. The Government will strengthen Defence’s collaboration with Australian defence industry, cut red tape and invest in new technologies to help build Australia an accompanying Defence Industry Policy Statement”. It focuses on a more direct and earlier role for the Australian defence industry in capability development and sustainment, a collaborative approach to innovation, and a strategic and closer relationship between Australian defence industry and Defence Forces.

“Chapter 6 is simply entitled “People”. It identified “attracting and training the future defence workforce” as a “major challenge”, exhorting:

“A concerted program of recruitment, training, and targeted retention will be required to support this growth”.

It goes on to say that “attracting young Australians to an ADF career is a vital investment in our country’s future”, that “Defence is expanding programs focused on recruiting and retaining Australians with the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics skills it needs”, and promises that “Defence will continue to create flexible new initiatives to compete effectively for people”.

2017 – National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) released.

The agenda started with the claim that an “extraordinary technological change is transforming how we live, work, communicate and pursue good ideas. We need to embrace new ideas in innovation and science, and harness new sources of growth to deliver the next age of economic prosperity in Australia” (NISA, 2017, para. 1). This technicist view of the future, the prevailing paradigm of STEM education, was in line with defence department and defence industry discourse, similarly dominated by an “innovation obsession” (p.9), The Agenda contained no reference to the actual existential threats we face. This view of progress is increasingly dependent on the power of technology, which is represented as of central and vital importance with STEM framed as the vehicle to supercharge it. This is also having an impact on science education, with “STEM” in some ways subsuming science and technology and maths, which then become more about competitive national and neoliberal agendas for human capital production and innovation that underpin 21st-century global economies than it is anything else; in other words, the STEM pipeline 

2017 – NSW Government releases its strategic plan for the defence industry in NSW.

This plan was based on five key strategies to grow the NSW defence industry. The third, the most relevant to a discussion of STEM education is to “Provide defence and industry with their future workforce”. Specifically “NSW: Strong, smart and connected” commits the NSW Government to promoting defence industry career pathways and encouraging and developing educational opportunities and incentives to stimulate the uptake of STEM subjects at schools, promote interest and accessibility of STEM in NSW’s secondary and tertiary institutions, and promote career paths in defence industry and technology through industry partnerships and incentive program and “provide industry with their future workforce”.

In other words, the State Government says that it is their responsibility to provide a workforce to a specific industry. The Government does not seem to see it as their job to ensure that enough people study nursing to meet the population’s needs, or to ensure that enough people become teachers, age care workers, etc. While it lumps the actual defence forces together with the private companies which service the defence forces, it is alarming to see a government so casually assert that it is their responsibility to find a workforce for an industry. Especially one that is so dominated by large multinationals which make billions in profit each year, and especially an industry that has a financial interest in the continuation and expansion of armed conflict.

2018 – Optimising Stem Industry School Partnerships report released

Everything that was said about the 2015 strategy earlier in this document was continued and reinforced in the 2018 update.

2018 – Commonwealth Defence Export Strategy is announced and adopted

The key take away from the Defence Export Strategy was that it laid out a plan to turn Australia into a top ten weapons exporter by 2028. This would represent a massive and rapid expansion of the Australian weapons manufacturing industry, and compounds the problem of a contracting workforce. From this point on, rather than the subtle blending of rhetoric regarding recruitment for the Defence Forces themselves and the defence industry, we see a shift in emphasis toward the weapons corporations more explicitly.

2019 – The Defence and Industry Skilling STEM Strategy was released.

The theme of this document is encapsulated in the first sentence – “In a time of increasing technological advancement and rapid change, Australia’s defence industry will be competing with other sectors for the workforce needed to deliver and support critical Australian Defence Force capability.” In other words, recruiting people with STEM skills  away from the fields of medical science, health sciences, climate sciences, materials engineering to develop biodegradable replacements for plastic and other harmful products, regenerative agriculture and food security, and many other socially valuable and highly necessary applications of STEM skills. Finding workforces for those industries is apparently not the remit of Government.

Data used in support of the strategy include:

  • The number of jobs “generally held by STEM qualified people” were growing 1.5 times faster than other types and therefore the challenge of recruiting STEM skilled people to the Defence industry in a climate where their skills are in high demand.
  • 70% of defence companies surveyed had difficulty recruiting skilled people in the last 12 months. They did not survey parents, schools or teachers, demonstrating that the strategy is designed to meet the needs of private companies, who are presented as the stakeholders worthy of consultation, not to meet the needs of students, teachers, schools, or communities.

The document goes on to say “to deliver a defence industry with the workforce capacity and capability to meet Defence’s needs, a multi-faceted approach must be taken. For example, the motivation to pursue and complete STEM studies is a decision made at the individual level…”. This shows a deliberate intention to influence young people and their opinions about the defence industry.

The first focus area – ‘Engage’ is summed up in this statement.

“It is essential that our schools and tertiary institutions support Australian children and young people to develop their STEM skills, so that there is a strong future workforce able to meet the challenges of rapidly changing technology. Industry and education providers will need to work together to ensure this future workforce is aware of the range of career opportunities available in defence the industry. Complemented by support through dedicated programs, this will help ensure greater numbers go on to achieve fulfilling careers in defence industry”

The school’s pathways program (now called STEM Industry School Partnerships or SISP) is identified as an important activity being undertaken in service of the weapons industry’s strategic goals. A case study of one funded school program states that the program was “established in the Hunter region of NSW to guide selected students into the defence industry”. That program’s industry partners, also involved in the design of the program and learning, include BAE Systems, Boeing Defence Australia, Lockheed Martin, and Thales.

A key objective of the Engage strategy is to “Raise awareness of the defence industry as a sector of choice”. Which involves appealing to “young people, parents, careers advisors and teachers, to help increase the number and diversity of those coming into the sector.”

All of this is indicative of a deliberate, calculated effort to

a) exert influence over the way STEM education is delivered to ensure it services private interests and b) exert influence over the way the weapons industry is publicly perceived thus engendering militarism in our overall culture.

2019-2030 – Workforce Strategic Vision underpinned by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics 2019–2030

This document outlines five “STEM key workforce objectives” which are

·        Shape the National STEM agenda

·        Partner to develop a cohesive STEM approach

·        Inspire students to seek STEM careers

·        Promote employment pathways to defence

·        Retain STEM professionals in defence

Many of the activities described in the document directly map onto the avenues of State Capture outlined in Australian Democracy Network’s report.

Perhaps the most worrying of these is the first, Shaping the “National STEM agenda”.  According to the Chief Defence Scientist,

“Defence aims to shape the national agenda in science, technology, engineering and maths studies and inspire future generations of Australians to pursue careers within Defence.”

It is difficult to read this document and not see the implications for Australian education. As far as defence capability goes, STEM is considered an important aspect of the capability, meeting the long-term vision to “build and develop a robust, resilient and internationally competitive Australian defence industrial base that is able to meet defence capability requirements”.

Should science and science education prioritise endeavours which serve the interests of the military industrial complex? In a world facing so many other urgent issues which require STEM skilled people, and also resources for research and development – we absolutely do not want to live in a world where the “national agenda” STEM or otherwise, is shaped by the vested interests of arms dealers.

The second objective would seem innocuous on its own, but in the wider context already described it is clear that this entails partnering with institutions of education with the explicit goal of influencing how generations of young people come to view the military and its associated for-profit corporations.

The third objective on the surface seems worthy.  However, taken together with the fourth and fifth it is problematic. STEM education needs to be contextualised. No one would dream of teaching students about nuclear physics without even acknowledging the threat posed by nuclear weapons and the bombing of Japan in WWII. Yet young people are, as we speak, learning about drone technologies with no acknowledgement of the ethical quagmires created by the existence of these technologies. Steering away from such considerations would indeed result in a population less well equipped to question power structures, vested interests, or the morality of our own Government and armed forces’ actions.

These documents taken together form a very clear base of evidence that the educational programs being delivered in schools today via “industry partnerships” with weapons companies are designed to serve the needs of corporations, not students and their communities.