OZ topic - Inventing the future of Australia

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Inventing the future of Australia
Many bright ideas go abroad for want of venture capital, writes Ian Paterson.

In the 1960s Australia ranked fourth in the world in standard of living. Now we have fallen behind most OECD countries, Japan and North America. The main reason we remain in the top 30 is our world-class mining and agricultural industries. These lead the world in innovations, research and productivity, powered by the world-class CSIRO. Further success depends on a flow of graduates in the sciences, yet enrolments are down 78 per cent from 10 years ago.

Our education systems are world-class, honoured with an export value of more than $1 billion, ahead of the historic staple, wool. Yet universities and schools are in cash crises.

One school of education in a Sydney university had 54 teachers 10 years ago. It now has 19, although student numbers have increased. It is not difficult to deduce the effect on large-scale lectures and student tutorials.

Australia can find any amount of money for sport. As Barry Spurr noted: "No other nation defines itself in terms of sporting culture alone." Reporting of notable achievements in education, science and the arts are buried in distant pages, if at all. Who is Bryan Gaensler? Anyone remember? He was Australian Youth of the Year last year as a brilliant astrophysicist. We have already forgotten him, but not Lleyton Hewitt.

In the 1960s, the press published all university medallists. It is difficult now to find out who are the new Rhodes scholars. This year's Australian of the Year, Sir Gustav Nossal, drew an ironic letter in this paper beseeching, "Who does he play for?"

The quality of human capital (workforce) is critical to the success of an economy, as exemplified in Japan in the 1970s-'80s. Japan did not invent the fax machine, video camera or recorder, or the CD player. Yet it cornered the world market in these products through value-adding in process and product development with its high quality workforce.

With a 99 per cent retention rate to Year 12, Japanese workers have high levels of literacy, numeracy and the skills to follow complex instructions. Our retention rate is 73 per cent, and falling.

In Australia, 75,000 students left school after Year 10 last year. Half of these will forgo any further training. And there has been a 22 per cent drop in elective school enrolments in the hard sciences - physics, chemistry, mathematics. About one million adult Australians are functionally illiterate.

Human capital is even more vital if we are to forge a place in the developing high-tech, global economy. The sustainability of our standard of living is in peril if we don't. The new "brainpower" industries include robotics, micro-electronics, information technology and communications. This shift increases the need for economies to be based on innovation and learning to become competitive and to grow.

Australia distinctively nurtures about 40 per cent of its school students - the 30 per cent going on to higher education and the 10 to 15 per cent with disabilities. These groups have smaller classes, specialised teachers and access to special programs for gifted and slow learners. That leaves the middle majority with less investment. Yet this group will make our new workforce and must have a solid mastery of mathematics, science and English to be able to learn to build, modify, install, maintain, repair and calibrate sophisticated high-tech equipment and processes.

Australians are incredibly inventive. We produce more patents per head of population than any other country, apart from the Scandinavians. Our university and CSIRO researchers are recognised among the world's best. Indeed, many are regularly enticed abroad to help enhance the competitiveness of wealthier economies.

Similarly, many worthwhile inventions go abroad for want of venture capital. We are more interested in speculating on horses than on good ideas. Why not have proceeds from a lottery directed to commercialising a viable invention?

The structure of our manufacturing industry is low-tech. Only 19 per cent of manufacturing managers have a degree, so there is a desperate need for trained business managers.

Even though the starting salary can be $50,000, graduates blinkered to opportunities hasten to service professions such as law and accounting. Manufacturing holds little interest for teachers and students. Yet, if we don't commercialise our inventions, other economies will reap the rewards.

Dr Ian Paterson was headmaster of Knox Grammar School (1969-98) and is now an education consultant.


Fascinating article. We define ourselves in terms of sport...frequently interrupted by a commercial break brought to you by Kentucky Fried Chicken in 13 spices...

Regards from OZ

-- Pieter (zaadz@icisp.net.au), March 08, 2000

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