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Economist: Sorry Kids, Compulsory Maths Isn't Going To Help You Get A Job

The NSW government has announced it will make maths education compulsory for public school students right through Year 12, as part of its broader review of high school curriculum.

Right now math-phobic high school students can abandon the subject after Year 10.

There are no details yet regarding how and when this change will happen -- nor on who will teach all those courses, and how much it will cost. For now the government has simply announced public consultations.

Even whether maths would actually become truly “compulsory” is not entirely clear: the state Minister for Education indicated maths would not be required for the state’s Year 12 HSC exams, nor would it count toward the dreaded ATAR scores (which exert such disproportionate influence on students’ post-school trajectories).

With no plan, no timeline, and no resource commitments, this announcement smells like an effort by politicians to “look busy” -- and perhaps change the channel from other problems. Premier Gladys Berejiklian used the occasion as an opportunity to virtue-signal her stern belief in getting “back to basics” in education.

That’s a tried-and-true political trinket for the old fart contingent of her Coalition’s political base. We can just imagine them all harrumphing, “It’s about time those young whipper-snappers finally learned to do long division!”

“It’s about time those young whipper-snappers finally learned to do long division!” Image: Universal Studios

The Premier also invoked old conservative shibboleths about household finance: namely, if people knew maths they could better manage their home budgets. This is a long-standing and paternalistic theme, regularly invoked by politicians who would rather blame poor people for their own hardship, than question their own policies. The real reason people are poor is because they can’t find enough work, and their wages are too low -- not because they can’t add.

Being an economist, I am favourably disposed toward maths. (In fact, an economist is often defined as someone who’s good with numbers… but didn’t have the personality to become an accountant!) But even in economic terms, Berejiklian’s claim that compulsory maths will prepare young people for “the jobs of the future” is misplaced.

First of all, without a major change in economic direction, most “jobs of the future” will not be scientists and programmers. Far more will be low-paid Uber drivers, baristas, and home care workers.

Slow down, Good Will Hunting...

Indeed, the macroeconomic shift toward relatively low-skill, badly-paid service jobs is dragging down overall income and productivity in Australia. Hours are inadequate, pay is low, and skills are underutilised. Today less than half of Australian workers (and very few young workers) work in a permanent full-time job with normal entitlements (like paid holidays, sick leave and superannuation contributions). This decline in job quality means millions of Australian workers are overqualified for the jobs they are performing.

Moreover, recent research challenges the common assumption that future labour markets will reward graduates with STEM skills. Employer-reported shortages of technical and scientific skills have abated dramatically in the last decade -- ever since the global financial crisis and the downturn in resource industries took the swagger out of Australia’s economy.

And rather than trying to guess what specific skills and occupations will be in hot demand in future years (a task made impossible by the unpredictable trajectories of technology), students should actually aim to equip themselves for unending change.

"I have a beautiful mind. Why did I waste my time with all this maths?"

Abilities to learn new things, solve problems, and negotiate unfamiliar systems will be more valuable in the future than learning some particular programming code -- which could be outdated overnight by future breakthroughs in artificial intelligence.

Some employers report they are especially keen to attract recruits with generic 'building block' skills: like social and verbal communication, problem-solving, and collaboration. Even in some digital and computer occupations, many employers are more concerned their new recruits 'know how to learn', than that they possess any particular programming skill.

Surprisingly, in 2018 less than two-thirds of maths and sciences graduates found full-time work within four months of finishing university (see graph below). That was one of the lowest rates of employment among various university disciplines, and very similar to the oft-disparaged general arts degrees of humanities and social sciences.

If you study science and maths, You've got a 64.6% chance of finding full-time work four months after graduation. Image: Centre for Future Work

So pretending that learning maths will somehow allow young workers to survive the labour market of the future is empty, feel-good rhetoric. The key factor in graduate employability is not whether they learn a technical skill, but whether their degree has a clear vocational pathway attached to it: teachers, medical professionals, and engineers (the red bars in the graph) have the best outcomes, whether they’re good at maths or not.

Certainly, Australia has room to improve in lifting basic numeracy and maths skills. But that will involve much more than 'getting tough' with today’s youth -- ramming maths down their throats, whether they like it or not.

Much stronger vocational training (starting with rebuilding our decimated TAFE system) will support young workers in acquiring true job-related maths skills -- and then finding jobs that actually use those skills.

More funding for public schools is another no-brainer. Schools need resources to identify children with maths challenges earlier in their schooling, and then provide them tailoured supports to overcome those challenges.

Above all, the government’s claim that learning Year 12 maths will somehow protect students in a tumultuous and unpredictable future economy is nonsense. The entire goal of trickle-down economic policies is to deliberately foster insecurity and desperation among workers, so they’ll be more willing to work harder for less. If we really cared about helping young workers as they enter that hostile, dog-eat-dog world, we’d give them union cards, not pocket calculators.

Featured Image: Miramax