Government policies that “excessively promote” STEM subjects and the “training all students as programmers” are missing their mark, and unlikely to lead to future success, an Australian thinktank has said.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) this week challenged the Government to rethink its innovation policies, and education policies created to support them.

In particular, it targeted the current push to get more students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, or to code at school, as a way to train them for the future of work.

“One policy response of developed countries to the rapid pace of technological development frequently adopted globally has been to promote STEM studies,” CEDA said in its new report, Australia’s economic future: an agenda for growth.

CEDA’s concerns over the focus on promoting STEM skills are twofold.

Firstly, it worries that there may not be enough jobs or industry demand to meet an influx of STEM-qualified individuals in the region.

“The number of students undertaking these subjects has escalated dramatically in the developing world,” CEDA said.

“It is [also] noted that encouraging higher participation in STEM subjects, without a corresponding increase in industry demand, is a supply driven approach that is unlikely to result in successful careers for students.

“Australia should not adopt a supply driven approach of subsidising or excessively promoting STEM subjects to students.

“Rather, the focus should be on ensuring all students have familiarity and competency with ICT as a very significant portion of the Australian population lack these basic skills.”

However, CEDA warned that even developing basic ICT competencies is being misconstrued in policy.

“While ICT manipulation skills will be increasingly important, this does not equate to training all children to be programmers,” it said.

CEDA’s second concern with over-emphasizing STEM skills development is that it isn’t a barrier to innovation in the first place.

“It is worth noting that a lack of access to technology and knowledge was a much smaller barrier to innovation than access to finance,” CEDA said.

“It is not a lack of knowledge or skill that is preventing Australia from developing robust innovation clusters.

“[So] seeking to influence the number of STEM students in Australia is unlikely to be a worthwhile endeavour for either the individual student or the nation as a whole.”

CEDA instead pressed policymakers to refocus their innovation efforts.

“The first Federal Government policy instalment focused on start-ups and translational research,” it said.

“However, there are much wider challenges to transforming Australia’s industries”.

It urged further “weight” be given in academic research circles to the translation and diffusion of innovation, and for a rethink of “once-off grants” in favour of effectively taxpayer-backed loans to innovators.

Backing enough projects would result in enough winners and funds being returned to be reinvested in a fresh round of prospects, it believed.