The main argument:
The Defence Industry has gained undue influence in the education sector particularly with regard to STEM education.
Their intentions are outlined in their 2019-2030 Workforce Strategic Vision and the Defence Industry Skilling and STEM Strategy. These documents reveal an explicit intention to steer students toward careers in the defence industry. Other relevant documents are linked throughout this briefing, but those two provide the most explicit and compelling expression of the intention of the industry to influence education for its own interests. This has been implemented through the proliferation of STEM programs in schools which are funded wholly or partly by weapons companies.
This is a problem because:
- It gives the Defence industry privileged access to young people that other industries which also require a STEM qualified workforce don’t have, i.e. industries that are focused on repairing the collapsing climate, restructuring our social and economic conditions to centre justice, freedom, and equity for all, and increasing our resilience to future stresses presented by ecological damage. Allowing Defence interests to actively steer young people away from the important work that needs doing, and toward the further proliferation of weapons for profit, is a problem the future can’t afford.
- It engenders and normalises militarism in our culture by allowing private entities with a vested interest in the continuation of armed conflict to be the ones who explain and contextualise (or don’t) the military and its role to cohorts of young people. Thus, an inherently political issue is presented in a supposedly depoliticized context (i.e., a school classroom). All NSW syllabi must include reference to the General Capabilities including: Ethical Understanding. Therefore any discussion of technologies should include a broad consideration of ethical implications e.g.
“Technologies bring local and distant communities into classrooms, exposing students to knowledge and global concerns as never before. Complex issues require responses that take account of ethical considerations such as human rights and responsibilities, animal rights, environmental issues and global justice”.
Educational programs created and provided to schools by third parties are generally used to supplement or support school-based programs, are mostly content based and therefore not required to include specific reference to ethics in their rationale. The iSTEM syllabus developed in the Hunter region and used widely across Australia, was developed in conjunction with the Defence Industries. It makes mention of ethics in relation to specific, often legal issues of technologies e.g., AI and genetic engineering. However, nowhere do students have an opportunity to question or explore the role of a technology or a learning experience in its broader context. Students are not exposed to or even invited to consider the global context of the corporations with which the schools partner.
- It allows weapons companies to effectively buy social license. They create positive brand association in the minds of children in the same way that junk food companies do, because they know that perceptions of brands formed in childhood are highly likely to endure throughout a person’s adult life. They can also avoid reference to the human rights atrocities, suffering, and death caused by their industry and present themselves as a force for good in the world by attaching their name to something that is fun and educational for children, or by promising jobs and futures to young people and their families. Wage Peace seeks to cancel the social licence of any and all weapons companies because we believe this to be a necessary component of the transition to a world without war.
Campaign Goals and Logic:
1. To end the defence industry’s influence over our education system or the way that education is delivered.
2. To introduce a requirement for schools to disclose all relationships with private corporations or “industry partnerships” on their website.
3. Where education about technology is being delivered, to reintroduce and require discussions on the applications of that technology to be included in any educational program, material, or package. Whether said materials etc. have been created internally by the school or by an external provider.
This can be achieved via policy initiative by state and territory Departments of Education. Wage Peace intends to simultaneously create pressure on weapons companies to end their relationships with schools and school programs, and appeal to the various Education Departments to amend the relevant policies. We believe this will require a ground swell of grassroots support. To achieve this, we believe respectful education around the issue and the threats it poses will need to be delivered to educators, parents, students, and the public generally.
Note: The ACT already prohibits schools from forming commercial arrangements with several types of companies, including weapons companies. However, the ACT is host to Questacon whose main sponsor is the Australian Defence Force, and has sponsorship arrangements with multiple multinational weapons companies. Almost all ACT school children will visit Questacon at least once, as will a great number from NSW and VIC. Some other states, including NSW, already prohibit schools from forming commercial relationships with companies that make or sell tobacco, alcohol, or gambling products.
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 Australian 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 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects at schools, promote interest and accessibility of STEM in NSW’s secondary and tertiary institutions, and promote careers 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
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 this publication by the STEM Partnerships Forum led by the Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel.
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 attempts to normalise or justify the focus on STEM, by using “crisis discourses” and adding a ‘back to the future’ traditionalist view of Science education, in which context, ethics and disciplines other than Science content were not relevant to the vision of STEM education.
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 medicine, 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 and Boeing Defence Australia.
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.
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.