It is my pleasure to start today by congratulating all of those students who have taken the opportunity to continue their education, whether that be through vocational education or through to universities. Congratulations! I think that in continuing your education you have certainly chosen wisely.
It is true that we do have a record number of students in the higher education system. More than 1 million Australians are at university or are studying at other non-university institutions of higher education. The Turnbull government is investing a record $16.7 billion this financial year, 2016-17, to provide even more opportunities for students across Australia, particularly in regional Australia, to have a higher education.
There are a couple of issues that I would particularly like to touch on today, and I would like to start by focusing on the coalition's commitment to the education highway, which I have previously spoken about a number of times in this place. The coalition sees education as a highway, which starts effectively at preschool, goes through school, and potentially goes through vocational education and on to higher education, to university. We do not necessarily see each part as a discrete and mutually exclusive part. They are all interconnected.
As the Assistant Minister for Vocational Education and Skills, I am very much focused on vocational education to make sure that we are attracting people into the sector. I see and the Turnbull government sees vocational education as part of the education highway. It is a destination in itself but it is also an opportunity for students to at some stage look at moving from vocational education to universities, should they wish to. So, vocational education is certainly a destination in its own right, but it is also a pathway through to universities for those who choose it. What we need to do is make sure that we are properly equipping our students as they go through school for higher education, tertiary education.
There is one area that is particularly concerning to the coalition, and that is ensuring that our students have the appropriate skills in the STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths. We know that we are already lagging behind in those areas, particularly when you compare us internationally. I do have some statistics that I think are useful to once again put on the record in relation to science, technology, engineering and maths and what is happening in our schools at the moment. If you compare the figures from 1992 to 2012—so, over a 20-year period—there were 30,800 more students in year 12 in 2012 to what there were in 1992, but there was a significant decrease in the number of students who were studying the science and maths subjects. There were 8,000 fewer physics students, 4,000 fewer chemistry students and 12,000 fewer biology students. The Turnbull government are very committed to making sure that we turn that around.
As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda that was released over 12 months ago, we looked particularly at what we could do to increase the STEM skills. We recognised that we needed to start developing the pipeline, and that is why we have injected money into the preschool area, into kindergartens, to make sure our students have access to science and maths so that they develop what hopefully will be a lifelong understanding and commitment to science and maths as they go from kindergarten, all the way through their school years and on to tertiary education.
What we are very conscious of is the number of students who are choosing at year 11 and 12 to do a lower level maths, thinking that that will give them the best possible ATAR or in Queensland, for example, at the moment, the OP. What that does is potentially put these students somewhat behind the eight ball when they go to university to study courses such as engineering, where they do not have the higher level maths that they need. So what the Turnbull government is committed to is developing that education pipeline so that our students from the kindergarten years through to years 11 and 12 are developing a lifelong interest and the skills in the STEM subjects so that they can take on the careers of the future. This is where our focus is—not looking at it in isolation, one part of education, but looking at the totality.