AUKUS is a security deal between Australia, the UK and the US (hence the name), announced in 2021. It has become synonymous with the “Pillar One” submarine deal, where Australia will be developing a sovereign nuclear-powered submarine capability, including manufacturing eight new nuclear-powered submarines. But first it needs to train a workforce to build these submarines (and captain them too).

AUKUS is a highly debated security pact, with arguments on both sides around costs, ethics, development, and opportunities. One key aspect of the deal is the training of Australians to operate the submarines. Woroni breaks down how such policies could impact students.

Woroni reached out to ANU’s own Dr Elizabeth Williams (an expert on the nuclear workforce and training requirements) to find out what AUKUS may mean for ANU students.

Williams believes there will be expanded career opportunities in areas related to AUKUS and emphasises that this will go beyond the technical careers to operate the ships themselves.

This means that if nuclear science, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, cyber security or hypersonics isn’t your thing, there may still be workforce opportunities related to AUKUS. Australia will need people to deal with the political, social and environmental implications of the agreement. This will likely lead to increased demand for workers in government, industry and academic circles.

There has been talk of future AUKUS-related scholarships for students who wish to train to be in the nuclear workforce. While there is nothing concrete yet in terms of scholarships and programs the Government has pledged $3 billion (out of $368 billion overall) of funding specifically for training.

In addition to this, the Government has pledged $127.3 million over the next four years to fund 4,000 additional Commonwealth Supported Places in STEM disciplines, specifically in support of the nuclear-powered submarine program. Until then, Defence, for example, is offering Nuclear Science and Engineering Undergraduate scholarships, and support for study via the STEM Cadetship program. These scholarships do not require students to work on nuclear submarines or AUKUS-related projects specifically.

On the other hand, some students may find it unfair that HECS fees have increased with inflation, while the Government rolls out scholarships for defence. The 2023 Government Budget has allocated 19 billion AUD over the next four years for the development of the submarines. By contrast, parliamentary research found that “There are limited measures in the Education portfolio relating to higher education in this Budget.”

ANU is of special interest because it has been running highly regarded research and education programs in fundamental nuclear physics for many years. Williams recommends that students who wish to work in the AUKUS space should “seek out opportunities to do research projects at places like the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility (HIAF) at ANU, because hands-on experience working with nuclear technologies will be advantageous and will give students skills that will allow them to contribute across a range of different disciplines.”

For non-science students who are interested in the politics, ethics, and obligations around AUKUS, Williams recommends looking into ANU’s Nuclear Politics in Asia: challenges and opportunities, or just Politics of Nuclear Weapons. Science Risk and Ethics would also be beneficial.

For current physics and engineering students who are interested in tailoring their degree for a career to do with the nuclear-powered submarines, Williams recommends throwing in an introductory chemistry class. She also recommends doing additional maths and physics courses covering electromagnetism, classical and quantum mechanics, and the physics of matter. Courses which build programming skills will also be advantageous.

An ANU spokesperson told Woroni that the University has had no interaction with the Department of Defence regarding AUKUS scholarships. However, it appears the ANU expects nuclear technology to become a topic of greater focus, as it is currently hiring for three Fellows of Nuclear Stewardship, one each for the College of Asia and the Pacific, the College of Engineering, Computer Science and Cybernetics, and the College of Science.

AUKUS is not beneficial to all students at the ANU, however. Outside of ethical concerns, there exists limitations for students – notably, only Australian citizens may participate in AUKUS programs, ruling out many highly skilled international students. Our own Vice-Chancellor, Brian Schmidt, pointed out another issue for students wishing to follow the AUKUS pathway – there may not be enough academics to teach them. In a submission to the Government’s Defence Strategic Review, the ANU stated “while Australia has developed a strong reputation for expertise on nuclear science, safety and regulation, the current academic workforce is too small to meet the increasing demands for formal training and education that will be required by AUKUS.”

The student union, ANUSA, is strongly opposed to ANU accepting Defence-related scholarship programs. The Student Representatives Council has passed several motions opposing AUKUS and calling on the ANU to reject scholarships related to AUKUS.

Brian Schmidt has labelled AUKUS “one of the biggest training and workforce development challenges Australia has faced.” Whether Australia, and the ANU, meets this challenge, and whether many students wish to work in the AUKUS arena, remains to be seen.

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