Revaluing education

Inequality in schools and under-investment in higher education

It certainly is time for a new debate in this country about the pressing need to re-examine the values and principles which underpin our education systems.

There are two issues — growing inequality in access and success in schooling and the decline since 1997 in public outlays on universities — that have serious consequences for us all. Both of these phenomena stem from the same underlying value position.

Since the late 1980s we have positioned education, even in the ten years of schooling when we compel attendance, as a cost rather than an investment in our shared future. Inevitably this means that schools in prosperous areas with affluent parents are much better resourced than those in poor areas.

Children of prosperous parents find it easy to move through the education system while those from poorer backgrounds struggle to succeed in schools which are poorly resourced. Fewer talented poor children succeed in school and those who do then face a tertiary education system being reshaped on the user pays model.

In tertiary education — VET and universities – individuals now pay a significant amount both for tuition and for materials.

Governments — state and federal, Labor and Liberal — have been shifting the costs of education to the individual for more than twenty years. The user pays , and he or she who can afford it gets a better education at school. Those who aspire to tertiary education commit themselves to a significant debt which impacts on other options in life.

At the same time, under the banner of choice and with the underlying value position that those of us who can afford to do so should be able to buy greater access to what were once public goods, we have supported policies and funding arrangements which move pupils out of state schools which are secular and inclusive of all races and creeds into schools which are publicly funded but operate on a religious base.

The long term consequences of this for social cohesion and for the maintenance of any shared understanding of foundation values in an increasingly diverse society have not been adequately assessed.

If Australians had reached agreement about underpinning values and principles for setting the policy agenda for education it is unlikely we would have had the decisions of the last couple of decades. These decisions position education as a cost rather than an investment in our shared future and ignore its role as the fundamental building block of a vibrant mature democracy.

Even if we had made such decisions we would see them as experiments and be seriously assessing their impact on school participation and retention, on patterns of success in schools, on the ability of our community to live in peace and understanding with people of all races and creeds, and on participation in higher education.

We would be much more concerned than we appear to be about who is benefiting from these developments and who is missing out.

Literacy report card

Recent work by the OECD compares the performance of 15 year olds in member countries in reading, maths and science; identifies whether poorer performers are being left behind; and checks to see if the social backgrounds of students are strongly related to achievement.

What the OECD is trying to discover is whether it is harder to succeed in school in some countries if you are poor. The results for Australia bear some scrutiny.

While Australian 15 year olds perform relatively well, poorer performers are left further behind than in some other OECD countries. Of great concern for a country that prides itself on egalitarianism, is the finding that students’ social backgrounds are more strongly related to achievement at 15 than in comparable countries like Canada and Finland, and even in a developing nation like Korea!

These results show that social background — the circumstances into which people are born and over which they have no control at all! — is disproportionately influential in determining educational achievement in Australia.

In South Australia, the state I know best, the differences in outcomes for children living in different suburbs are enormous. The story is not one which is unique to South Australia. Such gross differences are present in every state.

Let me illustrate this with two examples:

1. A child from a well to do area is much more likely to remain in school and complete year 12 than a child from a poorer area. For example, a child in a school in the local government area of Playford has about half the chance of finishing high school as a child from such middle class enclaves as Walkerville or Burnside.

2. Students in Adelaide’s affluent eastern suburbs are seven times more likely to attend university than those from the outer northern suburbs.

Should we care? Yes, we definitely should.

Higher education, lower public investment

Increasingly, completion of 12 years of school matters and university graduates have the best employment outcomes. Indeed, it has been estimated that graduates earn $500,000 more in lifetime earnings than non graduates. Going to uni still matters.

But what is happening to our universities — generally seen as the base of an effective knowledge economy?

While our total investment in tertiary education is above the OECD average it is the result of relatively high private investment, mainly student fees. These equate to 0.8 per cent of GDP.

Public investment in higher education in Australia is also at 0.8 per cent of GDP. This is below the OECD average of 1.1 per cent of GDP, and well below the US and a number of Western European knowledge economies.

Private investment is now higher than public, which has fallen to 40 per cent of total revenues.

The most recent OECD report on education points out that in most countries the rise in private expenditure has not been accompanied by cuts in public expenditure on higher education. But Australia represents a special case, as the following extract makes clear.

… public investment has increased in most of the OECD countries for which 1995-2002 data are available, regardless of changes in private spending. In fact, many OECD countries with the highest growth in private spending have also shown the highest increase in public funding… The main exception is Australia, where the shift towards private expenditure at tertiary level has been accompanied by a fall in the level of public expenditure in real terms. (OECD, Education at a Glance, 2005, p. 193).

The OECD identifies a decline from 1995-2002 in public spending on tertiary education of 8 per cent in total in our country and about 30 per cent on a per student basis. This is despite, of course, political assertions of the importance of a ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘the development of a clever country’.

Investing our future

My message is simple: We, as citizens, should all pay attention to education. It’s not just a matter of whether our own children do well. We must ensure the best and brightest from across the breadth of our community do well first time around.

There is evidence from recent work by the OECD that Australia is not doing as well as other countries in capitalising on the talent we have in our society or in investing in universities — a major part of the supporting infrastructure of that knowledge economy our governments tell us is so important. On that point, they are right!

As a community, we have to decide whether we want to be a net importer of intellectual property, whether we want those of talent to have the capacity to contribute, and what we see as legitimate aspirations for all our citizens. We should not, I contend, settle for a society where opportunities for recognition, financial security and personal advancement depend on not being voted out of the ‘Big Brother’ household.

We live in a competitive and fast changing world surrounded by countries with huge populations, which are increasing investment in education as a national priority and who place a focus on identifying and supporting talent.

We therefore need to be concerned about whether we have got the values and principles which underpin our education policies and programs right.

This article is an edited version of a speech given at the launch of Reclaiming Our Common Wealth: policies for a fair and sustainable future at NSW Parliament House on Tuesday June 13.

Leave a Comment