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Talkin' bout a revolution: the future of education

As has been widely reported Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith have set out Labor's education policy priorities in their new directions paper, ‘The Australian economy needs an education revolution'. Their title captures the report's key assumption: Investment in public education is primarily an economic imperative to make the Australian labour force more innovative and more productive. Kevin Rudd's recent speech to the Business Council of Australia was closed to media and the public, so all we know about it is that it was ‘carefully non-confrontational', and may have ‘softened' Beazley's line on AWAs. But if you want to get sense for how the ALP plans to cosy up to the business community this year, look no further than this paper, which seems to have been written with the same audience in mind.

The ‘social dividends' that flow from educating the peeps are noted, but Rudd and Smith don't take their eye off the ball: an investment in education from early childhood to post-schooling is needed now, in order to ensure prosperity beyond the mineral boom. In a quick nod to that old humanist ideal that education policies might be about more than how best to increase GDP, Rudd and Smith argue that ‘employees that become more productive enjoy higher rates of pay, and by working smarter, can enjoy a better work/life balance.'

There is of course a strong case for a renewed level of investment in public education after a decade of well-documented decline: more than half the costs of tertiary education are now met privately; and Australia is bucking OECD trends in reducing public educational expenditure per student. Education Minister Julie Bishop has gained a lot of political mileage by outflanking the ALP on its home turf (education) by talking about a decline in ‘values'. Now the ALP is trying to outflank the Coalition on its home turf (the economy), on an issue that is perceived as one of its strengths (education). The question in all of linguistic manoeuvring is not whether investment in education is good for the economy (which it obviously is) but rather what is lost when we cease to argue for the value of education as a common good?

The ALP paper does not draw distinctions between different groups in Australian society and their relative educational and training needs. In this helpful overview of higher education equity research, Fran Ferrier summarises 12 reports released between 2000-2005. Ferrier's introduction brings the reader up to speed with higher education policies since the Dawkins reforms. Ferrier then provides a snapshot of each report's undertaking and findings. The studies that involved focus groups and interviews with participants promise the most insight into complex equity issues. A 2004 DEST study, for example, found that in rural areas girls were more likely to see their future lying in tertiary studies outside their communities, whereas boys saw a future in local trades and apprenticeships. And a small-scale 2002 Australian Association for Research in Education (AARA) study examined how academically ambitious secondary students from low socio-economic backgrounds negotiate relationships with their own peer group, teachers, and middle-class students. Links to the original reports are included.

The Brotherhood of St Laurence is currently engaged in a longitudinal study of the ‘life chances' of children born in 1990 in inner-Melbourne. Think ‘7 Up' set in Fitzroy. This report examines research participants' level of engagement with school at 15. Case studies and interviews with parents fill out the finding that students from low-income families are less engaged than those from higher-income families. The importance of having teachers to talk to who are good at listening is emphasised. The report's authors make policy recommendations on how to intervene in vicious cycles of disengagement.

Where there's smoke there's….

While Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has warned that ‘it's not over yet', debate about the devastation wrought by this season's bushfires so far is running hot. As at January 20, the Victorian fires had destroyed 1.08 million hectares. Earlier in the month Catherine Murphy of the National Association of Forest Industries decried this ‘environmental catastrophe', which she attributes to the ‘locking up' of forests. There are no less than four references to ‘locked up' national parks in Murphy's short piece, published in response to Gavan McFadzean's opinion piece, which pointed out that ‘[national] parks are not “locked up” — they are managed as part of fire protection plans'. Murphy's contribution stresses the massive water needs associated with regenerating forests, as the drought deepens. McFadzean, who is a Wilderness Society Campaigner, is accused of soft science by Athol Hodgson from Forest Fire Victoria Inc, whose refutations draw, as do McFadzean's assertions, on the findings of the Esplin inquiry into the 2002-2003 Victorian fires. Hodgson describes DSE as ‘dysfunctional', even though Esplin found ‘ no evidence of major systemic failure'. Victorians are often told to get used to bushfire season; we're all well used to seeing the same set of ‘facts' mobilised to advance divergent causes. Meanwhile, other scientists insist it's not all bad: some forests like fire.

In December, the Australian Institute released this report into climate change and increasing fire risks, as summers get ever hotter and drier.

Wanted: Indigenous perspectives on Indigenous health

Public health researchers have concluded a review of more than 200 studies conducted into Indigenous health. Researchers Naomi Priest and Tamara Mackean make important findings on the shortcomings of an ostensibly extensive body of knowledge about the ill-health of Indigenous Australians.

Firstly, research is overwhelmingly concentrated in remote areas, while Indigenous people mostly live in urban and regional centres. Secondly, three quarters of the research focuses on physical health, with very little research into mental health and child health, for example. Furthermore, the researchers question the Western paradigms underpinning much of this health research, pointing out that most of the studies fail to ‘disclose whether Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders were involved in the research process, other than as subjects'. Talking to AAP, Dr Mackean ‘said it was vital Aboriginal perspectives were placed at the centre of all policy initiatives'.

PLUS

The stupor-market's open late, and the main street's in decline, according to a researcher at the University of New England.

and

We look forward to: The Labor party debating a proposal to extend the right to maternity leave to two years, at its April national conference.

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