Education Minister Christopher Pyne was appointed at a time of innovation, contention and uncertainty at all levels of schooling and higher education. One year in, his distinctive agenda is becoming clearer, even if the pathway to its implementation is studded with speed humps.
Pyne’s vision for schools
In contrast to Labor’s “education revolution”, the Coalition’s approach to schools has been more subdued since taking office a year ago.
While the revolutionary extent of the ALP’s agenda is questionable, it is clear the party played an integral role in the development of landmark national reforms, including the Australian Curriculum, the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, and the Gonski school funding review.
These reforms significantly reshaped Australian education and constrained the policy responses available to the Coalition. Pyne had the unenviable position of inheriting the most complex national reform landscape in the history of Australian schooling.
Pyne agitated the waters early in his tenure by announcing the Coalition would not commit to the full six years of Gonski funding promised by the ALP, and would explore a new model. This decision angered many members of the education community and cast doubt over the future of school funding.
Aside from funding, the Coalition has sought to make its mark on schools via three key reform initiatives, which it has steered with varying levels of effectiveness.
First and most controversially is its review of the Australian Curriculum, designed to evaluate the curriculum’s “robustness, independence, and balance”. The credibility of this aim, however, was compromised from the outset when Pyne appointed Kevin Donnelly as co-chair of the review.
Donnelly has arguably been the most outspoken and ideologically driven public figure in curriculum debates of the past decade. He has repeatedly argued that the curriculum has been hijacked by the cultural left and “sells out” our Judeo-Christian heritage.
Pyne’s decision to appoint Donnelly was politically unwise. Since the review began, the public focus has been less on the review and more on Donnelly’s various biases, casting doubt over the tenability of the review’s forthcoming findings.
The second focus of the Coalition’s policy has been school autonomy. The federal government launched a $70 million Independent Public Schools Fund to encourage one-quarter of Australian public schools to become Independent Public Schools by 2017. The initiative promotes reforms similar to Western Australia’s Independent Public Schools model, which the Coalition argues will improve student outcomes and make schools more responsive to community needs.
This is a contentious claim. While there may be some benefits to greater school autonomy, there is a significant lack of evidence to suggest independent public schools have any positive effect on student outcomes.
The third focus is the Coalition’s teacher quality reforms, designed to “lift the quality and status of the teaching profession” by focusing on teacher training. Central to the initiative has been the establishment of the Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group, to provide advice on the improvement of teacher education programmes.
In comparison to its curriculum and autonomy initiatives, the teaching quality agenda has the most potential for achieving positive and meaningful reforms in Australian schools. There is a wealth of global evidence that suggests improving the quality of teaching is integral to improving student outcomes, so it is a well-informed policy move.
On balance, the Coalition’s first year has been shaky when it comes to schools and Pyne will need to carefully rethink his current approach if he wants to make a more positive impact in the future. Education reforms should be informed by research evidence. Overt ideological motives with no basis in evidence are no sensible way to proceed.
Restructuring higher education
Twenty-five years ago, John Dawkins oversaw a radical shake-up of Australian higher education, which included the introduction of the HECS. In principle, the current federal government’s agenda is just as radical, albeit with contrary objectives. It has five core elements.
First is the conviction that student contributions to the costs of their education should increase – from approximately 40% now to 50% – based on the contested premise that the private benefits of a university degree far outweigh the public good that would justify continuing levels of taxpayer support. In line with this, Pyne has proposed new funding that will cut 20% from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme, to be replaced by higher fees.
Second, this conviction draws legitimacy from claims in the review of the demand-driven funding system that higher fees do not act as a significant disincentive to participation from lower-income groups and that those with degrees are forever financially advantaged. The review has been criticised, however, as both narrowly based in its membership and likely to have a range of negative effects on the sector and access for low socio-economic status students.
Third, Pyne has asserted that competition between providers will improve choice and quality, and keep fees low. Thus universities should be free to define their place in a more open market of alternatives for students, facilitated by deregulation of fees and encouragement to specialise more.
Less commented on, but equally important, is a fourth premise: that research funding should be both more restricted and more focused towards research with clear applied outcomes. Cuts in funding to the ARC and CRCs have coincided with the announcement of a medical superfund of $20 billion, contingent on the success of the medical co-payment scheme. Research higher degree students will not be exempt from the funding regime faced by bachelors and masters students.
Finally, the Coalition’s agenda seeks to settle old scores with political opponents who cut their teeth in student activism. Compulsory fees to support student services reintroduced by the Gillard government will no longer be levied. Universities can still choose to charge students to support activities and services, but within narrow parameters.
One year into this term of office, it remains unclear whether all of Minister Pyne’s agenda will be realised: some of it certainly has been or will be. The stakes are high. The Australian higher education sector is a major success story, despite the long-term withering of public funding: it enjoys a positive approval rating of about 75% in opinion polls, and 37% of Australians now have degrees compared with 3% 40 years ago.
The sector also does quite strongly in international research rankings, despite signs of a gradual slide, and provides our fourth-largest export.
It remains unclear as to whether Pyne’s agenda for both schools and higher education will further the core obligation of a national education system: the development of the academic and social skills of individual students to enable them to have fulfilling, productive lives and to be effective citizens.
Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Remaking Australia series here.