Election guide: what you need to know about the parties’ education policies

Today we play the game of ‘Spot The Difference’ on education policy. AAP

So, both parties have spent this election trying to convince you that they have the best policies for our schools and universities.

But so far, the detail has been lacking. In fact opposition leader Tony Abbott and his education spokesman Christoper Pyne have only just announced their education policy yesterday – a week out from polling day.

But if you are trying to base your vote on education issues this federal election, what information do you have to go on? And what does each party have to offer?

School education policies

In this election there are likely three parties that matter when it comes to education, the Coalition, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Greens. Although it is true, that once government is formed, other smaller parties may have some influence in the Senate.

Most of the ALP’s policies were released prior to the election under the Gillard government. The Green’s have policies on schooling and higher education and the Coalition has just released their school policy yesterday.

Both the ALP and the Coalition claim to deliver better education. The ALP’s centerpiece is the $15 Billion Better Schools Plan – its response to the Gonski Review of School Funding – which increases funding to schools on the basis of need, with extra funds to target disadvantage.

With the NSW and Victorian coalition governments signed on to these reforms, along with the Independent School Sector, the Coalition has tried to defuse the political mileage of these proposals. It announced just before the campaign began that it would commit to matching Labor funding for schools in 2014 and over the forward estimates, in order to provide “funding certainty”. (This commitment however does not cover the bulk of the funding in the last two years of the government plan.)

But the Coalition says that funding is not enough to improve standards - that these have fallen under Labor - and that three things are needed: an emphasis on teacher quality and training, a focus on the national curriculum, and greater local control over schools.

Both parties focus on teacher quality and having some changes to teacher training including raising “standards” - with the Coalition aiming to create alternative pathways to accreditation. Both seem keen to have public schools become more like private schools by giving more local control to principals. The latter is an old idea that is regularly reprised, especially when coalition parties are in government.

However, the most radical part of the Coalition’s proposal is the idea to: “Provide local communities with a greater say by encouraging around 1,500 existing public schools to become independent public schools by 2017. We will establish a $70 million Independent Public Schools Fund to help this occur”.

This is modelled on the Western Australian Independent schools. It also bears a relation to the UK Coalition government’s “Free School” initiative, and has a connection to the Charter School movement in the US. There has been little evidence that these kinds of schools have substantially improved academic standards.

The Coalition has also put itself in a curious position – it says it will make schools better but in the same breath it says the federal government should have little or nothing to do with providing education. Constitutionally this is correct – states do bear most of the direct responsibility for the provision of education – but this also conveniently ignores the entrenched nature of federal funding of schooling, and the fiscal imbalance and negotiations through COAG.

Vocational and Higher education

On higher education, both the opposition and the Labor party will cut university funding - with the Coalition suggesting the best the sector could hope for is no further cuts. In this speech to the Universities Australia annual conference, opposition leader Tony Abbott did make a very interesting point that perhaps research grants should be awarded for longer periods. However, in the absence of any formal policy we are unclear as to the status of this proposal.

Opposition spokesman Christopher Pyne has also committed an Abbott government to extending streamlined visa processes for international students in the vocational education sector. The Labor party has announced more money for trades training centres, while the coalition has announced a new HECS-style loan system for apprentices.

Meanwhile the funding increases for Labor’s school plan are to be partially funded by its $2.3 billion in cuts to the university sector. So better for schools, but not really better for universities.

On higher education, the Coalition seems to point towards other pathways to employment and satisfaction other than university – a kind of lite version of Howard’s anti-elitism.

This sits in contrast to the ALP’s aim to have 40% of 25-35 year olds holding Bachelor’s degrees, with 20% of these being from disadvantaged backgrounds. The ALP seems to be adhering to the notion of educational aspirations and mobility, while the Coalition is renouncing the value of education beyond the compulsory school level.

With the possibility that The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate, we note that The Greens’ policies are very different from the ALP’s and the Coalition’s. They want to provide more funding to public schools and to provide free universities. They oppose the university funding cuts and want a 10% increase in per student base funding.

Under the surface

Both parties have been out there selling the rhetoric on education. But there is always a long distance between a soundbite and a workable piece of government legislation.

Voters often take on faith that the vague statements of intent form part of a well-thought through policy agenda.

(This has made us nostalgic for the much maligned Labor MP Barry Jones’ diagram of the Knowledge Nation in 2001 – an education policy idea that was perhaps a bit more meaty than current offerings.)

The curious effect of media tactics by the major parties has been a seeming reduction of points of difference: a homogenisation of messages. This gives the appearance of consensus but looks can be deceiving.

Overall, we would suggest that there are some differences between the parties in education. The Greens in particular are certainly more distinct from the ALP and the Coalition. But increasingly education in this election and in those to come is visible only through media release and soundbite.

Vision and detail are relatively absent.