The state of Australia: education

Australia’s education system is comparing well internationally, but has the potential to do better. AAP

In the lead-up to the budget, the story of crisis has been hammered home, but there’s more to a country than its structural deficit. So how is Australia doing overall? In this special series, ten writers take a broader look at the State of Australia; our health, wealth, education, culture, environment, well-being and international standing. Here, Peter McPhee talks about the state of education in Australia.


One day last week I had the pleasure of picking up my grandchildren from their primary schools. My granddaughter is at a large, bustling outer-suburban state school where the central classroom block gives every sign of not being maintained since being built in the 1950s: the paint is flaking off wooden walls which have rotted through in many places.

Thanks to his parents’ sacrifices, my grandson, who has mild autism, attends a special preparatory program at an elite private school with small classes and equipped with superb facilities. The “central block” is a heritage mansion. The contrasts are unsettling.

What the schools have in common is a dedicated, purposeful and welcoming staff who provide reassurance to parents that they are seeking to realise the core promise 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 good citizens. But the stark contrasts signal key elements in the agitated debates about the state of Australia’s education.

How we’re doing now

A brief report card would read: “quite well given the circumstances; clear potential to do better”.

An OECD statistical report on international education trends from 2001 to 2012 showed that while the average public expenditure was 6.2% of GDP and rising, in Australia it actually fell, from 4.9% to 4.4%. In Finland – so often the benchmark – it increased from 6.1% to 7%. Australia ranks 22nd among the 29 OECD countries. The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report showed worrying signs that Australia’s comparative performance was slipping in mathematics, science and reading.

While there is heated debate about a causal link between PISA performance and education funding, what all sides agree on is the fundamental importance of the expertise and social esteem of teachers at every level. The attrition rates of new teachers (estimates vary from 25% to 40% within five years) should concern us.

The achievements of our higher education sector have been remarkable given the doubling of student-staff ratios over 25 years: about 40% of young Australians now have a bachelor qualification compared with 3% of adults in 1970, and 19 of our universities are in the top 500 in the world for their research.

But whether our measures of quality are international research rankings, greater levels of participation, or rates of graduate employment, there are other, sobering indicators. While subjective - based on judgements by 16,000 senior academics in 150 countries – it may be revealing that our top six universities all fell in the Times Higher Education Reputational Rankings in 2013.

How we got here

We know that interested parties use statistics to suit their ends. So the Australian Education Union points to an 11% increase in funding of state schools in 2009-12, while that for Catholic and Independent schools increased by 20%. In contrast, the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling has been lambasted by some commentators because state schools would receive 50% more by 2017 while the non-government sector’s increase would be just 23%, and the largest increases would be for schools in low socioeconomic areas.

Regular debates in the education discourse are about class sizes. The strong evidence is that the school systems we admire are characterised by smaller classes. In particular, students with specific needs, like my grandson, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, benefit from being in smaller groups.

Just as a more effective funding model is the necessary, if not exclusive, condition for the improvement of our schools, and our international standing, so it is for higher education. After several years of Consumer Price Index increases and a demand-driven funding model, the decision by former education minister Craig Emerson to reduce funding by A$2.3 billion across four years has caused cost-cutting and redundancies throughout the sector, mirroring those in state TAFE systems.

Current education minister Christopher Pyne’s endorsement of his predecessor’s funding cuts is the saddest indicator of all, that public funding of universities is not a key measure of electoral popularity. Universities may still be public spirited, but they are no longer publicly funded.

The next ten years

Pyne will receive a new report on school funding by the end of the year. The polarity of debate about the Gonski funding model has raised doubts about whether prime minister Tony Abbott will keep his pre-election promise to fund at least the first four years of the six in the report’s recommendations.

Similarly, state education sectors and their teachers are at differing stages of implementing the national curriculum in the first four areas – English, History, Science and Mathematics.

However, educators in the Prep to Year 10 years are mired in uncertainty about the fate of the Gillard national project as they await the Donnelly-Wiltshire curriculum review, expected at the end of July. Will its authors be content with a victory in the “history wars” or will they surrender to the phalanx of “states’ rights” and return to the way things were before? Eight school curricula in a nation of 24 million people seems nonsensical to many.

There is currently great inconsistency across states in the assessment and tertiary ranking of Year 12 students. Uniformity would be a significant step in the direction of a properly national higher education system.

The national mission of higher education – ranging from small private providers to the Group of Eight – must be to ensure that the increasing rates of secondary school completion (a true success story) align with the promise to provide tertiary students with access to a diverse range of courses of good quality and a rich student experience.

One positive outcome of the equally hotly debated Kemp-Norton review of the demand-driven system of higher education may well be the freedom for faculties of education to set the fees necessary to provide higher quality training and professional development.

We all have a vested interest in ensuring that teaching attracts those with the passion and abilities to meet national aspirations for our young people. The more expensive model where teachers require a postgraduate qualification is one demonstrably successful way to achieve that.

If the Kemp-Norton recommendations are accepted, the great challenge for universities will be to ensure that the mix of government and student contributions results in the ability to fund the quality of education students deserve, equitably across degree programs.

It is many years since our Federal Parliament acted with a bipartisan sense of mission on a matter of national urgency. Notwithstanding pre-election commitments to Gonski, there is every sign that the future funding of the education of our young will remain the subject of partisanship and uncertainty.


Further reading: The State of Australia series