Education Minister Dan Tehan recently announced changes to Commonwealth contributions for university courses. As part of the government’s “Job-ready graduates” package, many humanities subjects would become more expensive but students would pay less for courses where the government believes the jobs of the future will be. They include science, languages and teaching.
Read more: Fee cuts for nursing and teaching but big hikes for law and humanities in package expanding university places
These proposed changes, still to be considered by the Senate, caused much outrage and criticism across the university sector. But the response from the school teaching community has been more muted. Maybe this is because education is flagged as a national priority – undergraduates who study teaching will have their HECS fees slashed by 45%.
Surely school teachers should be popping the champagne?
Not so fast
Teachers have never been more appreciated than during COVID-19. But neither expressions of support during a crisis, nor cheaper degrees, will overcome four deep structural challenges facing the profession:
teaching needs to attract more high achievers to counteract a four-decade slide in the academic capability of teachers
domains with acute shortages including maths, science and languages need more specialist teachers
disadvantaged schools, particularly in regional, rural and remote areas, struggle to attract and retain great teachers
Australia needs an expert teacher career path so top teachers don’t have to move away from teaching to keep developing, and can get paid what they are worth.
No policy can solve all of these problems. But the minister’s new policy solves none of them.
Where the reforms fall short
High achievers won’t suddenly decide to go into teaching because their HECS debt drops by a few thousand dollars. As we showed in a Grattan Institute 2019 report, high achievers are turned off teaching by the lack of career progression and the poor mid-career pay.
By their 40s and 50s, teachers earn about A$50,000 less than high-achieving peers who graduated with a maths degree, and A$100,000 less than those who took an economics, commerce or engineering degree.
Tehan argues financial incentives will encourage people into teaching, but no rational analysis could conclude decreasing HECS debt by $9,300 will compensate for forgoing $50,000 or more every year during your prime earnings years.
The proposed changes in financial incentives won’t overcome the shortage of science, maths or language teachers either. That’s because HECS fees are also slashed in those fields of study.
Some additional students might choose these subjects as a first degree, then move into teaching via a graduate degree. But if this is the plan, it’s pretty obscure, and runs headlong into the salary and career progression challenges already discussed.
Would-be humanities students, now facing $43,000 degrees, have the strongest incentives to choose the cheaper teaching degree instead. Many would be wonderful teachers.
But pushing these students towards an undergraduate education degree may exacerbate the historical imbalance between primary teachers (where supply exceeds demand) and secondary school teachers (demand exceeds supply).
That’s because students who do undergraduate education degrees are 50% more likely to choose primary school teaching than secondary teaching. By contrast, postgraduate teaching students are twice as likely to choose secondary teaching than primary.
Read more: The government is making ‘job-ready’ degrees cheaper for students – but cutting funding to the same courses
At worst, the minister’s financial incentives risk attracting average or below-average students who want a cheap degree, even if they don’t really care that much about teaching.
Zero for two so far. What about disadvantaged and regional schools, and career progression?
What the government should do
Rather than pitching teaching as a cheap way to go to university, the government should set a target to double the number of high achievers choosing teaching.
Step one is to offer $10,000-a-year scholarships to high achievers. Cash-in-hand is dramatically more valuable to a young person than a drop in HECS fees which is on the never-never anyway.
Some of these scholarships could be used to encourage high performers to work in regional schools – complementing the extra support for regional students and universities in Tehan’s new package.
Scholarships would also give governments a finely targeted tool to match supply and demand to help get more specialist teachers in areas of need. The UK boosts scholarships for chemistry teachers when they need more chemistry teachers, and so on. And students respond, with 3% more applications for every £1,000 increase.
Step two is to create an expert teacher career path to lead teacher professional learning.
In this system, Instructional Specialists, located in every school and with up to 50% non-teaching time to support colleagues, would set the standard for good teaching and build teaching capacity in their school. And Master Teachers, working across schools, would be dedicated full-time to improving teaching and connecting schools to research.
Creating this clearly-defined career progression would remove some of the top reasons high achievers give for not choosing teaching – such lack of intellectual challenge and low earnings.
These proposals don’t require new federal money. Our 2020 report on top teachers showed existing Gonski 2.0 funding increases can fund the scholarships and the expert teacher career path.
Read more: Making better use of Australia's top teachers will improve student outcomes: here's how to do it
Instead, the government has proposed an inflexible and centrally-planned change to funding university places, and dressed it up in the language of incentives.
They identify education as a national priority, but the cheaper fees plan won’t solve the challenges facing the profession, so what’s the point?