Hewson's View: We are not education smart

Falling behind: Australia has been sliding down global league tables in terms of performance in key subjects.
Falling behind: Australia has been sliding down global league tables in terms of performance in key subjects.

It is a very important question just how much short-term politics has made a mess of our education and training system, clearly to the detriment of our national interest.

Importantly, this situation has been compounded by the fact that we have two levels of government, federal and state, involved in the development and implementation of education policy. Sometimes they co-operate and sometimes they compete, but be assured that if anything goes “wrong” with our education system they will each try to apportion the “blame” to the other.

Although the federal government doesn’t actually own/operate any schools, it is an important funder of both public and private schools. It also mostly funds universities although many are state owned, and vocational training is a mixture of federal, state and private operation and funding. Without a clear division of responsibilities, it becomes a fertile field for political point scoring at all levels.

There is also an enormous waste on money due to overlap – for example, we have a federal Department of Education loaded with staff who monitor the states on schools, even though not directly responsible for any of them. Money is easily wasted. In Canada, for example, there is no national ministry for education, as education is entirely a provincial responsibility.

A major element of our schools debate in recent years has been the so-called Gonski proposals to allocate funding on a needs basis, to correct previous allocations that didn’t recognise “disadvantage”.

However, while the principle of needs-based funding was OK, the integrity of the allocations was compromised by both sides of government doing “side deals”, to their perceived short-term political benefit, with the Catholic and Independent (mostly Protestant) schools, which allowed them to allocate as they saw fit. The political debate has been most divisive, and we have ended up with one of the most socially stratified school systems in the OECD – indeed, we rank fourth out of 35, behind Mexico, Hungary and Chile.

 Another significant concern with our schools has been that we have been sliding down global league tables in terms of performance in key subjects. This has raised a host of issues ranging from the standing of the base curriculum, through teacher training and performance, as well as the total amount and allocation of funding.

One of the most worrisome aspects emphasised in this debate has been the low entry standards accepted by some universities for teacher training. Unlike some countries, such as Singapore, where school and student performance have consistently ranked close to the best in the world, and where they only admit teachers whose high school grades have ranked in the top 25 per cent of graduates, some of our teacher training universities have accepted entrants with much lower scores, even in the bottom 25 per cent of graduates.

The funding of our universities has also been a significant political football, with most of the better universities having to “rob” their tight education budgets to fund their research activities, a fundamental ingredient in their overall performance and global standing.

In recent years there have been very significant cuts in funding for vocational training, including apprenticeships and TAFE. For example, the first Abbott government budget cut some $2 billion from the sector, naively hoping to force the states to pick it up, which of course they couldn’t. There has also been a significant push to “privatise” vocational training which has encouraged all sorts of excess and abuse, even fraud – again a significant opportunity for political point scoring and blame shifting.

 A most worrisome feature of the education debate has been the lack of futuristic thinking and strategising. Recognising the significant role education and training will need to play in our nation’s future, you might reasonably have thought that someone in government would have sat down with a blank piece of paper to ask the question what we should want/need our education and training system to be in say 20-25 years time, with all the likely consequences of what is a technological revolution in teaching capacities and techniques, against the background of shifts in the nature and requirements of work and trade in a “gig economy”, etc. It’s hard to imagine such a process in our governments which are dominated by short-term, opportunistic, mostly negative game playing.

There have been significant cuts in funding for vocational training.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.