Amidst the fury of debate over education in Australia we overlook the fact that, as with health, Australia does education well. For a nation that spends about the OECD average on education as a proportion of GDP, we continue to have well above-average performance in maths, reading and science and levels of tertiary education. A recent OECD report suggested early childhood education, teacher salaries and greater demand-driven funding for the tertiary sector were the only areas of underachievement and the new Government was moving to address most of these.

Not that it is in the interests of the education sector to admit to this. Additional Government funding can only be gained by constantly claiming the sector is in crisis. A splendid example of this is last year’s Bradley Report, which based its conclusions on semi-hysterical claims of a higher education sector in freefall while the rest of the world was poised to overtake us unless we spent far more. A new Government keen to bag its predecessor for underinvestment naturally lapped it up.

Critics of our education systems, particularly on the Right, are also loathe to admit we’re getting it right, despite the fact that our strong performance continued under the Howard Government.

Given the Government’s ambitious agenda of better school infrastructure and IT, better and performance-linked pay for teachers and a big boost, big savings in the DEEWR portfolio will be few and far between — which is not to say money is not extraordinarily tight. In any case, the Government is not disposed to increasing any further the level of private funding in the tertiary sector. The Bradley Review complained about the growth of private funding in the overall mix of tertiary funding over the last decade, and recommended greater public funding, without any apparent rationale except that the rest of the OECD does it differently.

One of the Government’s early moves in higher education was to strip private funding available to universities from full-fee-paying students in the name of equity, as if banning Australians from paying full fees for a position at university while allowing foreign students to do so is equitable. It replaced that with $250m over four years in Government funding, although that will be less than universities would have obtained from families endowed with riches but not brains.

Nevertheless, Julia Gillard’s commitment to implement the Review’s recommendations to free up funding and link it to student demand — also recommended by the OECD report — by 2012 is an important move toward greater efficiency in any over-centralised, over-governed sector.

One set of Bradley recommendations the Government hasn’t committed to is that relating to student incomes. Student incomes remain one of the hidden shames of our tertiary education system, particularly for students from lower-income backgrounds: students forced to skip classes because of employment obligations; their academic performance affected by long hours required to earn enough to pay the rent; female students working in the s-x industry.

Bradley recommended a range of measures, particularly changes to taper rates both for parental and personal incomes tests. If we value academic excellence and don’t want to waste the investment we’re making in our tertiary students, greater rates of assistance for people in tertiary education should be worked into the tertiary funding equation. Alas, students lack the profile and numbers of pensioners. They’ll be waiting a long time for significant help.

The Government has already signalled its directions in primary and secondary education: greater accountability to parents, attracting the best teachers to disadvantaged schools and linking performance to pay — despite the Prime Minister’s personal aversion to performance pay for senior public servants. It invested an additional $2 billion at COAG last November in its quality program. Despite complaints about State Labor Governments wasting money on recurrent spending, the debate about paying teachers more has been won.

The best evidence of victory was when the Business Council of Australia last year urged that the best teachers be paid up to $130,000. Business is always good at spending government money, but usually on itself; the BCA’s suggestion confirmed conservatives had come around to the view education was a critical economic input, although the preferred mechanism was performance pay, which many experts — not just those in education unions — are unconvinced about. The Government also significantly ramped up funding for higher quality childcare, based on the conviction — not especially popular with tabloids — that education is inseparable from care.

These are all big ticket investments. The DEEWR budget is over $40b a year. Opportunities for offsets are limited, especially when the relevant Minister is the Deputy Prime Minister and a member of both ERC and Strategic Priorities and Budget Committee. Even without the Government’s existing commitment to ramping up training, the recession would have compelled it to direct more resources into keeping retrenched workers in training rather than the dole queues.

Australia’s very own Stasi, the Building and Construction Commission, which wastes more than $30m pa secretly harassing innocent bystanders and managing to generate sympathy for a union full of thugs and standover merchants, should be closed forthwith, but the Government will retain it into next year to bolster its moderate credentials.

The new tertiary accreditation body recommended by Bradley, pretty much every review commissioned by the Government last year recommended at least one new statutory body, that Gillard intends to create can surely be kept in-house. Tiny programs like the Small Business Work and Family Grants program and the Alternative Dispute Resolution Assistance Scheme could be for the chop but that’s loose change compared to the big commitments the Government has already signed up to.

The Education Revolution was a commitment crafted in boom times. The Government has faithfully implemented it even as the boom became a memory. But in its view, that makes the case for more education spending even more compelling.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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