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Minister and Shadow Minister debate education polices for schools and universities.

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7.30 report


Wednesday 28 February 2007

Minister and Shadow Minister debate education polices for schools and universities


KERRY O'BRIEN: Whenever people are asked by pollsters to identify the political issues most important to them, education is invariably up near the top. Parents invest incredible amounts of time, money and emotion trying to find the best education for their children from school to university. It's a traditional political battleground, as we saw again here in Canberra today. Labor leader Kevin Rudd, flanked by his education spokesman Stephen Smith, announced his promise to establish a national schools curriculum for English, maths, science and history within the first term of a Labor Government. Prime Minister John Howard and his Education Minister Julie Bishop have their own plan for a national curriculum, which they were also quick to point out today. But that's just one of many issues that go to teaching standards in schools and developing world class universities to guarantee Australia's future place in the international economy. To debate those issues, Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith join me now.  


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, I would like to focus on schools and universities tonight. So, firstly, what for you are the biggest challenges facing the Federal Government with regard to primary and secondary school education? 


JULIE BISHOP, EDUCATION MINISTER: Well, Kerry, we need to focus on lifting standards across this country. We need to raise the bar for every child at school in this country. So we are focusing on improving the literacy and numeracy standards amongst our children. Currently our education systems are failing our students in one of the most basic skills that they need for life, that is, literacy and numeracy, and so we will continue to focus on lifting those standards. We want to see greater national consistency. There are 20 million people in this country, yet we've got eight education authorities around the country all developing different curriculum. We want to make sure that there is nationally consistent higher standards in curriculum development and we want to support teaching so that we get quality teaching. After parents, teachers are the single most important determinant in a child's education outcomes. Initiatives like performance pay, principal autonomy, we want to support teachers and we want to see more of our best and brightest being attracted to and retained in the teaching profession. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, the challenges for primary and secondary education as you see them? 


STEPHEN SMITH, OPPOSITION EDUCATION SPOKESMAN: Well, I think the real challenge for primary and secondary education is the same challenge that we have as a nation for the future in every level of education, whether it is early childhood or pre primary, primary and secondary, vocational and educational training, universities or on the job training and that challenge is to understand that we are now in a new competition, to understand that the quality of our education is the single most important thing that we can do to ensure our ongoing prosperity as a nation, to get governments, to get our nation, to get people, to understand that we are now in international competition with countries like China and India in our region and in the world. The importance of primary and secondary school education, but in particular the importance of primary school education, and why it is relevant to that cut throat international competition is that all the evidence shows, all the education evidence, all the economic evidence shows that when it comes to education if you can lift the level of education that improves your economic productivity and your economic prosperity and, when it comes to primary school education, the earlier you make the intervention the more chance you have of having a quality educational outcome. So the challenge is to continue to understand that for parents, education is an emotive and a personal issue; how do they see their child's potential being maximised to the full? But for our nation, it is also an economic issue, it's an economic issue that's the difference between our continuing prosperity or us falling behind other nations. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, you singled out literacy and numeracy. Because of this Government's policies, you are going to have the first, I think, national comparison tested for literacy and numeracy in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 next year. What do you expect that to show? 


JULIE BISHOP: That's right, Kerry. For the first time we will be able to see across the country how our students are faring and comparative data will become available. We are going to have a national assessment in literacy and numeracy for years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The limited data that we currently have shows that, for example, about a third of our 15 year olds are functionally illiterate. So we have a problem, not with the students who are performing well at the top end. We obviously have some very literate and numerate students, but we have a whole cohort of young people who are being failed through the current education system. The most fundamental skills they need for life are literacy and numeracy. These tests, this national test, will show us where individual States are failing, where schools are failing, where we need to focus our efforts. Now, we had to make this a condition of funding with the State and Territory education authorities. The governments of these Territories and States would not agree to it. The Howard Government made it a condition, because we know that parents are concerned about the ability of their children to get a job, to go to university, to undertake training. If they don't have literacy and numeracy by the time they are in year 9, then their pattern for life is affected. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: But do you have any idea, very briefly, any idea whether that testing will show any marked difference between states? 


JULIE BISHOP: We believe it will. Already the states have their own assessments for years 3, 5 and 7 and we can see marked differences across states. One of the worrying trends, though, is that in each state, children's literacy and numeracy levels decrease the longer they are at school. So if you have 90% at 100% proficiency in Year 3, we find, by the time they get to Year 7, it is down to 80%. That's a concern. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: OK. Stephen Smith? 


STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm in favour of making sure  


KERRY O'BRIEN: I mean, is there much difference on this issue between the two of you? 


STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think there is. Again it goes taking education to a different level than we have in the past. I'm very much in favour of letting parents, the community, governments know how students are going in those key areas; how they are going as compared to other kids in their class, other kids in their State and other kids in the nation, but also we now have to look at the international comparators. In some of our key areas, maths and science, we are falling behind our competitors. The state of our maths and science education, both in terms of attracting people to do maths and science and people teaching maths and science, is appalling. Recently we were marked 29th in the world. That, in those critical areas, those key disciplines, the areas that are important to future knowledge and future economic prosperity, we have to know where we are, not just in the class competition or the State competition or the national competition, we need to know where we are in the international competition. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: But what do you do about it? 


STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you've got to invest more. This is why the only reason we are having this debate, Kerry, is because at the beginning of this year Kevin Rudd went out and said we need to have a revolution in education. We've got to take it to a different level. We have to understand the economic imperative and the only reason we are doing this debate tonight is, the government has responded to that. We only ever see, frankly, the government getting serious in terms of its rhetoric about education in the run up to an election. We've got to change that attitude. 


JULIE BISHOP: Kerry, can I make a point? 


STEPHEN SMITH: We have to understand this is absolutely critical. So the philosophical commitment, the passionate commitment to education at every level, making the quality and the quantity of our investment greater at every level is absolutely crucial. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Briefly. 


JULIE BISHOP: Kerry, the reason this national test is so important is because the Australian Government has already provided $1.8 billion to the states and territories to lift literacy and numeracy standards. This is the test, and we are already seeing signs of panic on the part of state governments because now they're going to have to be accountable for how they'll spend that money. Are they actually improving outcomes and results for students? So the importance of the Howard government insisting on national testing in literacy and numeracy is, we can hold the states to account, and this is what has been missing in the debate. Of course, the education unions are against comparative studies and comparative assessments and so it's a bit hollow of Stephen to say, oh, yes, of course, he supports it when the education unions, to whom the Labor Party are beholden, are against this kind of comparison. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, is it going to be a positive or negative for you in the end if you win government and you find an array of state Labor Governments - in other words, are you going to be able to hold them to account, keep them honest, or are they going to be saying to you, "This is what we want, follow us." 


STEPHEN SMITH: By the time we come to government there may be Labor and Liberal state governments, but the key thing  




STEPHEN SMITH: The key thing in my view is how you conduct yourself in terms of driving these issues through. Now, what we know about the Government, we know the Government is a late arrival on education, because there's an election coming up. We also know that the Government is a master of the blame game, where they simply say, "Look at these terrible, shocking things. It has nothing to do with us. We just happen to have been the Government of the Commonwealth for the last decade or so, but that has nothing to do with us." We have to stop that attitude. We can make real progress if we sit down, whoever the state and Federal Governments are in terms of political persuasion, and do it collaboratively, do it constructively, give away the cheap shot political blame game and say, this is so important to our future prosperity that what political persuasion you are, what level of government you are is neither here nor there, and the Commonwealth, the national government of the day, is the only agency that can drive that, and that's what we want to do. Forget about blaming someone. Put the shoulder to the wheel and get real outcomes. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, national curriculum, you've been in government for 11 years now, why has it taken until now to promote a national curriculum as a high priority? 


JULIE BISHOP: Let me focus on what our agenda has been over the last 10 years. Minister David Kemp came in with a very strong focus on literacy and numeracy. That's why we have the national assessment next year, because of the work done from 1999 onwards. Minister Brendan Nelson came in with a range of policies designed to focus on values based education, a direct response from concerns that parents were expressing about values and discipline in our schools. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: But why couldn't you run a national curriculum at the same time? 


JULIE BISHOP: And I'm focusing on higher standards through greater national consistency. Now, the idea of a national curriculum is not new, and in fact David Kemp was the first to raise it. He met resistance from state and territory governments who were not prepared to sit down and discuss how we could develop a national curriculum. Even today, Stephen Smith's NSW counterpart has come out in response to his statement about a national curriculum saying, "Oh, NSW, the NSW certificate is OK. Our curriculum is OK. We don't want to be dumbed down from other states." So there is in-built resistance from the States. What I'm going to do is take a proposal to the Education Ministers' meeting in April and if I cannot get cooperation on a national curriculum, I will tie it to funding. Now Stephen Smith has already said he won't impose any conditions on the states. This is too important. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Let's go to him. 


JULIE BISHOP: It's in the national interest. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, I can remember chairing a debate on 'Lateline' about 16 years ago on the then Labor government's plan for a national curriculum. It's actually about a 20 year debate. Why would your promise for a national curriculum be any more effective this time? 


STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the first reference I've seen to a national curriculum was actually in the 60s, but Joe Dawkins spoke about it. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: That doubles the point.  


STEPHEN SMITH: It does. Julie's government have spoken about it intermittently since coming to office, but there's been no outcome. We say confidently we can get an outcome, for a couple of reasons. One, we have made it quite clear we are about collaboration and cooperation. Two, it is not about dumbing down, it's about quality up. That's the key. Three, we are not interested in point scoring. We are interested in getting a better educational outcome for young Australians and for the nation. 


JULIE BISHOP: But the NSW Education  


STEPHEN SMITH: We believe that we can do it. Now, of course, understandably, some of the states will jealously guard what they believe is quality in their education systems. But what they've said to me, they're also confident that Kevin Rudd and I, that federal Labor, will do it in a sensible way. Does it make sense to have a national curriculum in the core key areas? Maths, science, English, history? Yes, of course it does. We're a much more mobile nation now. People move around. That consistency is important, and we are absolutely confident that we can deliver it. That's why we said in our first term, we will do it. We are sick of hearing the chatter and the talking and the late arrivals on the scene from the Government. We can get an outcome here because our approach and our attitude is right and we are also saying a new instrument, a collaborative, federal-state-territory religious and independent education authority board can be the driving agent of that. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, a big part of your emphasis on national curriculum relates to, for instance, teaching Australian history, but not necessarily a critical analysis of that history. Kevin Rudd today promised a curriculum that involved both the teaching of Australian history itself and also teaching interpretative and analytical skills in relation to the literacy. Do you have a problem with that? 


JULIE BISHOP: In fact, Kerry, our proposal for a national curriculum is much broader than that. We've got a report commissioned that focussed on the curriculum that could be developed in five core subjects: maths, physics, chem, English and Australian history. And, as you are aware, we held an Australian history summit last year and called on experts to develop a model curriculum. That is under way now, and it is much broader than just the narrative. Our point, of course, was that in order for people to understand Australian history, they have to see it in a narrative way. But a model Australian history curriculum is currently being developed and I'll take that with a proposal for a national curriculum to the education ministers' meeting in April. It is on the agenda. If the state and territory education ministers are happy to work with Stephen Smith on a national curriculum, then I'm delighted that they'll be able to work with the government of the day and by April we should have a level of cooperation that will please us all. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, teaching a critical analysis of Australian history could involve a rather subjective view of that history from teacher to teacher and I think that's a part of what this Government has objected to with some of the current curricula. Does it bother you that one ideology or another could stray into the classroom in that way? 


STEPHEN SMITH: I don't want ideology to stray into the classroom, irrespective of what the ideology is. What I want to stray into the classroom is facts and knowledge, a capacity for young Australian students to study history, particularly Australian history. I think that is an important part of the curriculum. To have an understanding of the data and the historical facts, but also to be able to make judgments as a result of study of history about where our nation might go into the future. We don't want our young Australians to come out of secondary school just being rote learners. We want them to be able to apply their knowledge in a thoughtful, analytical way. That's what we think a history curriculum driven by the national curriculum board can deliver. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Can we look at universities now. Julie Bishop, again, what are the key challenges that you would identify for universities in a competitive global environment? 


JULIE BISHOP: Well, education at the tertiary level is an international enterprise. We're in a global marketplace for students, for academics, and we have to ensure that our universities can deliver the highest quality education so that students leave with a high quality education. Currently our universities have been constrained by the Dawkins era one size fits all model that they have been shoehorned into over a number of years. What I want to see is much greater diversity in our universities. I've been talking about this for over 12 months, ever since I became Minister. We want to see diversity in our universities, we want them to be able to specialise. They can't be all things to all students. A country of 20 million people, we have 37 public universities who are all making the same course offerings and similar modes of delivery. We must see a much greater emphasis on a diverse range of offerings, of modes of delivery, of mission statements so that we have a flourishing higher education sector for the century ahead of us. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, the key challenges for our university sector? 


STEPHEN SMITH: The key challenge for universities, the key challenge for higher education, is to have a government that has the philosophical and the financial commitment to make the long term investment. Universities are very important, again, to our international competitiveness. Investment in our universities under the Howard Government in terms of public investment has been run down. All of the universities say that. The dependence now by the universities on private sources of funds, whether that's a family contribution through HECS or a student contribution through full fee or overseas full paying fee students, the dependence on private sources is much greater than it was, now. When the Government came to office, their contribution to universities was effectively 60% of the pie. Now it is 40%. So we've got to have the commitment to make a much greater investment in our universities. Why is that? That's because we see rule of thumb a couple of hundred thousand university graduates each year from Australia; China and India, rule of thumb, the figure is they'll be producing about 30 million a year. China is embarking on a project of 100 research universities of the quality of Berkeley, California and, again, unless that philosophical fundamental commitment is there to invest in the drivers of knowledge and research, we will fall behind and lose our economic prosperity. We've lost in the last 20 years low skilled or semi skilled or unskilled jobs to countries who are low wage countries. If we're not careful and don't make these investments, in 10 or 15 or 20 years' time we'll be losing the high-knowledge, high-value-add, high-skill jobs and that will kill our prosperity. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, Labor says that university funding has declined in the 11 years of your government. You say it has increased. Without getting bogged down in statistics, how do you prove your case that the 11 years of the Howard government has seen university funding genuinely increase? 


JULIE BISHOP: Between 1995 and 2007 Federal government funding for higher education has increased by 26%. Now, Stephen keeps trotting out an OECD figure that he knows is flawed, he knows is misrepresenting the situation. There has not been a decline, there's been an increase. There's been an increase in higher education, an increase in funding in vocational and technical and a huge increase, 160% increased funding, in schools. We are committed to ensuring that our education sector is well funded but we are also focussed on the quality of the education that comes from that level of funding, the billions of dollars that we put into education, we need to be sure that we are getting a quality outcome and so that's where our focus is. But, of course, when you ask about funding for universities, it is increased by real terms 26%, it's in the budget papers, it's in the analysis done by the public servants, it's in the Department of Education, Science and Training in real terms. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: But what does it say about the adequacy of your funding, given that universities now have become increasingly reliant on full fee paying students and of course you've had to put the HECS and the value of courses has gone up, the cost of courses have gone up? 


JULIE BISHOP: Full fee paying undergraduate students, domestic students, make up less than 3% of the student total. We now have more students at university than at any time in our history, more students in Commonwealth supported places than ever before and this is because of the HECS system. Now, I acknowledge that Labor introduced HECS in 1989, with our support. HECS has meant that students, whatever their background, can access university. It is one of the fairest student contribution schemes in the world and students don't have to pay an upfront fee. They have got no fees to pay whilst at university. They have an interest free loan, but it's not like a bank debt that you have to pay back. It is income-contingent. So unless they are earning a sufficient amount of money, they don't have to start paying it back. So we've seen record increases in funding from the Commonwealth, record numbers of students attending our universities. You know, we now have 35% of 19 year olds attending a tertiary institution. That's way above the EOCD average. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, as I said, you've asserted, Kevin Rudd has asserted that this Government's spending on universities has actually declined. Again without being bogged down in stats, how do you demonstrate that clearly and simply? 


STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the OECD Education at a Glance Report 2006 said that Australia's investment in tertiary education publicly had gone backwards by 7% whereas OECD average was an increase of 48%. Comparison with OECD countries, our investment in tertiary education, we're 18th. When you come to analyse the statistics at the Commonwealth level, what do we know? We know that the Commonwealth, the Howard Government, is paying about $1,500 less per university student in real terms than it did when it came to office. We know when that when it came to office, the contribution, if you like, the carve up of the pie, was 60% Commonwealth or national contribution, 40% other, which was private or individual contribution or state. That's now reversed. And so there the OECD has said that, yes, there's been an increase in the private investment in universities in Australia, but we are unique in countries in the OECD, where there has been an increase in private investment in universities and hasn't been a comparable public increase in universities. Putting all the stats to one side, Kerry, the problem is John Howard and Julie tonight have again demonstrated they just don't get it. It's not as much as analysis about what they may have done in the past, it is what we need to do for the future. Julie will trot out stat after stat. What Julie won't trot out is the philosophical commitment which says, "We understand the competition has changed." In the old days it was a competition as to whether you might go to university in your capital city university and then how you compared with a graduate from another university in a different State. Now it is, how are we going to compare with the graduates from Beijing and Shanghai? We have seen a bit about the Stock Exchange today. We know that investment banking companies in New York now send to India their financial analysis requirements. They get Indian graduates to do that. That's the sort of competition we've got and the sort of investment we need to make. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, your direct response to that? 


STEPHEN SMITH: Precisely my point. Australian Universities are competing in the global marketplace and that's why they must diversify their sources of funding, they must diversify their mission statements, their modes of delivery, their courses, their specialisation. We must attract not only the best domestic students, but also international students, here so that we have a rich university environment and that leads to greater productivity, greater economic growth and the like. Now, I don't think there is any disagreement with that, but I must take issue with the suggestion that our funding has decreased. Stephen knows that figure is dodgy and he keeps trotting it out. Every time he says it doesn't make it true. We haven't decreased funding by 7%. The figure he refers to leaves out taxpayer subsidies for HECS, it leaves out the massive injection of funding from 2004 - because the figures back in 2003 he is using, 2004, we, through Backing Australia's Future, have ensured that universities are $11 billion better off over the next decade. This year they are receiving $8.2 billion from the Federal Government. Our universities are in better financial shape than they've ever been in and that means that they can deliver a quality education that will attract the best and brightest domestic students, but also international students, so that our universities can compete on the world stage. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Final response from you, Stephen Smith.  


STEPHEN SMITH: It is not just me saying it, Kerry. It is every vice chancellor around the country, and what is the analysis? Individual personal contribution through HECS up. Contribution to universities through full paying fees, either domestic or international up. Commonwealth Government, Howard Government contribution down. That's the analysis, Kerry, it's not my analysis, but the analysis that every vice-chancellor or vice-chancellor's committee around the countryside will give you. What does that see? That sees us falling behind in our international competition, falling behind in quality, worries about accessibility, worries about equity. There's got to be a fundamental shift in the attitude of the national Government and only Labor will bring that. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Julie Bishop, you've got about 20 seconds. 


JULIE BISHOP: Kerry, I've got to say that when Stephen Smith was the economic adviser to Paul Keating, not only were there a million people unemployed, but kids couldn't get a place at university. You couldn't get a job, you couldn't get a place at university. That was 1992. Today there are more opportunities for young people to get a place at university, eligible people get a spot at university under the Howard Government. We've got greater levels of funding than ever before. We have a great future in front of us to ensure that our universities can compete on the world stage and will attract first class students and academics to our universities. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: You've got 10.  


STEPHEN SMITH: I've got 10 seconds? 


KERRY O'BRIEN: Go for it.  


STEPHEN SMITH: The Government is living in the past. We've got to strike out for the future. We've got to strike out for the future with a fundamental change of attitude. Education at every level is fundamentally important to our productivity, to our capacity to compete. Investing in the education, skills and training of our people and our nation is the most important thing we can do to secure our prosperity. 


KERRY O'BRIEN: I look forward to our next debate. Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith, thank you for joining us.