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Excellence needed to arrest slide into third world

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145 K O O R N A N G ROAD C A R N EG IE, VIC. 3163 PH : (03) 571 3311 FA X :(03) 5 7 1 6020




Australia is in danger o f slipping into Third World class unless it strives for quality to match the quantity in higher education, the Shadow Minister for Education, D r David Kemp, said today.

In the occasional address to a graduation ceremony at La Trobe University in M elbourne, D r Kemp warned that while there had been an enormous emphasis on access to higher education, there had b een minuscule emphasis on excellence.

"The education w e n eed now to keep up with the pace is education for excellence. It is no longer acceptable to just get by. W e have to aim for quality. W e have to b e the best," said D r Kemp in his speech, T he International Competition for Excellence.

D r Kemp said there was m uch to do if Australia was to lift its com petitiveness to the level o f international best standards.

'N ot only do w e have to transform our working culture, greatly boost our productivity and make our basic service infrastructure effectively and efficiently serve the economy, w e have to get our human resources up to scratch."

H e cited evidence from the national literacy that one in seven adults had problems reading or writing, yet in Japan — with which Australia must com pare itself - illiteracy was virtually unknown despite having two alphabets containing 2,000 characters, not one alphabet with 26 characters.

Language skills w ere also declining. The 1987 National Policy on T nnpuages noted that in 1967 40 per cent o f all students in the final two years o f secondary school studied a language other than English, but 20 years later this had fallen to 12 per c e n t

D r Kemp said Australia had fallen behind, relative to other nations, in science and its research capability, once equal to the world's best, had been seriously eroded by a dilution o f quality.

"The rules w e once had in the familiar backyard are no longer appropriate, just as backyard cricket has no place in the Test arena," said D r Kemp.

"The standards w e have to use to measure our achievements are the standards that operate globally. This is the only measure for excellence."

(Speech attached)



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31 MAY 1991


A person born at the turn of the century would have seen a very different world by the time he or she was 50. But in the ten

years that followed, up until 1960, the world changed even more dramatically. Not only did television change our leisure and the way in which we saw ourselves and the world, but the human race made its first tentative foray outside the biosphere that had

nurtured life on earth since it began. That was, of course, the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, the world's first artificial satellite and the catalyst that was to ignite

a scientific and technological stampede that was to change the shape of our world before our very eyes.

By the end of the 1960s, the world had changed profoundly: human beings had set foot on another world. The sky was no longer the limit. It was at once an exciting and a chilling prospect. The familiar cosiness of Earth was seen in a far broader perspective:

a mere speck in a boundless universe.

By the end of the 1970s, unmanned probes had ventured beyond the earth and the moon, extending the eyes, ears and brains of man in a way that was unthinkable 20 or even 15 years before. Radio astronomy pushed back the horizons even further.

Manned space travel - an event that was transformed from fantasy into fact in the lifetime of some of us here - had already become blase; another manned space flight on the evening news was just another item.

Like the scientific frontier extending far beyond the known skies, our own horizons of intelligence and experience were no longer constrained by the earth-bound imagination of just a few years before. Space travel was already another small detail in

a .muchlarger picture, a picture unimaginable just a few years previously.

This has been the experience of much of the developed world over the past three decades. It has certainly been the experience of Australia.

The cosy little familiar place of sleepy suburbia, the ubiquitous Hills hoist in countless paling-fenced backyards, the footy on Saturday, the Holden in the drive, had a timeless quality. It was a land of easygoing mateship, not too troubled by anything, plenty of time for the sun and the beach. If anyone became

bothered by anything, the catch phrase was : "She'll be right."

In other words, don't worry. Things will always turn out for the best.

And so they did. For a while.

Education then - and it was not that long ago - generally

prepared us to get by, to gain qualifications, to provide a meal ticket.


And it worked for a while in the ironically named Lucky Country. We got by.

But while we were getting by, while we were winning our meal tickets, something happened outside our national backyard. The rules changed. New players took to the field. What for us was good enough no longer mattered in the wider world. The new

players lifted the game, upped the ante, set new standards. What had been a leisurely jog in the afternoon sun suddenly turned into a desperate race before sundown.

And it is a desperate race because it will determine and is

determining who will share in the treasure of the new world.

The education we need now to keep up with the pace is education for excellence. It is no longer acceptable to just get by. We have to aim for quality. We have to aim to be the best.

There has been enormous emphasis on access to higher education, but minuscule emphasis on excellence. Quantity has not been matched with quality. We must have access and excellence.

But there is much to do. Not only do we have to transform our

working culture, greatly boost our productivity and make our basic service infrastructure effectively and efficiently serve the economy, we have to get our human resources up to scratch.

For example, the first national literacy survey found one in seven adults had problems reading or writing. But look at Japan, as we must do if we are talking about international standards, about international competitiveness. There, with two alphabets containing 2,000 characters -not one alphabet with a mere 26 characters - illiteracy is virtually unknown.

Everyone agrees we must reach out more, we must compete. But our skills for even talking to much of the world are in decline. The National Policy on Languages report in 1987 noted that in 1967 40 per cent of all students in the final two years of secondary school

studied a language other than English. Twenty years later, in 1987, this had fallen to 12 per cent.

The Business Council of Australia has no doubts about the linkage of education and national well-being. It has put the unequivocal view that the quality of our education system today will shape our economic performance tomorrow.

The Business Council has expressed its concern that Australia does not, by most measures, have the highly educated human resource base of most other OECD countries.

A report prepared this year for the Business Council, called Developing Australia's National Competitiveness, warned that our labour market was poor with high absenteeism, high turnover, low willingness to accept new technology, and a poor ability to adjust remuneration to economic circumstances and limited automation. In effect.


while good human resources are available in Australia, we make poor use of them..

Despite our insularity in the past, we have done particularly well in some fields where excellence is highly regarded.

Research from our universities ranked with the best, but there is disturbing evidence that we are slipping and slipping badly.

Australia once shone in science, but now we are ranked with the Third World.

The Australian Council for Educational Research has found that our performance in science among school students has slipped in the past 20 years in terms of international, ranking - an ominous sign for a country that wants to be regarded as clever.

Most of the countries below Australia were developing countries. Although we maintained our standard -by own home-grown standards -since 1970, other countries have passed us by. We have not done well enough.

The Blandy Report on the academic labour market has pointed to a looming serious shortage of academic staff in key areas this decade. It warns that funding has fallen with a resulting

shortfall in recruiting staff to meet staff-student ratios, morale has plummeted, assessment and teaching procedures have fallen, course offerings have been rationalised and research efforts have decreased.

In a similar vein of gloom, the Australian Science and Technology Council, ASTEC, warned in 1989 that

."...Australia's basic research effort is operating at a level which is resulting in a loss of international competitiveness."

And Professor Deane Terrell of the Australian National University has warned of a process of wholesale erosion - that Australia could end up with a large number of mediocre institutions. And if that occurs we will know with certainty we are losing the race. ^

Australia is a late entrant to industrial markets with most comparable OECD countries beginning a process of structural change much earlier when opportunity was greater and at a time

when levels of international competition were lower and the pace of technological change was slower.

An example of international competitiveness, Australia's share of GDP due to exports of goods and services from 1965 to 1986 has remained fixed between 15 and 16 per cent. But in the comparable small OECD countries this share has changed dramatically: Sweden

22 to 33 per cent; Canada 19 to 27 per cent; Austria 25 to 37 per cent.



Australia simply cannot opt out of this competition without suffering declining living standards.

The standards we have to use to measure our achievements are the standards that operate globally. This is the only measure for excellence.

In a report to the Economic Planning Advisory Council last December, part of the discussion paper Competing on World Markets, Mr Phillip Brass, managing director of Pacific Dunlop, wrote:

The plain fact is that effectively participating in the world economy puts a very large premium on efficiency, flexibility and productivity. The performance measure is not how much improvement there has been compared with our

past, but whether we are internationally competitive.

The rules we once had in the familiar backyard are no longer appropriate, just as backyard cricket has no place in the Test


It is an irrevocable fact that Australia is part of the world economy. We are no longer isolated, insulated and cosy.

We are a medium-sized nation in a much larger world, a

competitive world where we have to strive to succeed.

This is the Australia where you, as graduates, are going to spend your working lives.

It is an Australia that is going to be shaped, in your working lifetimes, by our ability to measure up to world best standards.

We can no longer afford to shrug the shoulders and say: "She'll be right."

We live in the most economically dynamic region in the world and the opportunities are on our doorstep if we take the necessary steps to cast off forever the mentality of "She'll be right."

But we have to be in there competing. And to do that we have to be competitive and examine every practice, every mode of doing things and ask: how does it measure against the world best?

We must not be satisfied until we have not only achieved that standard but gone beyond it and set new world best standards.

That is the challenge for Australia, a challenge that daily grows more urgent. Each one of you can contribute to the effort

required to meet that challenge.

The outcome of that effort will be the sort of Australia you pass on to your own children.