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Election 2001: the issue of education.

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Tuesday 30 October 2001

Professor Simon Marginson, Monash University


Good evening. 


Federal elections are decided by the two "i's" - images and issues. They're no
t the same. 


Images make good copy and media spin - images of leaders, images of refugees, images of troops saying goodbye. 


Issues are more complicated and harder for politicians to manage. Education, health, jobs don't make copy or easy spin. How many times have they been on the front page in this election campaign? 


Unlike images though, issues are part of people's daily lives, so political parties ignore issues at their peril. When Australian voters are polled on which issues matter most, education and health are at the top of the list. At different times, education has helped elect the Menzies, Whitlam and Hawke governments. 


This time, education is important for another reason: Australian education is in trouble. 


The average OECD country spends 0.4 percent of GDP on early childhood education, which lays the foundation for lifelong learning. We spend 0.1 percent. Most of our 4 year olds don't attend pre-school. Those who do are paying higher fees for less instruction. 


At the school level, the public schools attended by two thirds of children are in crisis. Only 7 students in 10 stay on to the end of school, compared with 8 in 10 a decade ago. 


The states lack the fiscal power to upgrade public schooling. The Federal Government has the power. It collects 78 percent of tax. But the Federal Government is running with freedom of choice in schooling, and its choice is the private schools. They educate one third of students but they get two thirds of the funds. In a piece of upper middle class welfare hard to justify, the Government has given an extra $135-million to category one private schools. 


Meanwhile, Australian universities, once front rank institutions by world standards, are becoming uncompetitive. Public funding per student is at half the levels of 20 years ago.  


Though both sides of politics must bare some blame, the present Government carries a large share of it. In the last five years, student operating grants per student have been cut by 20 percent. Students are paying more, but the quality is down. The February Innovation Statement gave some money back to research, but nothing for operating grants for teaching.  


Private revenue has increased, but so have the costs of raising private revenue - marketing, offshore operations, more teachers for fee-paying overseas students. 


Meanwhile, the average student/staff ratio has risen from 13:1 in 1990 to 18:1  

- and last year, the number of Australian students in universities actually fell. 


In total public investment in education, Australia has slid to 21st out of 28 OECD countries. 


Why? Why, when most other nations have moved from deregulation to the Knowledge Economy, are we still stuck with privatisation as our national strategy? Is education regarded as a Labor constituency, where votes are unlikely to swing and pork-barelling would pay better elsewhere? This might be the reason. No doubt, too, the Government hopes that image managers will keep education off the stage until after November 10th. It is a high risk strategy. It might cost Howard the election. 


What then of Labor and the Knowledge Nation? The Labor Party wants to catch the education vote without raising taxes or running a deficit. This is scarcely credible, and some commentators imply there is no real difference between the parties on education. 


However I do not think this is accurate. 


Labor's Knowledge Nation report raises expectations and places pressure on a future Labor government. Though it neglects TAFE, Knowledge Nation rightly focusses on public schools and universities. By targetting education priority zones in disadvantaged areas, Labor wants to raise school retention and extend the knowledge economy to all regions. The level of investment would only be resolved after the election of a Labor government. For the voter this is scarcely a satisfactory position.  


But in education, the choice is between Beazley's step forward - slow and small, but real - or another three years of going backwards. 


Good night.