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Tuesday, 26 June 2001
Page: 28570


Mr SIDEBOTTOM (4:16 PM) —Last week and today we have witnessed the Prime Minister, the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs and a number of so-called `independent' journalists getting very excited about the same thing. Indeed, today even the Minister for Trade chimed in with his edifying contribution. What is this thing that is getting them so excited? What is lathering them up more than usual? What has the minister champing at the bit even more than usual? Is it the chance to throw up some statistics that confirm Australia is the knowledge nation amongst nations or indeed a leading knowledge nation? No, what has them lathered up and all excited is that there is a report that says Australia is only an average to below average knowledge nation.

This is the conclusion of the OECD Education at a glance: 2001 reportcobbled together in a DETYA ministerial. This report is the one seized upon by the Prime Minister to deliver one of his few contributions to the knowledge nation debate in this parliament. And what did we get? We got a Prime Minister gleefully proclaiming that all is well in the kingdom of knowledge and education and that Australia was happy to be average. According to the Prime Minister and his minions, Kim Beazley is trying to talk Australia down as the knowledge nation. `We are average,' says the Prime Minister, and that is okay by him!

How can he boast that we are average? He can triumphantly turn to the OECD report and trot out the averages. And the result? It will stop that nasty Kim Beazley and his mob in their tracks, expose Beazley's vision of creating a knowledge nation as talking down Australia and calm the government's own troops, who were becoming contaminated by doubt about Australia's real performance as a knowledge nation. The Prime Minister, the minister for education and supporters of their line are also overjoyed because, according to the DETYA ministerial, they were able to spike nasty Kim Beazley's reference point for his vision of the knowledge nation—namely, the so-called Chifley Research Centre report, Australia's Comparative Performance as a Knowledge Nation.

So what have we got for all the excitement on the floor of the House last week and today? We have a Prime Minister actually talking about—or more accurately, referring to—for the first time Australia as a knowledge nation; a Prime Minister and Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs boasting that Australia is an average to below average knowledge nation in OECD terms; a claim that nasty Kim Beazley is talking Australia down as a knowledge nation; and some journalists—with no surprises about who they are, being named today as well—arriving at these same conclusions independently and at the same time—surprise, surprise!

Let us look beyond this excitement, this lathering up, and see what facts we can dig up because, as the Prime Minister is quick to point out, when confronted with some challenging suggestions, we need to look beyond the rhetoric. What is this OECD report which is the corner stone of the Prime Minister's attack on nasty Kim Beazley? Education at a glance: 2001 provides important data on investment in education but it does not cover other important parts of a knowledge nation index such as investment in research and development and the state of the ICT industry. It is worth noting that in these two areas Australia's comparative OECD performance is worse than it is in education.

So what exactly does the OECD report confirm and to what extent is it at odds with the analysis of comparative performance of Australia as a knowledge nation referred to by Kim Beazley? The first thing to point out is that the comparative performance report was not prepared by the Chifley Research Centre, as stated by the Prime Minister and his minions, but was developed by Professors Mark Considine, Peter Sheehan and Simon Marginson via the Monash University Centre for Research in International Education. So comparative performance was not the conspiratorial report implied by claiming it was developed by the Chifley Research Centre. The mud stuck only with a few journalists, it seems. There is a big difference between `commissioning' and `developing and conducting' a study, I would have thought. The comparative performance investigates a knowledge nation index derived from the OECD and aggregates GDP spending on R&D, public education and software.

Incorporating rather than contradicting OECD data, comparative performance shows the following. In 1998, Australia invested only 6.15 per cent of GDP in knowledge compared to an OECD average of 8.33 per cent. While most other OECD countries have increased investment in knowledge, Australia has gone backwards. Australia is one of very few countries where investment in physical capital is increasing faster than investment in education, research and ICT—the sure sign of an old economy.

So what does the OECD Education at A glance: 2001 have to say about Australia's comparative performance in education? What comparative data does it provide that so excited the Prime Minister to actually raise the issue of a knowledge nation in the parliament? The 2001 OECD report confirms that Australia has very poor participation in preschool education. Retention and participation among teenagers is slightly above the OECD average, but the proportion of the population that has finished school is below the OECD average. I remind members of the shadow minister for education's comment that the OECD averages also include countries such as Hungary, Poland, Mexico and the Czech Republic. In relation to tertiary education, Australia's participation remains clearly above the OECD average but the gap is closing. Data also suggests Australia's participation is increasing slower than elsewhere.

On funding, the 2001 OECD report shows that total Australian expenditure on education is below the OECD average and that public expenditure is well below average. Preschool expenditure is especially low. Tertiary expenditure is above average but—and it should be noted—it has fallen since 1997 and is close to the OECD average. Because tertiary participation is still relatively high, above average is not enough. A new table shows that expenditure per tertiary student is well below the OECD average. The OECD cites student-staff ratios for Australian university education which are way below those provided by DETYA in its regular statistical collection on Australian higher education. The OECD data in this instance is wrong.

Who wants to be average, because that is what the OECD data indicates? Who wants to join the Prime Minister, the minister for education and others on the other side, and triumph in being average? Kim Beazley does not, I do not, the young people of Australia and their families do not and industry does not. We cannot afford to be average. We have to demonstrate world's best practice as a nation. Unlike the Prime Minister, Kim Beazley, the shadow minister for education and members on this side of the House do not get excited about average performances in investing in knowledge. Who wants an average investment in the future when only the best will do? If the Prime Minister describes Kim Beazley's vision of creating a knowledge nation as talking Australia down, all I can say is: better this than the Prime Minister's head-in-the-sand approach, which is dumbing us down and running down the knowledge nation.

In conclusion, I would like to summarise in general Education at a glance: 2001—the state of education in the nation. Australia's performance on education, which was once superior, is now at OECD average levels, and in some respects it is significantly below the OECD norm. That is not good enough. As I have mentioned earlier, it includes newer countries to the OECD, such as Hungary, Poland, Mexico and the Czech Republic. We must be well above average to excellent. On most knowledge nation indicators, Australia is well below the United States of America. Australia's comparative performance is deteriorating, especially in relation to tertiary expenditure and participation. The comparative position, according to the OECD data from the mid-1990s, has seen a turn sharply downwards. This government, this minister and this Prime Minister should be ashamed of the state of the nation of knowledge. I look forward to being part of a Beazley government which holds the knowledge nation at the very centre of its performance and of its being.