The Not So Clever Country

Professor Stephen Dinham OAM

Early childhood, school, TAFE and university education are the four pillars of personal, social and economic prosperity in Australia. Their combined influence in opening the doors of opportunity for people and overcoming disadvantage cannot be overstated. Education changes peoples’ lives.

Yet there have been growing concerns over our failure to adequately invest in education compared with other nations and over the fact that this disparity is growing.  There have been efforts to expand the provision of early childhood education but unfortunately we have also seen state budgets cut funding to school education and TAFE. There have also been cuts in Commonwealth funding to universities.

The Gonski reforms were intended to redress the relative decline and imbalances in funding to schools but we now find that a substantial proportion of this funding is to come through additional cuts to higher education. The states and territories must also provide their share if they ‘sign up’. And where will they get this get this funding? A clue is that one of their ‘big ticket’ budgetary items is education which, as noted, has already experienced severe cuts. This is madness. We are witnessing each pillar of education  in turn being sawn off to prop up the others, although in the case of universities and TAFEs, those pillars are not being offered any additional support.

The recent international QS rankings of education faculties has four Australian Universities – Melbourne (3), Monash (6), Sydney (8) and Queensland (10) - in the top 10. This represents an outstanding achievement but the improved rankings for our top faculties of education also reflects the widening gap between these and the rest.  A similar phenomenon exists with the rankings for universities as a whole, with Australia having seven universities in the top 100 worldwide yet a widening gap with the ‘bottom’.

Universities have been operating on a declining proportion of government funding since the late 1980s and the most recent cuts to government funding both to pay for Gonski and more general cuts puts at risk these improved rankings.  There is very little fat left in universities and the constant pressure to cut expenditure and raise income is having an inevitable and deleterious impact on staff, services and the quality of education received by domestic and international students.  These pressures are being felt by all universities but the smaller regional universities are now on a financial knife’s edge.  There is a very real chance that some will become insolvent and if this is the case there is the scenario that these financial ‘basket cases’ will be folded into the better performing universities, dragging down the whole sector still further.

While the funding for the Gonski reforms will slowly pass to schools over the coming years, the cuts to universities will be more immediate and damaging. There is also the question as to whether any increased funding to schools flowing from Gonski will actually match the funding recently removed from public education by state and territory governments. Thus, any gains from Gonski could be illusionary. TAFE of course is the unwanted orphan in all of this, with severe cuts and no compensatory mechanisms. Unfortunately there are very few votes in either TAFE or universities.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric about Australia becoming a ‘top five’ nation on measures such as PISA whilst closing the equity gap continues as the four pillars crumble.  The ‘clever country’? Not on the basis of this evidence.