The Guardian 16 November, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The not-so-clever country

In a little over a decade, China has increased the number of undergraduates and people with doctoral degrees fivefold. Describing this achievement in The Sydney Morning Herald, Howard French said China had "pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in modern times".

And it is remarkable. Consider: in 1978, only 1.4 percent of China’s population that was in the age group that could have been doing tertiary studies at university or other institutes of higher learning was actually engaged in tertiary-level studies.

Today, only one generation later, every fifth person in that age group is doing higher education!

When Paul Keating made his call (not all that long ago) for Australia to become "the clever country" he was mocked in the bourgeois mass media. For capitalism sets no store by anything unless it boosts profits (by increasing production, for example).

Australia’s bourgeoisie saw their future profits coming from exploiting Asia’s vast pool of cheap labour while being the USA’s "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific region.

They dreamed of engaging in imperialist adventures in Asia and the Pacific, carving out their own little empire in this neck of the woods under US protection. This would be far more profitable they reasoned — and in a much shorter term — than investing in developing Australia’s research facilities and hi-tech institutes.

Why educate the masses when we could import anything we wanted from Asia or the US?

Besides, more and more of the Australian workforce were going to be holding down two or more part-time "McJobs" in future, struggling on "competitive" wages for enough to live on. Education was just going to be a luxury they could not afford.

Those Australian youngsters the ruling class needed for routine service jobs could be educated, at their parents’ expense too, in private schools. Private religious schools, preferably, so that they would be used to discipline, be disinclined to question authority and be willing to believe anything so long as they were told it was "God’s will".

So the State education system has systematically been starved of funds, routinely denied both equipment and staff.

Horror stories abound: schools in the west of Sydney where the children have to share pencils! There are numerous Parents and Citizens Associations who now raise money "for the school" and give it straight to the Principal because they know the desperate Principal will use it to pay for extra staff.

No one wants this: such a state of affairs threatens not only teachers’ wages and conditions (not to mention the quality of education the pupils will receive) but also the integrity and independence of the school and its curriculum.

I know of a school — and it is hardly unique — that desperately requires a teacher for children with special needs (kids who have never learned to read, for example), but which simply cannot afford one. They have not been given an allocation for one.

What they have been given is an allocation for a teacher’s aide (their rate of pay is much lower than a teacher’s). So, a dedicated but unemployed special needs teacher has been employed nominally as a teacher’s aide but in reality as a special needs teacher, at a fraction of a teacher’s salary.

The teacher is grateful for the job (even at the demeaning salary) and hopes to be upgraded as soon as the school can swing it in their budget. The school is grateful and will certainly try to do so as soon as it can.

But is this the way to run an efficient, effective education system? Of course not.

And now we have the scandalous news that some schools and P&Cs are so desperate they are willing to accept the money being offered by mobile phone companies for permission to locate their microwave towers in school grounds! The long-term health effects of this are as yet unknown but quite possibly very dire.

I very much doubt that we will see any mobile phone towers located in the grounds of the more pricey private schools, although they usually have the bigger grounds and hence more room.

Only capitalism is so driven in its pursuit of profit that it would try to improve its bottom line and "competitiveness" by installing a possible serious health hazard in a school playground.

And only capitalism is so contemptuous of the education needs of working class children that it would try to force them to fund their education by risking their health.

Talk about a sick social system!

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