The Guardian 26 September, 2007


Public education on the rack

The appalling ranking of Australia in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) latest report on education should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following government policies in this area over recent decades.

Years of cuts in spending on public education have seen Australia sink to the third bottom position of the 29 OECD countries. At the same time Australia spends double the OECD average on private education.

The figures confirm the long-term efforts of both Labor and Liberal governments to privatise the whole of the educational system from primary schools to universities. It’s a policy aimed to provide an education for the children of the ruling class while turning out children of working class families with minimal education. Private schools can also be relied on to educate children in the values and ideology of the capitalist ruling class.

"Australia is now lagging badly behind much of the first world on the importance we place on funding the education of the next generation", said Australian Education Union Federal President Pat Byrne commenting on the figures.

The fact that public education is now a semi-starved mess is a direct consequence of the deliberate policies of governments. Schools need more teachers and insufficient teachers are being trained.

Exactly the same process has been going on in hospitals and other medical services.

Country towns are without doctors while the training of doctors in Australia has languished. At the same time the government is subsidising the importation of doctors and nurses from countries such as India, South Africa and the Philippines, countries that need their services much more urgently than does Australia.

The OECD report, Education at a Glance, confirms that there is a strong relationship between educational outcomes and the socio-economic backgrounds of students. Class sizes in Australian primary schools are above the OECD average. The availability of teaching resources relative to student numbers in secondary education is more favourable in private institutions than public ones.

Many of the measures to assist disadvantaged students have been removed. Funds for TAFE have been slashed while university tuition fees are among the highest.

Australian teachers are paid less than the mean at the top of the salary scale despite teaching longer hours and facing larger classes than most in other OECD nations. Higher salaries recently won by the AEU and its members for beginner teachers have put this group above most of their overseas compatriots. Hopefully this will make teaching a more attractive option.

A great deal was done by the Whitlam Labor Government in the mid-1970s with the introduction of free university places, the establishment of the TAFE system of technical and further education, special programs for women, Aboriginals, migrants, the disadvantaged and early school leavers. Some called it an "education revolution" at the time.

The rot set in well before the election of the Howard Coalition Government in 1996. The Fraser Coalition Government in 1976 began the process of making cuts to public education. These were continued by Labor Governments in the 1980s. Successive governments poured money into non-government schools and starved the public system of funds.

Then came the Howard Government which took a sledgehammer to public education and set about turning education into a commodity, to be bought in a market of competing educational institutions. The basic concept of education — at all levels — from being a right was turned on its head. Private schools, with only one third of the student population, receive 65 percent of federal government spending on schools. The government spends more on preparing to fight wars for US imperialism than it does on universities.

Labor is promising an "education revolution", but nothing that leader Kevin Rudd has so far said indicates that Labor will reverse the promotion of the private sector in education.

That change will only come with a government committed to a universal system of free, secular public education — system where education is a right, not a privilege.


In last week’s editorial a line was inadvertently dropped from the fourth paragraph. The sentence should have read: "His [Howard’s] latest international action is to persuade the Canadian Prime Minister to join Australia and vote against the UN declaration on the rights of the Indigenous people.

The omitted words are underlined.

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