Wednesday, 19 September 2007
Matters of Public Importance
Australians have traditionally looked at education as the one thing which gives a young Australian the chance to maximise potential and get ahead. The chance to get ahead particularly applies to those people who come from lower socioeconomic, disadvantaged or battling circumstances. Education is seen as the great arena of equity, access and opportunity. But these days it is also the case that education is the single most important economic investment that we can make for our nation. Investing in the skills, education and training of our people and our workforce is the single most important thing we can do to ensure our ongoing international competitiveness, to ensure that we take Australia to the next level of productivity and to ensure that we continue to be a prosperous country and give all Australians the opportunity to share fairly in that prosperity.
This absolutely essential economic and social requirement of making greater investments in education at every level—whether it is early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational or technical, university or on-the-job training—has been Labor’s mantra chant all this year. In addition to stressing the importance of that and the need to make greater investments for the future, we have also made this fundamental point. In the old days it may well have been that people looked at investments in education and compared the investment in one state to the investment in another state or the investment in one system to the investment in another system, or looked at educational outcomes from one state or system versus educational outcomes from another state or territory or system. These days, the absolutely essential requirement for us as a nation is to start comparing and contrasting the educational investments that we make internationally and comparing and contrasting the educational outcomes that we achieve as a nation internationally. In education, as in so many other things in life, we are now in an international competition. So it is the international comparisons in terms of both investments and outcomes that are so essential.
For all of this year the Leader of the Opposition and Labor have been making this single important point. Over its period in office, the Howard government has failed to invest enough in education. It has failed to invest enough in the education, skills and training of our people and our workforce. That puts us at risk. It puts our future prosperity at risk. It puts our future productivity at risk. It puts our international competitiveness at risk. That is why all year we have been urging the need for greater investments in education.
At the beginning of this year, we started with an investment in early childhood education, announcing a half-a-billion-dollar program to give every four-year-old whose parents want it the chance of 15 hours of education per week. Why did we do that? Because we know from the work done in Australia by Fiona Stanley, amongst others, and also from the work done internationally by the Canadians in particular that, if we make an educational investment early—particularly if that educational investment comes in respect of someone who may come from a disadvantaged or dysfunctional family or from a family where a culture of learning and study is not necessarily part of that family’s history—that is the thing that gives us the chance to maximise a long-term beneficial educational outcome.
As well as that half-a-billion-dollar investment in early childhood education, we have announced a $2.5 billion program to bring trades training centres into our secondary schools. We have linked that to improving and increasing our secondary school retention rates, which have regrettably stagnated at about 75 per cent over the last decade. We have committed ourselves to increasing our secondary school retention rates to 90 per cent by 2020.
The reason we have done that is, again, that all the evidence in Australia and internationally shows that, if we get a young Australian to complete year 12, to complete secondary school, then that young person effectively doubles his or her chance of going on and getting a further qualification, whether that is a vocational and training qualification, an apprenticeship qualification or a university qualification. It also doubles that young person’s chance of remaining in gainful employment all of his or her adult life. That evidence is backed up by the recent Australian Industry Group and Dusseldorp Skills Forum report that came out a week or so ago.
All year Labor have been saying that we need to make greater investments and all year we have been saying quite rightly that one of the great failings of the Howard government has been to not make enough investments in all of these areas. Today, the publication of the OECD report Education at a glance 2007 again confirms the lack of investment and the neglect and the complacency of the Howard government in this area. The report underlines Labor’s call for an education revolution to make these greater investments. The report underlines Labor’s view that our comparisons necessarily now have to be international; it underlines the fact that the real comparisons now are with what our international competitors and neighbours are doing.
A searing indictment of this report is that it effectively shows that at every level there has been a decline in investment as far as public investment in education is concerned. Let us just go through some of the damning analyses in this OECD report. As a proportion of GDP, public expenditure on education in Australia is 4.3 per cent; the OECD average is five per cent. As a proportion of total expenditure, Australia has the third lowest proportion of public expenditure on education, at 73 per cent, when the OECD average is 87 per cent, and our proportion of public expenditure has declined by nearly six per cent since 1995. We are the third lowest OECD country in terms of our proportion of public expenditure on education. We are 14 percentage points under the OECD average, and we have declined six points since 1995.
Public investment in tertiary education, for example, has declined by four per cent, while in other OECD countries the average increase has been 49 per cent. So in the period of the report—1995 to 2004, the substantial period of the Howard government in office—our public investment in tertiary education declined by four per cent when the OECD average was plus 49 per cent. Our share of public expenditure on tertiary institutions fell from 64 per cent in 1995 to 47 per cent in 2004, and the OECD average for public expenditure on tertiary institutions was 75.4 per cent. As a proportion of GDP, public expenditure on tertiary education was 0.8 per cent; the OECD average was one per cent.
When you go to primary, secondary and postsecondary non-tertiary education, you see the report finds that, as a proportion of total expenditure, Australia has the third-lowest proportion of public expenditure in the OECD. When you go to early childhood education expenditure as a proportion of GDP, Australia’s figure is 0.1 per cent, one-fifth of the OECD average. So for the key area of early childhood investment ours is one-fifth of the OECD average, and for primary, secondary and postsecondary non-tertiary education we have the third-lowest proportion of public expenditure of all OECD countries. That takes you through the searing, damning indictment of the failure of the Howard government to invest adequately in the education, skills and training of our people and our workforce.
The government’s response to that is to say that the report is dealing with old data and does not deal with data from more recent years. A university revenue report came out today, which, coincidentally, the minister released overnight, entitled Finance 2006: financial reports of higher education providers, but what the minister does not say when she looks at the finance of higher education providers is that, when the government came to office in 1996, Commonwealth recurrent funding to universities was 0.9 per cent of GDP; it is 0.6 per cent today. Commonwealth grants to universities, as a proportion of total revenue, decreased from 57 per cent in 1996 to 41 per cent in 2004 and, at the same time, university revenue derived from fees and charges increased from 13 per cent in 1996 to 24 per cent in 2004. As if the universities have not suffered the adverse consequences of that, the staff-student ratio in our universities, on the advice of the vice-chancellors, has increased, from 14.6 in 1995 to 20.4.
So the government says two things today: firstly, that we are dealing with old data and, secondly, that we should look at the revenue sources of the universities. What the minister will not say is that, as a rule of thumb, when the government came to office 57c of each dollar that the universities spent came from the Commonwealth, from the nation state adequately discharging its essential obligation to fund higher education and learning. Now it is close to 40c. So we have seen the universities stress on quality and rely increasingly on other sources: fees from full fee paying Australian undergraduates, fees from full fee paying overseas students and a substantial individual and national increase in the HECS burden.
At question time the Prime Minister said, ‘These figures don’t take into account HECS.’ He made only one mistake: the Leader of the Opposition, in all of his questions at question time today and in all of his comments today that I have heard, referred to public investment, as I have—the nation state discharging a central obligation to ensure that education at every level, whether it is early childhood education, primary or secondary schooling, vocational education and training or education at our universities, is adequately supported by the Commonwealth.
The other point that the minister and the Prime Minister made today is that we have not taken into account the things they have done recently. What a surprise that in this year’s budget the Howard government—after Labor and the Leader of the Opposition called for an education revolution and noted the need for greater investments—responded with the Higher Education Endowment Fund. Does anyone seriously think they would have come up with that if it had not been an election year and Labor had not been making greater investment in education front and centre? The Howard government are so very good in the run-up to an election at coming up with something that it then tries to use as a political fix to mask a longstanding, enduring complacency and neglect. The most serious indictment that can be made of this government is complacency and neglect and not providing for the future of our nation. The government and the nation have had 16 years of continuous economic growth. That is a great thing, a lot of it substantially set up by the structural reforms of the previous Hawke and Keating Labor governments and by, more recently, the benefits of a boom in sales of our resources to China. Whether it is infrastructure or skills or education, the government have completely failed to invest for the long term, to ensure that our investments are adequate on an international comparison, and to ensure that our outcomes are adequate and of a sufficiently high level on international comparisons.
The government has been sprung by this OECD report, and again I will very quickly go to some of the analyses. The OECD report says that, as a proportion of GDP, Australia’s public expenditure on education is 4.3 per cent less than the OECD average of five per cent and that Australia has the third lowest proportion of public expenditure on education in the OECD. It says that Australia’s proportion of public expenditure on education is 14 per cent below the OECD average and has declined by six per cent since 1995. It goes on to say that public investment in tertiary education has declined by four per cent, compared with the OECD average of a 49 per cent increase, with Australia the only country to have a decline in public investment in tertiary education. It further says that public expenditure on tertiary education is 28 per cent lower than the OECD average, that it has declined by 17 per cent since 1995 and that expenditure on childhood education in Australia is 0.1 per cent of GDP, compared with the OECD average of 0.5 per cent.
That is a series of damning indictments. The government is completely exposed here by an OECD report that treats Australia in exactly the same way as all of the other 29 OECD countries, and it comes to a searing, damning indictment. This government has failed to adequately provide for the future of young Australians and for the future prosperity of our nation by failing to invest enough in early childhood education, by failing to invest in primary and secondary education and by failing to invest in postsecondary technical and higher education. The reason the government has done that is that, in the end, its ideological view is that these things should not be part of the central obligation of a nation state to discharge but should be pushed onto individuals and families to fund for themselves. That attitude puts our nation’s prosperity at risk, and for that the government stands condemned. (Time expired)