Even before neo-liberal user-pays education policies were applied in the 1980s, Australian education was deeply unequal, like the broader society, but the inequality was worse because private schools were deliberately favoured. As a result, Australian schooling has a large number of socially disadvantaged students, and massive gaps in achievement between rich and poor of four to six years of schooling.
Australian society is now far more unequal than in the 1980s, and public schools are doing the ‘heavy lifting’ in education but are vastly under-resourced for the challenges.
Private schools take the majority of federal schools funding, including huge grants for capital works. At the state level, private schools receive additional recurrent and capital funding. On top of this, the private schools can charge uncapped fees and choose which students they enrol. This has seriously undermined the public education system which has the most students with complex needs.
Among the 34 rich industrialised countries, Australia has the fifth largest gap in the educational resources for low and high socio-economic status (SES) schools. And the gap in the quality of physical buildings between low and high SES schools in Australia is also amongst the highest among these 34 countries.
Australia has a higher concentration of disadvantaged students enrolled in low SES schools. Almost every one of these schools is within the public school system. Almost 60% of the most disadvantaged students are enrolled in these schools. This level of concentration of disadvantage is substantially higher than in any comparable country.
Of the poorest 25 per cent of students in Australia, 82 per cent are enrolled in public schools compared to 11 per cent in Catholic schools and 6 per cent in other private schools.
The ideology of “choice” - that parents should be able to choose a private school for their child - has driven funding policies for decades. As a result, Australia has concentrations of disadvantage, unfairness and social segregation. Nearly 90 per cent of students are enrolled in secondary schools that compete with two or more schools, as reported by principals. This compares to the average of 60 per cent in the 34 rich industrialised countries.
The original Gonski Review (2012) established the minimum level of recurrent funding and resources teachers in a particular school need in order to do their job - the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS).
Because some schools had students with more complex needs, additional funding for teacher resourcing was provided through fairness loadings.
These resources started to arrive in early 2014 but only months later, in May, the then Abbott Coalition Government cut a massive $30 billion from schools in its first federal budget, gutting the needs-based funding model.
In June 2017, the Turnbull Coalition Government legislated that it would provide 80 per cent of funding to non-government schools to reach the SRS yet capped federal funding for the public system to 20 per cent.
In 2017, the then Treasurer, Scott Morrison, delivered a budget that resulted in a $14 billion funding shortfall for public schools.
It was this budget that effectively tore up the signed funding agreements with state and territory governments and meant that public school teachers would never receive the resources they needed.
Almost every private school under the Morrison plan will be over the Schooling Resource Standard, but 99 per cent of public schools will never reach it.
To make this worse, last September the Morrison Government gifted an additional $4.6 billion to private schools only.
The federal ALP has committed to restoring the $14 billion lost to public schools. The Greens have also committed to the necessary lift in funding for public schools to meet the SRS.
TAFE / VET
Future training and education opportunities for Australians have been compromised by a sustained assault on the TAFE / VET system. “Contestable funding”, introduced in 2012, accelerated the privatisation of vocational education and training and decimated the public TAFE system. Since its introduction:
- There are now fewer Australians in training than when it was introduced.
- There are 140,000 fewer apprenticeships than when the current Coalition government took office.
- Funding to vocational education and training (VET) has been cut by $3 billion since 2013.
- Morrison as Treasurer in 2018 cut apprenticeship funding by $270 million.
- The most recent federal budget failed to even mention TAFE despite an enrolment loss of 24 per cent due to funding cuts.
- And despite VET FEE HELP costing the Australian community over $5 billion, much of which was handed to dodgy for-profit providers, the Morrison government continues with an agenda to privatise the VET sector.
This neo-liberal experiment with the VET sector must cease and funding to the TAFE system guaranteed.
The ALP has now dropped its support for “contestable funding” and committed that at least two-thirds of all government VET funding must be allocated to TAFE. The Greens say that all funding should go to TAFE.
The Morrison Government has refused to guarantee ongoing funding for pre-schools by only extending early childhood education funding for 2019, and only for four-year old children.
Federal Labor recently announced an additional $1.75 billion over four years to extend pre-school provision to include three-year olds. If elected, Labor’s National Preschool and Kindy Program aims to guarantee every three and four-year old access to “quality education they need for the best start in school and life” totalling an overall investment of $9.8 billion over a decade.
The Morrison Coalition government continued to cut higher education grants and increase student fees and HECS repayments in 2017. Before this hit, the Abbott and Turnbull governments had cut almost $4 billion.
Australia has one of the lowest levels of public investment in tertiary education in the world and Australian higher education students pay amongst the highest fees in the world. Over 70 per cent of teaching staff in Australian universities are casuals or short-term contract employees.
The solution to improving educational outcomes is to invest additional resources into public education in all sectors, from childcare and early childhood education to post graduate levels, so every student is supported to reach their full potential. Both Labor and the Greens have made strong education commitments.
The education choice is clear on May 18.
Education is a basic right, and Australia has obligations under International human rights agreements and its own laws, to provide free education for all people, focusing on equity of access and opportunity. To include everyone in the enjoyment of their fundamental right to education we have to remove all barriers which exclude and marginalise people, and reliable sustainable funding is vital to that goal.
This statement and the related policy papers are presented as part of the SEARCH Foundation’s work for a democratic, ecological, socialist Australia, based on increased public and social ownership, cooperative mechanisms and workers self-management, that enable people to have an effective voice in all decision-making. Please share them with your networks in the community and at work.
Authorised by L Whitington, SEARCH Foundation, Suite 8, Level 5, 377 Sussex St, Sydney NSW 2000. May 2019.