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Education: are we getting value for money?

By John Töns - posted Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Education is one of the biggest ticket items in both State and Federal budgets. The question is does this expenditure represent value for money? Ever since the Dawkins 'reform' of the tertiary sector successive politicians at both State and Federal level have promoted a vision of education which sees education at all levels as little more than providing industry will a well trained and employable workforce. My argument is that this is inconsistent with a free market philosophy and demonstrates a failure to understand what role education plays in a democratic society.

I do not share the enthusiasm with which the Hawke and successive governments embraced the free market philosophy. It may well be therefore that my critique of education within the context of a free market ideology does not do it justice.

In essence the idea of a free market is that governments should not be in the business of picking winners and losers – instead they should allow the market to determine which industries are worthy of surviving. Agreed; this is a gross simplification but it is one of the most common responses that politicians offer when asked to intervene in the market. Example when the SA government contract for bus services was awarded to an interstate company the justification in part was that the government should not provide preferential treatment to SA based bus companies as this would represent an illegitimate interference in the operation of the free market.


So why does a free market ideology not work for the education sector? Perhaps the easiest way to illustrate this is to refer to the teaching of languages other than English (LOTE). During the '80s and the '90s there was a considerable push for Australia to become export oriented. At the same time LOTE was suffering declining enrolments – in universities well establish language programmes were dismantled and in high schools staff began to question a commitment to LOTE for these classes were invariably smaller which in turn meant that class sizes in other subjects were well over recommended levels.

The demand for an export oriented economy, a promotion of tourism from countries from outside the English speaking world meant that LOTE teachers were able to push for more LOTE teachers.

Few policy makers had the critical capacity to think through this argument logically – which meant that the task for LOTE advocates such as myself had a relatively easy time convincing Ministers that the promotion of LOTE was in our economic interest.

The educational arguments for LOTE are far stronger than any free market rhetoric but when you are battling for a slice of the education budget you have to work from within the dominant economic paradigm. The economic arguments for LOTE based on free market principles is, like all educational arguments based on such principles is fatally flawed for a number of reasons.

Firstly it requires governments to pick winners and losers. These winners and losers do not have to be picked in the short term but have to be picked based on analysis of where the world will be at least 20 years from now.

How so?


Lets look at the example of the teaching of Japanese to understand this. In the late '70s indications were that Japan was to play an increasing large part in our economy – we were busy developing Japanese export markets and were wooing the Japanese to choose Australia as a tourist destination.

However, Japanese was not taught in statistically significant numbers at any level in the education system. To promote the teaching of Japanese one needed to get more teachers of Japanese in schools. This meant that one needs to expand the teaching of Japanese in the tertiary sector. This itself takes time – at the time I estimated that it would take about 10 years before we would have sufficient programmes at tertiary level to make a difference.

Once there were sufficient courses at tertiary level you would need a further 4 years to begin producing teachers. Once these teachers are in schools they will need to be teaching the language for at least 5 years to get students up to a required standard of proficiency. So the turn around time for a curriculum policy change to begin to bite is about 20 years. That time line may be shortened for some subjects but it will generally fall in the range of some 10-20 years.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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