The current public nostalgia for Paul Keating tells us much about the state of the nation. We lack, according to the Keatingistas, 'a grand narrative'. To some extent we are reaping the harvest of the Howard years; the mean-spirited years the locusts ate, by increasing middle-class welfare, instead of deploying our national capital to infrastructure spending and investment in people through education and training.
Central to Australia's future is our geostrategic location. This is the sweet spot, a first world country adjacent to the emerging global powerhouses of East Asia and South Asia. Despite all the hype about China, my argument is that there should be equal or greater focus on South Asia – India, Sri Lanka. Pakistan – where the lingua franca of business and education, and thus of globalisation, is English; where we share postcolonial heritages, and a commitment to the ideals of a democratic polity, and within that, freedom of expression.
Given our geostrategic location, why is it that every Australian school child is not required to learn a second language at school , starting as early as possible ? Which brings us to education.
The quality of our education system – in secondary education and post-secondary education - is the biggest drag on our national competitiveness and productivity. The recent Productivity Commission report on teacher education should send shock waves through every education faculty, every university admissions office, every state education department, and every employer group in the country. Unfortunately, it won't. We need an upside down model of teacher education where the best and the brightest aspire to be school teachers, not highly paid doctors and lawyers.
And let's not flatter ourselves about the quality of those leaving secondary education and entering university. And here I write as one who has direct dealings with the product of our secondary education system: first year undergraduates, the majority of whom lack critical communication and thinking skills, and have to unlearn bad habits fostered by the 'naplaning' of their educational experience. 'Naplaning' is an exercise akin to trepanning, in which part of the brain is removed through 'teaching to the test'. This breeds a generation of students wedded to strictly following instructions, joining the dots, ticking the boxes, overseen by helicopter parents always hovering overhead.
Speaking of higher education, enormous progress has been made in improving the quality of higher education teaching over the past decade. This is in spite of the antipathy of the Howard government towards the university sector, and the chronic underfunding this begat. Further reforms in higher education are necessary. We need much more sophisticated instruments for measuring both research outcomes and teaching impact. Current teaching quality measures in higher education based around student satisfaction essentially measure popularity. Not even the Logies rely on audience popularity as the sole criterion for awards any more. Finally, with the exception of some summer programs, why does the expensive teaching infrastructure of our universities lie idle for nearly half the year?
The current "skills shortage" shows just how inept governments have been in workforce planning, especially in the vocational education and training sector, which everybody knows has been a basket case of decades.
Despite this, the quality of our scientific research continues to amaze me. Our track record in turning those innovations into marketable goods and services is improving but still poor. As is our inability to insist on value adding to agricultural and resources before they leave the country.
Just as we have some outstanding scientists, like Ian Fraser (a Scotsman by birth), we also have some outstanding social entrepreneurs. One such is Chris Raine, the 24-year-old founder of Hello Sunday Morning, the online alcohol moderation initiative.
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