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Fixing education

By Henry Thornton - posted Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Over the weekend, Mrs Thornton, herself a popular and effective university teacher, made the obvious point that quality teaching requires quality teachers.

It is not just a matter of money. People of Henry's age, (like most of Henry's readers), received a better education 40 or 50 years ago when Australia, and the world, was far poorer than it is now.

Nor is it just a matter of class sizes. The Asian nations like Singapore and China have larger class sizes than we do, and higher educational achievements. And students of Chinese heritage here do far better on average than students of traditional modern Australian heritage. I venture the hypothesis that children of recent migrants generally also do better on average. All these facts point to cultural factors that are most likely negativelyrelated to the wealth of the relevant parents.


Mrs T has a nice theory to explain the decline in teaching standards that we older people routinely bewail.

Forty or fifty years ago, women had many fewer opportunities in the marts of trade, the professions or the major corporations. Teaching and nursing were the main careers open to most women, and therefore there was a far larger amount of high talent in these professions.

Ergo, teaching (and I suspect nursing) standards were higher then, and as a result children were better educated, especially in primary schools where women teachers were in a strong majority.

I am not sure how the role of women plays out in university education now and then. As a student at Melbourne University I found several formidable women teachers, but only one who had reached the dizzy heights of an Associate-Professorship. Certainly teaching standards generally were far more rigorous than I observe applied to my children's education, but then mass tertiary education has undoubtedly lowered standards of average students as well as their teachers.

The universities I know a fair bit about have women assuming the main burden of teaching, while the blokes mostly pursue 'research', writing papers that in many cases would be better left unwritten for journals that serve mostly to provide points in support of applications for promotion.

Teaching rather than research is a choice often made by women who have children to bring up and hence are forced to compromise far more than blokes in balancing the needs of paid and unpaid work.


Henry knows one of the Group of Eight Research Universities in which a new dean tried to make redundant the five women in their fifties who earnt most of the faculty's large profit from teaching mass classes full of overseas, full fee paying students.

The reason for this master-stroke of incompetence was the dean's negative view of their failure to produce 'research'. This was despite the fact that two of the five had explicit contracts to do only teaching, and the other three had assumed far greater teaching loads than others (with full faculty approval) by virtue of their decision not to pursue research.

The net result was that five very effective teachers are either retired, having accepted redundancy packages, or are teaching far less, having decided to shove it up the dean by reigniting their research careers.

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This article was first published at Henry Thornton on September 10, 2012.

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About the Author

Henry Thornton (1760-1815) was a banker, M.P., Philanthropist, and a leading figure in the influential group of Evangelicals that was known as the Clapham set. His column is provided by the writers at

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