OPINION

Is less more? Morrison must learn lesson on education funding

Prime Minister Scott Morrison must shut out all the hangers-on, profiteers and special interest groups and change education funding. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison must shut out all the hangers-on, profiteers and special interest groups and change education funding. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

Prime Minister Scott Morrison's admission that "the Commonwealth has no line of sight" on vocational training spending, and that "where targets do exist, they are aspirational ... if not met, there are no consequences", applies equally to all spending on education at all levels by all levels of government.

Education funding in Australia is a quagmire of blame-shifting, cost-shifting, and caving in to lobbying and special interests.

As a result, students are performing worse at the primary and secondary levels; standards are falling at universities and the link between industry and vocational training is becoming ever more tenuous.

Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis could be a catalyst for a big shake-up. It is not a case of throwing more money at education. Rather it is a case of getting better value for what we spend.

Australian universities have expressed alarm at their loss of income because their fee-paying international students have been shut out by COVID-19 restrictions.

But the universities and the Australian government should never have allowed that situation in the first place.

The federal government encouraged the universities to attract fee-paying international students so its own funding to universities could be cut. The federal government, which is in charge of immigration, gave open slather to international students. But the benefits were overstated and the hidden costs ignored.

The universities love the cash, and so overstate the value of international students. In particular, when assessing their contribution to "exports" they include goods and services bought by students when in Australia, which add up to more than the fees. However, most of those goods and services are bought with earnings from student employment in Australia - they're not really "exports".

But the big downside, from an economic perspective, is the number of overseas students and their relatives who seek permanent residency in Australia. Indeed, it is this prize "ticket to Australia" which causes them tolerate the high university fees in the first place.

The trouble is that while the federal government allows the students in and then grants them and members of their families permanent residency down the track, the states have to pick up the huge increase in infrastructure spending to support the increased population.

Despite ever more money going to schools, the results on both international and national scorecards are going down.

The whole thing is a false economy. And that is not to mention the threat to university standards posed by granting entry and year-by-year passes to the students. They may well provide the cash flow to the universities, but that boost is outweighed by the far greater infrastructure burden to the rest of Australia, particularly state governments.

It would make greater overall economic sense for the federal government to properly fund the universities directly, and reduce their reliance on international students.

Moreover, the trade in overseas students has a pernicious effect on academic freedom, as universities become so beholden to it that they have to be wary of offending some of the students' countries of origin.

Department of Education and Training figures show that just before the pandemic there were 880,000 international students in Australia. That, incidentally, is more than the Indigenous population of Australia.

In 2020, the then Department of Immigration and Citizenship reported on a survey that said "more than half the surveyed student visa holders planned to stay in Australia at the conclusion of their studies and almost all Skilled-Graduate (Temporary) visa (Subclass 485) holders planned to seek permanent residency".

This is not an education-exporting industry. It is a backdoor people-smuggling industry, cheered on by the universities and the narrow property, retail and infrastructure industries who profit from it. We would be better off without it.

School education funding has become similarly warped. The ideologically driven Coalition government pours so much money into private schools that it now costs the government more money to fund a newly enrolled private school student than it does a newly enrolled public school student, after allowing for the fact that public schools have to carry the burden of remote education and education to the disadvantaged and disabled that the private schools, by and large, do not.

The result has been money wasted on non-education - private schools spending lavish public money on optional extras while public schools are starved of money that would go immediately to education, especially in lower socio-economic areas where the bang for the educational buck is largest.

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Despite ever more money going to schools, the results on both international and national scorecards are going down.

In a post-COVID world, in which the federal government will be desperately trying to rein in spending, a good step would be for it to stop directly funding school education altogether. Let the states fund the lot from their general revenue which includes general federal distributions, such as GST money.

The states and territories could then decide how much if any should go to private schools. The comparisons between them would be instructive.

There could be no blame-shifting, and less waste. If people want private education, fine. Let them pay for it - all of it. The argument that private schools save the government money is no longer true. A 2018 study shows that 85 per cent of private schools get more government funding per head than the average public school.

What on Earth are we doing here?

Australian governments spend more on private education than any other OECD country, yet our education results are below the OECD average.

The Coalition frequently lambasts waste. If it were serious about effective education spending it would reverse its quietly announced decision last month to waste $247 million over the next four years to renew the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).

The government laughingly calls it an "investment". It was a John Howard initiative that Labor did not have the spine to cancel.

On vocational training, we can take Morrison's word for it that Commonwealth spending on it gets tipped into an unaccountable bucket. Industry associations have argued time and again for a better alignment of training and industry need.

But if he can admit that failing, he should go further - with a thorough reworking of education funding that puts the effective, free, secular education of Australian youth first and shuts out all the hangers-on, profiteers and special interest groups.

This story Is less more? Morrison must learn lesson on education funding first appeared on The Canberra Times.