Education battleground is in skills and training

A rare breakout of peace between public and private school has changed the election outlook and shifted the campaign focus from schools to skills and training, where the choice will be between a business-based system or one focused on public TAFEs.

The spectacular $4.6 billion funding injection by the government into Catholic schools in September silenced the education sector’s most powerful lobby group, and defused a long running conflict between state and independent schools.

Jennifer Buckingham said the country is at a point where there is no sector war between private and public schools. Lauren Shay

“We’ve reached a point where this no sector war going on,” said senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent studies, Jennifer Buckingham.

“At this point we haven’t got public schools squaring off against the catholic and private. That’s been a feature of past campaigns. It’s light-on this time.”

In this election the major parties actually agree on two priorities for school education: lifting teacher performance and using evidence to change classroom practice. They’ve been out bidding each other to establish an evidence institute.

Last week’s surprise NAPLAN improvement in reading standards among year 3 and 5 students was attributed to the feedback teachers are getting in the classroom.

Businessman David Gonski, in his second review of schools, recommended an evidence institute be established and the Coalition made an extra $20 billion it was offering conditional on schools agreeing to ‘‘to drive improvements in teaching practice’’.

Labor said it will spend $280 million on an evidence institute.

In one policy difference on improving teacher performance Labor is planning to restrict entry to university teaching courses to the top 30 per cent of students. It said it will use caps on funding if the sector does not take action quickly enough.

It will also rejuvenate the Highly Accomplished and Lead Teacher program and fund extra professional development for teachers.

‘‘Teacher education is really important and it’s the one area where the federal government can act,’’ said Dr Buckingham. ‘‘I’d like to see what the Coalition has in mind. They have talked about boosting teachers in remote locations.

“Teacher education is really important and it’s the one area where the federal government can act.”

— Dr Jennifer Buckingham, Centre for Independent Studies

‘‘We want rigour in terms of teaching courses and in the quality of teaching candidates. We want people going into schools to teach who are bright and able to keep up with research on effective teaching standards.”

The Grattan Institute, which will publish a comparison of school education policy this week, said raising teacher standards and an evidence institute are two of its top three priorities.

Its third priority is getting all schools to a consistent level of funding under the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS). This is a reference to state government funding of public schools. Economist and school education fellow at the institute, Julie Sonnemann, said the Commonwealth needs to push state governments to lift their side of the bargain.

The Coalition said under its ‘‘Quality Schools Program’’ which consolidates the reforms of businessman David Gonski’s second review, recurrent funding for schools will grow from $17.5 billion in 2017 to $32.4 billion in 2029.

  
 

That will take total funding over a decade to $307 billion, which Labor said it will beat with $322 billion.

Labor said overall in this election it will outspend the government by $10 billion, as it reinstates the ‘‘lost Gonski money’’ from the first Gonski review.

Not only has the sector reached a rare state of peace funding has reached eye-watering levels.

Labor’s big education pitch is a review of the entire post-secondaryeducation sector.

The review announcement by education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek more than a year ago allowed the party to sidestep awkward questions about what it would do with trouble-plagued state-based TAFE systems.

Meanwhile the coalition struggled on for 12 months fighting criticism of falling TAFE enrolments, bad publicity about training providers and the overhang of the VET-Fee Help debacle, until it rushed out the Joyce review late last year.

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek committed the party to a review of post-secondary education if it wins government. Eamon Gallagher

Labor’s proposed review is meant to reset the balance between universities and TAFE which is heavily biased to universities through fee assistance for students; stabilise the erratic contribution of the states to skills training, and turn around enrolments which have been falling since 2012.

In the budget the Coalition promised more than half a billion dollars on skills and 80,000 new apprentices.

“There hasn’t been new investment in the vocational education and training sector for 10 years,” the chief executive of TAFE directors Australia, Craig Robertson, said.

“We’ve had major population growth and a restructuring of the economy but we haven’t had a big investment in skilling.”

Labor is promising to inject $1.73 billion into skills, TAFE and apprentices. This would include $200 million to refurbish TAFE campuses plus money for 150,000 apprenticeships and 100,000 free places for TAFE students. The cost would be spread out with $1 billion in the medium term and $730 million over the forward estimates.

Ms Plibersek said she wants TAFE to be an independent system, distinct from the university sector. This disappointed some education reformers who argue the future of the tertiary sector is to bring skills the skills sector and universities closer together especially on funding for students.

Labor’s post-secondary review plans have very little to say about private TAFE providers, which have taken an increasingly important role in service delivery. Private providers are not mentioned once in the review’s terms of reference, although they do more 60 per cent of the teaching.

Labor’s $1.73 billion goes almost entirely on the public providers. It will rely on the TAFE system to do the lifting whereas the Joyce review of training, released by the Coalition on budget night, relies on industry to take the lead.

Mr Joyce said training development and qualifications should be reshaped with input from business and a new National Skills Commission should co-ordinate the different interests of Canberra and the states.

TAFE gets all of Labor’s promised $1.75 billion, but the private sector accounts for 60 per cent of students. Rob Homer

Apart from $525 million to finance new apprenticeships the Coalition has not put money on the table for the skills sector.

The Australian Council for Private Education and Training said only $54 million of the $525 million is actually new money, which it found “very disappointing”. The rest is re purposed from the Skilling Australians Fund.

Chairman of the Council Alexis Watt said Mr Joyce had a “better vision” for the sector and said Labor’s 100,000 free TAFE places spread over four years was not a lot given 4 million people were enrolled in a training course last year.

On universities Labor is promising to outspend the Coalition. Tanya Plibersek has made an explicit promise to reinstate the demand-driven system to the value of $10 billion over 10 years.

The Coalition froze funding for new students in 2017 to save more than $2 billion for the federal budget. It said when the freeze ended new funding would be based on a performance driven system.

The probable new mechanism (it was due to be announced in June) would measure student attrition rates, graduate outcomes and socio-economic enrolments to set a new rate for commonwealth support. But the baseline for increases would be population growth which is running at just over 1 per cent.

Labor would return the demand-driven system to inflation indexation which the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, Andrew Norton, predicted would give the universities 4 or 5 per cent more money for students than the coalition’s performance-related cap.

There was no fundamental disagreement on the demand driven system, only on the rate of increase and how it was achieved.

“The coalition is putting fiscal concerns ahead of higher education. Labor puts higher education ahead.” The Grattan Insitute’s Andrew Norton. Eamon Gallagher

“Under the Coalition the unis will get the lower of what they would get under Labor, but they will get something. The Coalition is putting fiscal concerns ahead of higher education. Labor puts higher education ahead.”

“Higher education has had a good run in the last decade.  Total revenues have been strong,”

He said income from overseas students was an important contributor.

“I think any spending priorities will be around TAFE. Universities are in a stable period after a good run.”

Universities’ biggest criticism of the Coalition is on cuts to research funding.

On budget night the Coalition finally killed the promise of a $3.9 billion research infrastructure fund which has been dangling in front of the universities since 2013.

Universities say that’s on top of a Coalition cut of more than $328 million in Research Block Grants last year and falling government spending on R&D, which is now just 0.5 per cent of GDP.

Labor has promised a review of research funding and a prime minister’s science and innovation council, although Leader Bill Shorten did not put a cost on these.

Labor will spend $300 million on a university infrastructure fund.

Mr Norton said both major parties are relying  on the fact research funding from the private sector is going up.

Apart from differences on the skills the big election difference is in early education.

The Australian Early Childhood Development census 2018 reported that one in five children is starting school developmentally behind their peers.

The Labor Party said it will introduce preschool education for three and four-year-olds and will fund it with $1.75 billion over four years. By contrast, the Coalition renewed funding for four-year-olds only, for one year, at a cost of $453 million.

In the weeks before the election the Early Learning and Care Council of Australia initiated a campaign to lobby for 15 hours a week of education for three and four-year-olds, fully subsidised.

The campaign was launched by the director of the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales, Adrian Piccoli, a former education minister and National Party deputy leader.

Mr Piccoli told The Australian Financial Review two years of early childhood education should be on the election agenda.

“It’s an issue of cost. It’s significant for families in the 25 to 40-year age group.”

“Pre-school is subsidised for children from disadvantaged families. But not for middle-income families. I would have thought there were some marginal seats in Sydney and Melbourne where cost is an issue, especially for women swinging voters.”

The Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit, 2019 is in Brisbane on August 27 and 28, www.afrhighered.com.au. The Australia Financial Review and UniSuper are hosting the fifth annual AFR Higher Education Awards on August 27 at the Hilton Brisbane. Entries are now open www.afrhighered.com.au

SourceAAP:www.afr.com

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