Yesterday Education Minister Julia Gillard announced a major review of higher education policy, to report by the end of the year. The terms of reference are sensible enough. But I hope we will get over the bout of OECDitis on display in the Minister’s speech to the AFR higher ed conference.
As I noted last year, OECDitis is the modern-day version of the cultural cringe, except that now it’s not England that sets the benchmark for Australia, it is the OECD average. Whether or not other OECD countries are actually getting good outcomes, or if they are whether doing the same thing would work in Australian conditions, is all irrelevant. We must at least be the same as the OECD average.
So according to Gillard:
Between 1995 and 2004 public funding of tertiary education increased by an average of 49 percent across the OECD but declined by 4 percent in Australia. ….
Australia is now starting to fall behind our competitors in graduations in critical areas. We are now below the OECD average for the proportion of graduates in science and agriculture, and way below them in engineering, manufacturing and construction – 7.2 percent compared with 12.2 percent. In Korea the figure is 27.1 percent – four times Australia’s density.
Part of the decline in real public spending was due to the below-inflation indexation method adopted by the Keating government and maintained by the Howard government, but most of it would have been due to differential HECS. Compared to the European economies that dominate OECD averages Australia has higher user pays for government-sponsored services but partly as a result also much lower tax. According to another OECD publication released earlier this month, Australians end up with higher returns on their educational investment than countries like Sweden where education is ‘free’. Who gets the better financial deal? (Yes, Russell, I know you think the Swedes.)
Another curious aspect of OECDitis is the strange assumption that spending in Australia isn’t real until a bureaucrat sitting in Paris confirms it. 2004 was quite a while ago, and higher education funding has increased considerably since then, as Gillard’s own Department could tell her. If budget speculation is a guide, only this year will the cash stop flowing.
And do we actually need to match Korea and produce four times as many engineers as we do? Even with the boom, many of them are unlikely to find work as engineers in Australia. Do the Korean engineers find appropriate work? Is the percentage high because they have too few graduates in other fields? We aren’t told. But if the foreigners do it, it must be right.
I don’t disagree with Gillard that the higher education system needs major change. But I don’t think looking at OECD averages in isolation from analysis of the performance of other countries, or the relevance to Australia of policies designed for different economies and government structures, tells us anything very useful.