What do Australians think about education?

Labor MP Lindsay Tanner has excited letter writers to the The Australian with his views on Australians and education. In a speech (pdf) to the Sydney Institute, and reported by The Australian yesterday, Tanner claimed that:

AUSTRALIANS are typically anti-intellectual, indifferent to learning and steeped in mediocrity and ignorance…

These accusations don’t accord with what Australians tell pollsters. Newspoll, for example, runs an occasional survey asking ‘overall, as a society, would you personally agree or disagree that Australians today are…?’ and then listing a dozen possible attributes. In the last of these surveys, late in 2005, 57% of respondents thought that ‘intellectually minded’ was a reasonable description of their fellow Australians. Perhaps by ‘intellectually minded’ they mean reading something other than the sport in the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph – since it certainly can’t mean having acquired a university degree or reading one of the magazines aimed at intellectuals, none of which sell more than a few thousand copies per issue. But it does suggest that ‘anti-inellectual’ might be a bit strong as cultural analysis.

When Roy Morgan Research last polled us on our most important issues, in 2004, education was the second most important issue after health, with 56% of the population rating it as one of their top three most important issues for the federal government to be doing something about. To this we can add the revealed preference of the nearly one-third of parents who are sufficiently concerned about education to put their kids into a private school, and other research suggesting a third or more of parents with children at government schools would send their kids to a private school if money was no object.

I think Tanner is right that there are problems with educational aspiration among young people, particularly from welfare and working class homes. But the main debate isn’t about whether or not education in general is A Good Thing. It is about how we should go about the task of education – hence all the controversies about curriculum, teaching methods, and financing.

37 thoughts on “What do Australians think about education?

  1. As a slight aside, it would be interesting to know the main reason that many parents prefer to put their kids in private schools: is the the three Rs, or the three Cs – culture, contacts and cache?


  2. A few points:

    1) Even when knowingly shaking their heads at those lefty, elitist academics, no sane person would indicate on a survey that they were anti-intellectual. It’s paramount to publically admitting you’re stupid. The Newspoll in question looks flawed.

    2) We’ve had ten years of private school boosterism (and public school derision) from the media and our politicians. Little wonder that those who have never been able to afford private education might prefer it money no object. Those of us who have had the unfortunate experience of being robbed blind by storied private schools and now view them as organised extortion might start to skew those results soon.

    3) When our education ministers want to start teaching creationism in our schools (as Lindsay Tanner reminded us again) you can be sure that the ignorance is being spread by a government so indifferent to widespread education it is starting to look wilfully negligent.

    The Judge Smails character in Caddyshack, after listening to the main protaganists story about being unable to afford law school, retorts “the world needs ditch diggers too”. It’s an attitude that’s palpable in every move that the federal government makes in education policy.

    Constant attacks on teachers unions (why on earth do we begrudge teachers a decent salary when we feel they are so important?), the dumbing down of curriculum (out goes critical thinking, in comes dates and places), misplaced funding favouring private schooling and universities forced to drop entry standards to accommodate full-fee students. These things are a disaster, and our children are paying the price.


  3. Tom – I have some data on that at home, with non-academic factors often a major reason. But it reflects the strength of a market in schools – a single system cannot reflect the wide variety of parental aspirations. As always in these discussions, it’s important not to get distracted by a fairly small number of ‘elite’ private schools that provide contacts and cachet. These are not where most private school students are enrolled.


  4. David, nobody is begrudging teachers a decent salary, we are upset about the way the unions have actively subverted the quality of teaching in the public schools. This has happened in the US also, and maybe in the UK.

    When you get serious about that problem then you may achieve some credibility in the education debate.


  5. In terms of Tanner, I think Australians are right to be suspicious of education which produces little utilitarian and discernible result. This suspicion has its equal-and-opposite within academia in a belief that someone who can explain what they do clearly and simply is somehow betraying the mystique of academe.

    Andrew, the family that will delight at their daughter landing a job as a medical researcher will still complain in general about arcane, wasteful and irrelevant nonsense at universities. There are many examples where people can be quite satisfied with the particular (e.g. their hard-working local MP) while being dissatisfied with the broader phenomenon (e.g. those bludgers in parliament). This can make a country hard to govern and make public servants (elected and not) feel unappreciated.

    David, teachers are entitled to more money, but they are not entitled to assume that all teachers are equally entitled. Time and again teachers campaign for more money – their employers (state and non-state) offer more in exchange for being able to get rid of dud teachers, resulting in teachers pocketing the cash and carrying dud teachers (because duds have the same votes as hard-working, dedicated teachers, and the latter tend to be underrepresented in union forums). Good teachers carry dud teachers and nobody will relieve good teachers of this burden, not even those who take their dues and claim to represent them.

    Like the military, teaching is a calling where preople will work hard for below-market-rates, but the lack of support and getting mucked about by idiots grinds good people down and makes the profession unattractive.


  6. Nice to see Rafe and Andrew Elder staying on-message about the evils of unionisation, even though that bogey man is now officially dead (25% of the workforce and dropping – according to the ABS anyway). I suppose the principals of the schools where all the “dud teachers” are practicising their evil Maoist ways on our poor kiddies are part of this conspiracy.

    Vanstone stated the other day that she believed in the principle of free association (no idea what Nelson thinks, I’m not sure he’s capable of independent thought). The teachers are acting rationally in the face of some very poorly formulated theories of how to differentiate teacher performance. Until some fair mechanism for measuring performance exists, there is no basis for the constant calls of more union busting and differentiated rewards.

    The teachers themselves will clamour for differentiated performance when the critics manage to get a credible mechanism for measuring it. Until then, they are acting in an entirely reasonable way. The “common knowledge” that teachers unions are evil is bunkum imported from the far-right in the US and has no place in Australia.


  7. Whoops – the clueless Julie Bishop is the education minister, not Nelson. My bad. Julie would like to strip teachers of their ability to set curriculum and allow historical (and hysterical in both senses of the word) revisionists to have sway instead. Obviously a Harvard MBA isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on when we get the ridiculous assertion that those qualified to teach (like, say, teachers) are obviously not qualified to set curriculum like lawyers.


  8. Andrew N, I wonder if Tanner was thinking of the attitudes of middle-class Australians with university degrees. Maybe it’s because uni students here in vocational degrees specialise so early, but I would say that the brightest young people in Australia (say, doing medicine or law) tend to be less well-read and overtly intellectual than their equivalents in the US and the UK, who at least in the US do a more general degree initially. Also, there’s just a lot more smart people in the US and UK than here, so if that’s who Tanner is mixing with, Australia will always come off looking shabby.

    As for welfare/working class kids, there was an interesting article in the Economist of 26 October that discussed the school exam performance of whites and non-whites in Britain in deprived areas and said that white kids start off doing better but end up doing worse:

    “Clearly something happens to white children between the ages of 14 and 16 that does not happen to others. That something is that they write off the value of education in doing well in life.”


  9. David

    Politics aside, I think you are missing an important basic point about private vs public schools- and this relates to what Andrew was saying about individual choice. I, for example, choose not to send my children to schools that do not promote individual excellence (be the best you can be), that tolerate underperformance, and which do not promote academic rigour through hard examination. The “critical thinking” you speak of is what I am suspicious of – this to me is code for the soft left political agenda, and your aversion to “dates and places” masks a desire to put an end to rigourous examination or other capability measuring exercises.

    So I choose therefore to send my kids to private schools- and would do so whether the government subsidised them or not.


  10. David,

    the dumbing down of education in Australia has almost nothing to do with full fee paying students. If you don’t believe that, just look at some of the courses where there are no such students and see whether you can notice any difference in the level of the courses. I bet you can’t. If anything, the reverse is true, since courses with lots of full fee students tend to have better and more staff who can therefore be more motivated to help the poorer students (and hence can teach at a higher level).


  11. David, I don’t think unionism is evil. I do think that a union, like all human institutions, can be badly led from time to time. It is possible to be critical of the policies of a union and its current leadership without dismissing the work and aspirations of that union’s members.

    I’ll take your word on the Maoism thing – those old socialists whose Long March has taken them to the institutions of the right have always left me cold.


  12. Jimmythespiv,

    I’m not sure why teaching children critical thinking has received such bad press. The alternative is a doctrine based on rote learning which teaches children absolutely nothing other than an ability to recall meaningless names and dates without being able to put them in context. It’s like teaching somebody to recite a times table without enabling them to extend the concept of multiplication to numbers larger than 12. It has nothing to do with a soft left political agenda and more to do with equipping children with enough tools to allow them to make up their own minds. The tools are they key, especially where higher education is considered. Rigorous examinations are key to making this style of learning work, they have not been ditched despite what you might think.

    We know that the history/culture wars seem to require a bogeyman to support the rights’s revisionist tendencies, especially where it comes to history. It’s more important than ever to equip our kids with critical thinking skills so they can cut through the garbage of the left AND right.

    In fact, the soft left agenda that the conspiracists insist is present must have been such a failure over the last 30 years that it allowed progressively more conservative governments to be elected. Somebody better tell the teachers union that the jig is up!


    The full fee paying students are allowed into university on lower entrance scores (i.e. dumbed down). On the one hand, we have complaints that students at university need remedial english skills to cope with their studies, but on the other hand they’re being allowed in based on factors other than their academic performance. I find it hard to believe that these two things are unrelated.


  13. David

    Thought I’d also comment on teacher salaries, and motivation. Teacher salaries are roughly equvalent to Commonwealth Public Service salary grades. I know this cos I am always doing comparisons. I am a commonwealth public servant, and I am not motivated by the salary, which maintains me but is not huge. I am motivated by the work I do, and believe it is similar with teachers. Some friends of mine who are teachers tell me this is the case. So I’d support a wage rise for teachers, but also other public service type jobs where passion for the job, rather than remuneration, is the prime motivation.


  14. Rajat

    I read Tanner as referring to mass culture, rather than the very small percentage of people (despite your social circles!) who have degrees in medicine or law. Certainly we don’t have the intellectual culture of the US or UK, but it is hard to know how much this is, as you suggest, a function of our small population, and how much is different institutions. I suspect, as you do, that the US liberal arts courses add something above the sheer scale of the US.

    I did not see that Economist article. Children of migrants (many of whom in the UK are ‘non-whites’) tend to do better on average than children of multi-generational residents, but this is probably largely a selection effect – migrants are usually people with ambitions for themselves and their families. Perhaps stricter families in migrant groups keeps the kids on track, while less controlled kids go off the rails during adolesence?


  15. Andrew, I think you’re right on who Tanner was referring to. I was just suggesting that these sorts of impressions can be easily coloured by the people one actually meets, which in Tanner’s case (as well as yours and mine!) are probably high achievers. Maybe this sounds stupid but I think all it takes when you visit a country is to meet a few really smart sna switched on people and your whole impression of the place is affected.

    The article is available online if you are interested. The reasoning, such as it is, seems to be based on lower returns to education for whites than non-whites.


  16. Rajat / Andrew

    Could it not also be the paucity of non-academic intellectuals that has something to do with it. If you leave out those people full time at the CIS and IPA, and the Lowy and Australia institutes, there are only a few people that the public would identify as “intellectuals” who are reasonably well known (eg Gerard Henderson, Phillip Adams, Clive Hamilton). The rest are all academics, who have a usually narrow field of interest (from the general public’s point of view). The US and UK, by contrast, have a far wider profusion of think tanks, and a wider selection of media for non-academic intellectuals to voice their opinions. Our relatively small number of think tank and similar institutions is likely a function of small country, but also smaller economy with shorter experience of the philanthropy neccessary to sustain such institutions.

    I think Tanner is right – there is an inherent anti academic bias in Australia- but I don’t think that matters, given that the majority of the population aspire to higher education, or for their children to have the opportunity to attain it. The bias, such as it is, is more against those that are “full of it”- who can be perceived, lets say, as black skivvy wearers or something ! That is, a not particularly deeply held bias.


  17. Dave,

    Do you have any evidence that the full-fee paying students (particularily the OS students) are on average worse than those that are not? Otherwise its just anecdote vs. anecdote.

    Speaking of anecdotes, I used to work in a department with many full fee paying OS students, and they appeared better than the locals (even though many are the ones that couldn’t get into their home universities). I now work in a department where there are almost no full-fee paying undergraduates, and it hasn’t stopped a fair proportion of the students having huge problems with written English, complaining when not told exactly how to do the most trivial of things (like format a table), etc. . It also hasn’t stopped me from passing them all and telling them this information. I personally find it hard to imagine how you could make the standard lower, so I don’t see how FF students could reduce the standard.


  18. conrad,

    With respect to full fee students, I was referring to an earlier blog entry Andrew has here somewhere. There was a specific case which escapes me now that had the entry score for full fee students lower than the entry score for normal entry.

    This article details the effect full fee students are having on the availability of places although it’s from 2004 and things may have improved (or gotten worse) since then. The fee places are lower entry scored.

    Andrew’s argument was that these students are still far from dumb – he’s right, their entry scores to tend to be reasonable. They are relatively dumber than the kids getting in on academic merit though. It’s basically the thin end of the wedge in ensuring that the (lets say) less hard working but privileged kids are getting places that might be better given to more academically inclined students. You’ll also hear the argument that the students can simply borrow the money, but saddling anybody with $30K to $200k debts before they even start working is insane. It’s a major social disincentive for less well off kids that could really benefit from a university education. The only other alternative proposed on this blog so far was prostitution. I think it’d be easier just to raise the amount of funding for universities (maybe less money on school chaplains just for a start).

    Andrew does make an excellent point that the availability of places is key to making education more available. Part payment through the HECS scheme (on which repayment is means tested) is an acceptable compromise to me. I’d ditch the full fee places or reserve them for overseas students only.


  19. David,

    the article you are pointing to has basically nothing to do with universities and FF students, it reflects the problem of equity in the high school system, meaning lots of morons get in to university. This is in fact an argument for FF students, because if there is little correlation between ENTER scores and university performance, then letting in students with lower ENTER scores won’t make much difference to overall performance.

    Also, your origninal argrument was that FF students cause a lowering of overall course quality, and therefore that the extra money they bring in therefore doesn’t compensate. Even if we take just domestic students for the argument, you still haven’t provide any evidence that a) students who pay full fees are on average worse than those that don’t except on ENTER scores (they may have higher motivation etc. because they pay full fees, and hence be better in other respects); and b) that the extra money they bring in doesn’t increase overall course quality enough to compensate for their possibly poorer performance (which I wouldn’t admit to without seeing any real evidence).


  20. As a left-leaning parent of children at a public primary school in NSW, I feel torn about this issue. My experience is the system is run for the benefit of the teachers union. For instance, arcane rules about transfers and promotion seem to work against the most dedicated, professional teachers in favour of the time-servers and box-tickers.

    Having said that, I still support the equality of opportunity afforded by a strong, fully-funded public education system as one of the hallmarks of a civilised social democracy. And at an individual level, I have nothing but praise for most of the teachers who work in the system.

    I also detest the way the Howard government is deploying its now finely honed wedge politics on education. There most clearly is an intention to run the public school system into the ground and leave parents with the impression that they are failing their children if they don’t “go private”.

    My experience is that the strength of any school – private or public – is largely a reflection of the degree of community involvement. This touches on Tanner’s key point, I think, that many parents are abrogating their responsibility for their children’s education – seeing it only as something that occurs between 9am and 3pm.

    And I do believe that Howard and his cheer squad are tapping into that intellectual indolence for both ideological and politically pragmatic ends.
    As always, Howard is making mischief. But this time, our own children are suffering because of a “cultural war”.


  21. Noone suggested the course contents be dumbed down. We’ve got complaints from law professors who are sending kids to remedial english in order to study the course effectively. At the same time, we got lower entry scores allowed for kids who are willing to pay full fees. I suggested the two may be related.

    The entry score system is flawed (see regional vs. city schools for an example) but at the moment it’s the best we have. The ACT used to have a better system (where assessment took place over the year rather than the end-of-year exam system in NSW) but it doesn’t seem to have been adopted anywhere.

    My contention is that a bag of cash is no indicator of academic merit, so giving a kid on a lower entry score a place that somebody with a better entry score could use is nonsensical. If that place didn’t exist because of a lack of funds, we need to spend more money, not punish our kids. Pretty simple.

    Where does the money come from? Let’s get our priorities straight as a nation and start getting rid of the base stupidity of the last eleven years. We don’t need 50 million dollars worth of school chaplains, or middle class welfare. We don’t need defense spending on tanks we can’t even move off the docks. We don’t need next-generation fighter planes to defend us against the soviet menace. We don’t to give 3.7 BILLION dollars to business to aid with their depreciation costs. We need educated kids, not richer CEOs.


  22. David – So long as an applicant is in the range of being likely to be academically capable, I’d say that someone be willing to part with the cash is in fact a reasonable proxy for enthusiasm. It would convince me more than those application essays some US universities make people write. Given that number of hours spent studying correlates with final results, a keen person hoping to get value for his/her investment is a better bet than someone who just got slightly higher marks but, like many young people, hasn’t really decided what he/she wants to do.


  23. I agree with you completely on your last comment Andrew — I’m sure for most undergraduate courses, the biggest problem is not brain-power (and the weakish correlate ENTER scores), its the 18 year olds who don’t expect to do anything, people that work full time and never turn up to classes etc., and this probably is negatively related to FFs.

    These guys are also the main culprits for bringing the standard down, since once you have a certain proportion of them (probably 15% where I work), it ends up like a prisoners dilemma situation, where the lowest passable standard is set to them, which is basically zero. It also stops you doing anything either additive or practicle, since too large a proportion of students then wouldn’t be able to get through the course, so it also punishes the rest.

    The other reason that standards are low is that most staff don’t have enough time or can’t be bothered going through assignments and projects with students individually (I’ll add myself to that list), which often helps them a great deal. This is the problem of mass. vs good quality education. This problem would be fixed to some degree with FFs (or more money from any source) because you could have more staff.


  24. I think Taner’s statement above is surprisingly politically incorrect and indeed arrogant for a polician who aspires to represent these mediocre and ignorant people.

    But style and emotion aside, maybe there is something in it, if we compare what Australia excells in on the world stage: science, literature, theatre, ballet, – or sports.

    In my view, this has more to do with the history and geography of Australia. Also unlimited opportunities for outdoor activities shift the balance.


  25. Boris,

    We excel at sports? Of the world biggies, we’re also rans. Cricket and Swimming are leftovers from the colonial empire and aren’t played or watched by the majority of the world. If we excelled at Football you might have an argument, but being the best Cricket side in the world is like having the world’s fastest Datsun 200B. It might be fun, but it’s no F1.

    Of the semi biggies (rugby, cycling) only rugby approaches popular appeal. Cycling is heavily supported by the AIS so our success is expected.


  26. David, I totally disagree. I knew of Australia’s outsdanding sports excellence long before I have set foot on Australian soil. And I am not from a cricketing nation. Just look at an olimpic medal tally. Or at the number of Australian tennis greats. Or is tennis also a marginal sport?

    Athens gold medals:
    1. United States of America USA 36 39 27
    2. People’s Republic of China CHN 32 17 14
    3. Russian Federation RUS 27 27 38
    4. Australia AUS 17 16 16

    Ahead of Japan, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Brazil, Spain.

    Australia is ranked 53th by total population, 17th by overall GDP and 14th in GDP per capita. However you look at it, it is an outstanding success.

    As for AIS support, all countries support their olympic sports.


  27. Boris,

    Australia’s pre-eminence in the fields you described comes from a utilitarian bias. Pure research in any field is regarded as irrelevant, but when applied to practical outcomes it siezes the popular imagination. Thus, Terence Tao’s Fieldes Medal is received largely with indifference but the work on ulcers by Barry Marshall and Robin Warren is a triumph. This is a result of being far from centres of pure research and a consistent bias toward practical outcomes by private and public funding programmes.


    Football is the only sport which is played/watched by a majority of the world. It is also a holdover from empire: Denis Healey, a minister in postwar British governments responsible for decolonisation, said that the British Empire would leave two legacies: Association Football and the expression “f*ck off” (* in deference to Andrew N’s civility policy). If Australia realises Frank Lowy’s goal of becoming a top 10 nation in this sport will you concede that this country has a major presence in world sport, or will you agree that this country’s sporting pre-eminence is already established?

    Cricket is a world sport once you concede that its centre of gravity has shifted to the subcontinent. It is more popular than rugby. Tennis and swimming are dominated by countries that were never part of the British Empire. Australians were successful in cycling long before the AIS (eg Gray, Opperman).


  28. I’ll concede we’re big in sport if we can crack the top 10 in Football. Australia’s tennis golden years seem somewhat behind us though, since we usually only have a single decent player extant at any one time (unlike the 60’s and 70’s when there were hordes of them). I don’t agree on the Cricket side of things – it’s waning in importance in places like the West Indies and other countries can’t be far behind. It’s more plausible to the kiddies that they can become superstars and rise out of poverty on the football pitch than with a cricket bat now.


  29. David, if the above medal tally doesn’t convince you then I do not have any more arguments. It is somewhat disappointing that even if confronted with seemingly irrefutable evidence we cannot concede the mistake…


  30. C’mon Boris – it’s the olympics. It happens once every four years and in between, nobody gives a flying fig what happens in the esoteric sport we usually win our medals in (sailing, swimming, shooting, equestrian, rowing etc). Quoting medal tallies without also quoting the sports we won them in is disingenious at best and downright misleading at worst. If we beat the US in track and field and wiped them at basketball in the same Olympics, I’d be willing to hear the argument. We win at sports nobody else wants to play.

    Try the big money sports (Football, basketball, F1, golf, tennis). With Hewitt retiring, what have we got left? It’s no point trying to argue we’re pre-emininent in sports when you selectively quote the sports we’re good at.


  31. David, I think this is just silly. Olympic sports are what is valued around the gobe and athlectics is not much more popular than swimming. All countries are doing their outmost to get olympic medals, and Aus is top in that category – relative to its size.

    Golf is not more relevant than cricket and certainly less relevant than rugby. And Australia is quite good at it anyway. Also in F1 an Australian is in the elite league.

    You are just so silly across the board on this issue that it beggars belief. As I told you, everyone around the world knows how good Ozzies are in sports. The first time I saw John Howard in my life was when he was bombarded by networks around the world to explain this phenomenon (during Sydney olympics).

    Let’s stop this discussion before Andrew enforces his comments policy. Let’s agree to disagree.


  32. All countries are better at some sports than others. Take soccer out, and where is Brazil (pop. 200m) in the sporting world? Put soccer in, and Australia is on par with the US. There is an extraordinary number of Australians at the top levels of golf, and quite a few in basketball where Australia regularly makes the final 8 in any worlwide competition.

    If there was a G8 of world sport, Australia would be in it (and before you poo-poo that, tell me who you’d include and I’ll knock2-3 of them out to make room for Australia). Boris is right, you’re being blinkered and selective.

    in between, nobody gives a flying fig what happens in the esoteric sport we usually win our medals in … swimming

    Last week, a swimmer retired and it was very big news indeed. Pan-Pacifics and other international swim meets are avidly followed.


  33. Th whole liberal thinking viewpoints (not only Andrew Norton’s) are missing the huge political undercurrent that is happening with the new IR Laws . The majority of Australian workers are not academically qualified professionals. All they want to do is enjoy a quality of life Australia affords them. They do not want to have politics in the workplace. The new IR laws has brought the brutality of politics into the worplace. The price will be felt at the ballot box. Why take a day off work when there is more power in one’s vote?


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