The Bradley report’s authors display the OECD cringe, an attitude that OECD statistics set the benchmarks Australia should follow, regardless of whether those statistics are meaningful or whether other countries get better outcomes. It is the modern-day version of the old cultural cringe, that whatever was English set the standard Australia should follow.
* concern about a drop in Australia’s tertiary attainment levels relative to other countries (at pages 9, 18), ‘notwithstanding classification issues’. In fact, those classification issues are serious. And as I have pointed out, the same OECD publication that reports these attainment levels also shows that high levels of attainment correlate with high levels of graduates in low-skill jobs (though the extent of these correlations will be lower than reported, due to the data issues).
* increases in public funding to be in the ‘top group of the OECD’ (6). Yet there is no evidence that public funding is better than private funding, and the OECD does not claim that there is.
* public funding actually already quite high, but other countries increased spending more quickly than Australia between 1995 and 2005 (146). So they must be right then!
* though slightly better than the OECD average on completion rates, we should do better (19). The conclusion is probably right, but we don’t need guesstimate OECD statistics to work it out, we need our own.
* Australia ranks 23rd among 31 OECD countries ‘in terms of students’ ability to finance their education costs as measured by the ratio of tuition and living costs to available individual funding’ (57). I’m not sure how the OECD did these calculations, but Australian costs are 40% of ‘individual funding’, so well within the bounds of feasibility. The OECD report they cite points out that low tuition fees do ‘not necessarily imply facilitated access to tertiary education’.
* international students are a higher proportion of enrolments in Australia than anywere else in the OECD (89); but compared to the OECD we should have more international research students (99-100).
* Australian fees should not go up because they are already among the highest in the world (1, 141, 152, 163). But surely from the point of view of students fees are high or low compared to the expected benefits, not compared to what people in other countries pay? Why should we match their under-investment?
Of course it is possible to learn from other countries. But there are traps in making other OECD countries the benchmark.
Under the OECD cringe we mistake cultural and political differences for Australia policy shortcomings. Scandinavia’s high public spending and consequent high tax rates would not be acceptable in Australia. And Scandinavians would find our user pays difficult to support. But the two systems have contributed to similar levels of educational attainment.
The cringe obscures the possibility that we can learn from the mistakes of other countries as well as their successes. Few countries seem satisfied with their higher education sectors, least of all the European countries that heavily influence OECD averages. Why benchmark against systems that are not regarded in their own countries as major successes? Ironically, the Australian policy initiative that makes us look bad on the OECD cringe funding measures, using HECS to reduce the fiscal burden of expanding higher education, is the one aspect of Australian higher education policy that is internationally highly-regarded and copied.
The Bradley committee do have one bold proposal which is rare in the OECD, the voucher scheme. It is a pity this policy adventurousness was not more common in its report.