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Politics, Ice-Cream, Gossip Girl: Gonski

Education funding. It’s all the rage these days. “Should we fund it?” “How should we fund it?” “What should we fund?”

During O-Week this year I participated in a political debate where the moderator, who was about to launch into the topic of education, added a caveat. She said “Education funding isn’t a particularly engaging issue so we’ll move through it pretty fast”. It ended up being the most popular topic of the debate and the one with most questions from the audience.

This may have been because the debate coincided with the release of the Federal Government’s review into education funding chaired by businessman David Gonski (who is also the Chancellor of UNSW) and that week’s media was full of analysis on its impacts, or it may have simply been because the debate was held an education institute and the entire audience were students.

The point of that anecdote isn’t to show that members of the Debating Society are out of touch with the wider student population (I mean who could accuse them of that?!), but that even if discussions around funding public vs. private schools, different funding models and the model used to pay for higher education can sound incredibly tedious and technocratic they do strike a chord with most people. This is because most people go through the education system and then have children who go through it as well, and even if they don’t they acknowledge the big role it plays in determining what kind of society we live in.

There are lots of different components to education funding in Australia and I’m already getting a bit bored talking about it so I’m going to focus on two of the most interesting areas – the debate around public vs. private school funding and the way we fund higher education.

Firstly, the Gonski Review. The media has chosen to focus on two headline areas – the call for an injection of $5 billion into Australian schools, with the bulk of it flowing to public schools, and the rejigging of the model used to fund public and private schools. The current “Howard model” of school funding has been heavily criticised by public school advocates and education unions for massively benefiting private schools. Under the model, two thirds of Federal government funds go to private schools, who educate one third of all students. Unsurprisingly private schools endorse the current funding scheme.

The review stops well short of calling for an end to public funding of private schools focusing rather on the lack of “transparency” involved in the funding model. This is not particularly surprising since the Minister for School’s, Peter Garrett, announced before the review that “no school will lose a dollar”. It’s a shame because the review spells out in detail how under-resourced public schools are compared to their counterparts and smashes some of the myths backing the funding of private schools.

Some of the common reasons used to justify the public funding of private schools include that private schools often teach students from disadvantaged or remote areas and that they educate “middle Australia” who deserve public funding because they pay taxes. The review plainly states that 80% of students from poorer backgrounds, 78% of students with disabilities, 68% of students from a non-English speaking background and 85% of Indigenous students attend public schools. Schools educating students from these kind of backgrounds need more resources, that should be obvious. However they currently received thousands of less per student in funding than private schools.

The ABC’s economics correspondent Stephen Long put it pretty bluntly when he listed to two obvious conclusions to be drawn from the Gonski review. “Firstly, the public money that goes to elite private schools is subsidising the sons and daughters of the plutocracy. Secondly, government schools (and quite possibly many Catholic schools) are significantly underfunded.”

Whenever this debate occurs proponents of public school funding are accused of “class warfare”. The disappointing and harsh reality is that the current model of school funding is class warfare. It is a redistribution of wealth from the bottom up, and it benefits the most elite in our society and disadvantaging those most at need.

The funding of public schools is an incredibly important topic but the battle for equity in our education system doesn’t end at the school level. As we’ve seen although there, rightly, continues to be a debate over the amount of money going to private schools, no one questions the government’s responsibility to provide quality, public education.

What happens when you get to university?

Australia does not have a free tertiary education system. It’s true that there is no compulsorily upfront fee as most students defer their HECs, however our current education funding system is still a “user pays” scheme. The ability to defer fees means that many students find debates about free education irrelevant or not as pressing as important discussions around student welfare, housing affordability and environmental activism. It’s only once you graduate and are faced with a $30,000 bill that most people begin to question how we fund higher education.

HECs repayment essentially works as an income tax levy (between 4 and 8%) on graduates, kicking in at a particular income threshold and staying through until your debt has been paid off. On the surface this system seems fair and supporters of HECs are quick to point out that workers with a tertiary qualification tend to earn more than those without one. Before getting into the technical problems with this argument it’s worth going through the broad principles that underpin support for free education.

It’s often said that education is one of the great “equalisers” in society. Access to high-quality, free education, at all levels, is an important part of a socially equal and economically just society – one that allows people to participate fully regardless of their background or the income of their family.

This belief in the power of education seems to be accepted for primary and secondary schools, but less popular when we talk about higher education. It’s true that those who complete university earn more on average than those who don’t continue on after high school, but it’s also true that those who complete high school earn more than those who don’t, yet we don’t think to charge students going on to complete years 11 and 12.

Focusing solely on the potential income of university graduates ignores the role they all play in helping to deliver services we all use. Obvious examples include doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and even lawyers. After committing to years of study so they can provide a public good (like teaching) why do we then charge them for it.

The other big problem with the current HECs system is that the amount a graduate pays is linked to the median projected income for people in that profession. That’s why law, business and medicine cost more than teaching or arts. Rather being the progressive wealth redistribution mechanism it seems, in reality this just means that students studying law and engineering who choose to work in the public sector or for an NGO still have to pay back the same total amount of HEC’s debt as those who work for a top tier law or construction firm.

And the end of last year the Federal government released yet another review, this time on the funding of higher education. It canvases changing the way HECs operates. Unfortunately the proposed reforms on student fees do nothing to increase equity in our higher education system. In fact they do the opposite. There’s a strong chance that many students will be paying more HECs for degrees like nursing and teaching in the near future.

Education funding, like a lot of policy areas, comes across as a bit stale and old-fashioned. But the impact it has on us as individuals and as a society is significant enough that it warrants paying attention too.

Osman Faruqi