From the President: The value of education is not revealed by the price

In the latter part of 2014, I considered through this column the prospects for the Australian education system in light of overseas experience of the marketisation of education. New research in Australia into outcomes of schooling and the marketisation of the vocational education and training (VET) sector reveals the full potential of the problem.

Data mined from the federal government’s MySchool website has cast a spotlight onto the gap between cost of education and student outcomes. The accepted wisdom that non-government schools deliver better outcomes for students and save the government money is dismantled by Chris Bonnor and Bernie Shepherd ( “School funding and achievement” January 2015 – who conclude that the extra money invested in Catholic and independent schools does not deliver any better outcomes.

In essence, comparing schools with the same or similar ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) scores reveals that an extra $3.3 billion is spent on educating students in non-government schools for no net gain in student results. In independent schools, for example, that represents an extra $1,389 per student, much of which comes from student fees. Bonnor and Shepherd conclude that redirection of that $3.3 billion in government funding to the neediest students would deliver significant improvements in outcomes.

Without surrendering the argument for implementation of the complete Gonski school funding package on a recurrent basis, it is possible to accept the argument put by Bonnor and Shepherd that, in the interim, the redirection of current spending would make good use of scarce resources and have a greater chance of improving overall student achievement.

In the VET sector, marketisation has reached a fever pitch. The elimination of government subsidies means that students in VET are now required to pay the full cost of many courses, resulting in an explosion in access to student loans in the form of VET FEE-HELP. Just a few short years ago, students received $20 million in loans for VET courses; that figure has now reached more than $1 billion.

TAFE colleges across the nation have been pillaged to provide funding to the private VET sector. The emphasis by governments on marketisation has seen a growth in private providers, a massive blow-out in costs to government and students and a concerning decline in standards of qualifications.

In Victoria alone, 10,000 qualifications have recently been recalled after audits of private training providers revealed sub-standard training. Tens of millions of dollars have been recovered from providers who failed to deliver what students paid for. In New South Wales, unscrupulous providers have been exposed for inducing students with a disability to sign up for multiple Diploma level courses costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These early warning signs must cause concern for all educators. The marketisation of education is not in the best interests of students, the community or our nation as a whole. Only urgent action to reverse the tide on these policies will prevent the full extent of overseas experience being visited upon Australian education.

Queensland stood on the brink of this experience. The incoming Queensland Labor government has announced significant changes to the policy platform of the previous state LNP government, including the abandonment of a fully contestable funding market and a recommitment to the role of TAFE as a provider of high quality VET in Queensland.

Kevin Bates

Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 120 No 2, 13 March 2015, p7