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At an OECD glance, we’re an education mélange

The title of the ‘Australia’ section of the OECD’s latest annual, education-centric report could be ‘nevertheless’. This is because most negatives seemed to be counterbalanced with positives. For example, Education at a Glance 2018 revealed that while our university fees are relatively high, we are one of the few countries with an income-contingent student loan scheme, which encourages equity of access to university.

Another mixed finding was that while the proportion of public education funding has declined (and indeed, at 9.3 per cent in 2015, is below the OECD average of 11 per cent), private funding for education has risen.

Yet some of the report’s revelations, whether positive or negative, were clear-cut.

The positives

  • At six per cent of GDP, our total education spend is above the OECD average of 5 per cent.
  • We have the highest ratio of international students studying nationally to domestic students studying internationally in the OECD: 26 to one.
  • We have the seventh highest number of of 25 to 34 year olds with a university qualification.

The negatives

  • We have a long way to go in early childhood education: we are 12 per cent below average in three-year-old enrolment in this sector, and spend less per child than the average OECD country.
  • School teachers in Australia have it harder: our face-to-face teaching times are well above the OECD average, and our average primary classes have three more students than the average of 21.

The Australian Education Union suggested that the latter point indicates a staffing shortage, which should be addressed. “When schools can provide extra staff, they can address larger classes and provide extra support for students who need it,” Federal President Correna Haythorpe said.

A bird’s-eye view

But, despite the report being a ‘glance’, at a hefty 400 pages, it is important to consider its totality as it relates to Australia. Dr Steven Lewis is well-positioned to do this. A Research Fellow at the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre of Deakin University, Lewis focuses on OECD education programs, as well as international education policy more broadly.

Though he had mixed feelings about the report, he said it contained “generally some very good news stories for Australia”. This view holds even more weight, considering his research requires him to critically analyse the impact of OECD data. Specifically, he was pleased by our university enrolment rates, which he labelled “quite a significant achievement”, given its associated lifetime benefits, and our overall increased education expenditure.

Yet, he was disappointed with the shift in funding from the public to the private sector.

As for what’s changed for Australia in recent years, Lewis pinpointed the “excellent” vast increase in enrolments in primary and early childhood education since 2005.

What’s the use?

But how can this data be used, if at all? Lewis thinks we shouldn’t simply look at high-performing countries and copy them, as what works for them won’t necessarily work for us. Rather, we should assess our long-term policy goals in light of the data. For example, if a goal is to increase access to university, we can use the data to see if this has been achieved – across unique demographic groups.

“It’s easy to talk about rankings … but quite often, the richness comes from digging into [the data] deeply, and looking at trends over time,” he said.

Despite this, the data’s policy impact on Australia is difficult to ascertain. “OECD data is important to Australia, which is not the case for all countries… [But] it competes with other data for attention in a busy policy realm.”

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