|Issue No 64||28 July 2000|
Policies for a Knowledge Nation
Labor's Third Way heretic Mark Latham breaks some more taboos as he lays down his education blueprint.
Education in Australia is dominated by a contradiction. As a nation, it is our most important issue - the key to mastering the new economy and forging a good society. Yet as a public issue, it suffers from a paucity of new thinking and policy ideas.
The old politics is bogged down in a struggle between the public and private funding of education. One side believes that education can only be funded from government sources: more money for the traditional institutions of learning - schools, colleges, and universities. The other side believes that the new funding needs to come from private sources and the policies of deregulation.
Yet, if one accepts the logic of lifelong learning, more resources need to be mobilised from all parts of society - governments, corporations, households and communities. Education policy should not be cast as a zero-sum game, an ideological struggle between public and private money. It needs to leverage new learning opportunities and resources all round, especially within civil society.
Lifelong learning needs to flourish in the civic institutions of everyday life: in homes, in workplaces, in clubs, in shopping centres, in libraries, in the places where people commonly come together. This is what the British author, Tom Bentley, calls "learning beyond the classroom". It is the big idea in education policy.
As the term implies, a learning society relies on innovation and creative forms of public policy. The highest use of knowledge is to turn it into new ideas and social progress. There is no use in Labor talking about the virtues of knowledge unless we are willing to adopt this ethos in our own policy work.
Until now, we have judged equity issues in education solely through the prism of government institutions - the struggle between regulation and deregulation. In practice, however, this is a false horizon. The greatest barrier to educational equity in Australia is the paucity of learning resources. Without a huge increase in the nation's commitment to education, it will not be possible to meet the needs of middle and low income families. For the ALP, which has always relied on the primacy of government funding, this is an imposing policy challenge.
Whether we like it or not, the days of tax and spend policies have ended. The appropriate role for government now lies in the creative use of its scarce resources. It needs to facilitate or leverage learning resources from all parts of society. The demands of lifelong learning are enormous. They can not be met by government alone. They can only be satisfied by government acting in partnership with other institutions.
A Learning Society
The creation of a learning society requires much more than a focus on the traditional institutions of education. It means going beyond the incremental reform of schools, TAFE and higher education policy. It demands something more substantial than fiddling with institutional structures and shuffling resources between the public and private sectors.
The key to a learning society is to make good use of the learning potential of everyday situations. The learning process can take place at any time, in any circumstances. This necessitates a fundamental shift in the public culture of education. It means harnessing more resources of all kinds, government and non-government, to the mammoth task of lifelong learning.
Australia cannot afford to be left behind in this global race for skills and innovation. Our political system needs to look beyond its conventional wisdom and think openly about the purpose of lifelong learning. Left-of-centre politics has usually asked itself, "how can we shift more public money into government education institutions?" Right-wing politics has taken a separate tack: "how can we introduce market forces and increase the level of private investment in education?"
Australia's policy agenda needs to move past this age-old contest between governments and markets and answer two fundamentally different questions. First, "how can we extend the reach of learning beyond the classroom and into every life, in every part of society?" And secondly, "how can we mobilise more resources from all sections of society so that the potential of these new learning relationships is realised?" This is the challenge of the education revolution.
This paper sets out proposals for adoption by the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. They aim to leverage additional learning resources from non-government sources. They foster a partnership funding model, in which all parts of society are expected to contribute to the education process. Further policies are advanced in my forthcoming book, What Did You Learn Today? Policies for an Education Revolution. It should serve as a template for the knowledge nation.
Lifelong Learning Accounts
Under the Howard Government education and the importance of learning investments have been under-valued. This is reminiscent of Australia's complacency in the 1960s about the future of our primary and secondary industries. We desperately need national leadership and policies which generate a new culture of learning.
One of my most valuable experiences in education was a visit last year to the Raffles Girls School in Singapore. The school principal said something which has stayed in my mind since. She explained how, "in Singapore we are told from a young age that our only resource is our people. This is why parents emphasise education, no matter which school their children attend. They are always putting money aside for their children's education".
Out of economic necessity, Singapore has developed a learning culture. Education is highly valued, with an expectation that all sections of society will contribute to the costs of lifelong learning. The United States has a similar culture. Most parents start saving for their children's college education from an early age. Learning has become a lifelong enterprise.
In Australia, however, we tend to dismiss these expectations. It is argued that private contributions are inherently inequitable. The ideals of free, universal education are promoted as a superior model. In practice, however, most of the trends in education policy are undermining this approach. The demands of lifelong learning have out-grown the public sector.
Publicly funded education is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of a learning society. In most countries, the private sector already spends more on research and training than governments. Australia needs to mobilise learning resources of this kind. Public policy needs to find clever ways of drawing education funding out of the private sector.
This is where the concept of learning accounts can be particularly useful. Contributions are drawn from a number of sources to build up a bank of education resources. These funds can then be accessed to cover a range of learning needs and purposes. As with Australia's superannuation scheme, the aim is to build up a savings pool which benefits from investment strategies and compound interest. In the proposal below, individuals and families would be able to open learning accounts as a subset of their superannuation arrangements.
Learning accounts provide a financial buffer against changes in life's circumstances, such as workplace restructuring. This type of flexibility is essential in the new economy. It allows account holders to access funding to meet particular needs and priorities.
If designed effectively, the accounts would leverage additional private resources into the education system. Thus they would serve as a supplement to public sector funding, not as a substitute for it. This point should be emphasised: my proposal is an add-on to the existing funding system.
I envisage a national system of Lifelong Learning Accounts (LLAs) based on the following principles:
1. Individuals and families would be able to open LLAs as sub-accounts to their superannuation. The super funds would simply treat LLAs as a particular type of account, under the same trusteeship and investment plans as their primary schemes. For people without superannuation, fresh accounts would need to be established.
2. The design and use of the accounts would be covered by Federal Government regulation. Participation in the scheme would be voluntary. However, given the financial incentives on offer, a high take-up rate could be expected.
3. The accounts would be financed from a variety of sources:
a) Federal Government seed funding as the accounts are opened (subject to means testing).
b) Resources drawn forward from superannuation funds (subject to prudential guidelines). This recognises that people who invest in education throughout their working lives are likely to earn higher incomes and enjoy more prosperous retirement years. This is one of the realities of the new economy.
c) Employer and/or employee contributions determined in enterprise bargaining agreements. This would give the trade union movement an outstanding opportunity to assist the lifelong learning of its members.
d) Funds drawn from existing social security benefits. Parents might decide, for instance, to dedicate a proportion of their Family Allowance payments to the accounts.
e) Other contributions at the discretion of account holders. Educational institutions and companies, for instance, might choose to pay their scholarship funds into the accounts. This practice might even extend to financial transactions, such as credit card points.
4. The accounts would be tax-free at the point of contribution. As with superannuation, they would benefit from funds management strategies. At the point of withdrawal, a concessional rate of tax would apply (with the benefits of this concession skewed towards low and middle income earners).
5. The accounts would be available to cover the costs of lifelong learning. Withdrawals could only be made for specific educational purposes, as outlined in the government regulation of the scheme. These would include preschool and school fees, home learning equipment (such as computers and Internet connections), post-secondary costs, student income support and community learning programs.
The prospect of most Australians managing learning accounts would add powerfully to the creation of a learning society. It would factor education into the everyday life of the nation. It would position learning at the centre of family budgets and household decision making. Australians would need to calculate, on a regular basis, the best way of investing in their own skills. This is the most effective way of building a culture of learning in this country.
2. Learning Communities
Learning is a complex process which cannot be understood simply in terms of formal education and training. Most people go about their daily lives committed to self-improvement and informal ways of learning. They develop new insights and skills from practical experiences and the challenge of changed circumstances. Indeed, one of society's trends is towards informal modes of learning. Under the time pressures of modern work and home life, people are looking for more flexible and casual ways of improving their skills.
1. Many of these learning opportunities can be delivered on-line through interactive education packages. The Federal Government has a role to play in sponsoring the development of sophisticated software, plus a network of electronic learning facilities. The resources of municipal libraries, post offices, schools and other public buildings should be used to create a national grid of computer and Internet access points. The growth of digital television also needs to be fostered as a way of carrying these learning opportunities into Australian homes.
2. Despite the advantages of on-line learning, most community-based education will continue to be provided on a face-to-face basis. In this respect, Australia has much to learn from the Scandinavian program of Learning Circles. This involves meetings of small groups of people, often in homes and community centres, to discuss a range of civic issues - such as local governance, crime prevention and environmental management. These are self-managed organisations, where people can join and participate on their own terms and at their own level.
3. Learning accounts can also play a role in reintroducing people to the benefits and habits of learning. Currently, one in four Australian adults do not return to any form of education after leaving school. Blue-collar males are over-represented in this group. This reflects a problem of attitudinal resistance, plus a number of practical obstacles to learning. As the ANTA report found, "one in seven Australians said that life is just too short to waste time studying, with a significant majority of them from Queensland".
4. Other forms of funding leverage should also be exercised in education. Each year governments provide large amounts of public money for the benefit of the corporate sector. It is not unreasonable to demand good corporate citizenship in return, especially in the establishment of sound learning practices. In Britain, for instance, the supermarket chain Tesco has formed a partnership with the public sector to provide learning centres on-site, for the benefit of shoppers and their children. Corporate responsibility and collaboration of this kind need to become a regular part of Australian public life. Businesses need to be seen as places of learning, not just commerce.
5. These standards should also apply to professional sport which, more than ever, has joined the world of commerce. In return for the huge public investment in sport, governments should require a commitment to learning practices. Again, Britain is showing the way forward. The Gillingham Football Club, south of London, has written into its team contracts a requirement for players to teach at least three hours per week in local schools. The players fulfil a valuable function as role models and mentors, while the club benefits from some good public relations. Other British clubs have established school homework centres at their training grounds. Australia would gain significantly from this type of sports citizenship.
3. Parents as Educators
The first and most enduring teachers in life are a child's parents. The two most influential places for educating children are in the home and at school. It is, therefore, surprising that education policy has not developed close links between the home and school learning environments. This is one of the worst failings of the silo structure of education. Schools have functioned as stand-alone institutions, disconnected from learning resources and issues in the home.
The role of parents as educators is vital to the success of a learning society. Parenting skills can add powerfully to educational opportunities, plus the mobilisation of learning resources. An effective homework plan, for instance, adds the equivalent of an extra day to the school week. In the United States, it has been estimated that the national investment in infant education would be doubled if every parent spent five hours a week on reading and homework assistance.
The most basic responsibility of parents is to be effective educators in the home. They need to be skilled in all aspects of parenting practice, especially play activities, reading and homework assistance. These skills are important for every family, but more so in breaking the cycle of long term poverty. For families dependant on welfare support, there should be no excuse for poor parenting. This should be a leading part of the Federal Government's program of mutual responsibility. Just as parents have a right to income support and other family services, they have a responsibility to be good educators and role models for their children.
Their responsibilities would include:
¨ Offering prenatal and postnatal support, in collaboration with local health authorities. Parenting programs should commence during the pregnancy period.
¨ Acting as resource centres for child development information, homework advice and school liaison. They would also assist other community organisations - such as sport clubs, libraries, women's shelters and shopping centres - with the development of parenting information and programs.
¨ Identifying families at-risk of bad parenting and providing early intervention support. These services would include training programs, home visits and regular monitoring of parental progress.
¨ Mobilising local volunteers, especially retired teachers, to act as mentors for disadvantaged families. This would include assistance in the home, such as guidance on homework and curriculum requirements.
¨ Acting as brokers for adult and community education courses, especially for parents with literacy and numeracy problems. Lifelong Learning Accounts would be available to cover course costs.
¨ Ensuring that every family has decent learning materials in the home. Low-cost computer leases and Internet connections should be arranged for disadvantaged families. Again, the LLAs would assist.
¨ Organising workshops and support groups within which parents can share experiences and assist each other. The best way of coping with the time pressures of modern work and home life is through collaboration among families. The centres would act as brokers for car pools, child minding, homework facilities and out-of-school activities.
¨ Organising school-related activities to assist time-pressured families. Breakfast clubs, after-school programs and homework centres are particularly useful for two-income families.
¨ And finally, acting as training centres for parents and other volunteers who wish to serve as teacher aides.
4. Vocational Education
Public policy also needs to leverage extra training resources from the private sector. Economic theory maintains that companies under-invest in training due to the incidence of staff mobility. Firms face a deadweight cost if, having increased their training investments, their staff move on to other companies. This problem is particularly severe among poorly skilled workers. In the face of technological change and workplace restructuring, firms usually decide to hire new staff, rather than upgrade the skills of their existing employees.
Since 1979 the Singaporean Government has required employers to pay a training levy, calculated as a proportion of wages for low-income employees. Firms then tender back for these funds through the preparation of training plans for their low-skill/low-income workers. In this fashion, they are not disadvantaged by the imposition of the business levy. In most cases, they regain their contributions and put them to sound use in reskilling their employees.
The SDF is a win-win program. It forces companies to take proper responsibility for staff training, while also upgrading the skills of the workforce. The national interest is well served by this stronger training effort, targeted at those workers most vulnerable to economic restructuring and redundancy.
In Australia, the scheme would apply to the bottom quarter of the workforce. A levy of five percent on adult workers earning less than $21,000 per annum would raise an average of $700 in training funds for each employee. This program would more than double the commitment of corporate Australia to training its low-skill/low-income workers. A smaller levy would still achieve significant gains.
5. Higher Education
Education of every kind, particularly higher education, now functions in an international setting. New learning technologies such as the Internet have increased the pace and reach of knowledge exchange. This has intensified the race for quality research and teaching. The competition between nations is becoming a competition between their university systems. Australia desperately needs a group of universities with an international reputation for excellence.
This competition is not only between universities; it is crossing institutional boundaries. A greater share of society's knowledge is being generated outside the institutions of government-sponsored education. The mass transfer of information is fostering new centres of learning, such as corporate research, educational service companies, interactive television and creative social entrepreneurs. Universities have lost their 900 year old monopoly on the generation and distribution of advanced learning.
For a small population Australia has a large number of universities. Given the size and diversity of our country, however, one would normally expect such a sector to be alive with creativity. Instead, our universities are distinctive for their conformity. Variations between them are usually on the basis of status and resource capacity. In their missions, programs and courses, they are remarkably uniform.
Higher education policy should be based on a mixed system of regulation and funding. As a first step, the Federal Government would develop a national policy framework, setting out its educational objectives and funding quantum. The framework would deal with issues of equity and access, international competitiveness, teaching standards and regional development.
The universities would then lodge expressions of intent, outlining their aspirations and preferred funding systems. This matches the principles of self-determination. A new body, the Australian Universities Commission (AUC), would negotiate these matters with each university. Its role would be to fit the various institutional missions into the national framework, plus settle the distribution of government funding. Finally, the AUC would monitor the performance of the sector, providing accountability for the use of public resources.
This process would enhance the vibrancy and quality of Australian higher education. Universities would be able to self-direct their missions and self-govern their programs. They would be encouraged to focus on the things they do well, creating excellence across the sector. In practical terms, it is possible to envisage six different types of university:
1. A group of free public universities, strongly focussed on regional development and equity programs.
2. A group of specialist universities, focussing on certain disciplines and course.
3. A group of universities determined to maintain their current features: comprehensive course offerings and mixed public/private funding (including HECS)
4. A group of internationally focussed universities, reliant on deregulated fees and private revenue sources
5. A group of research universities working in partnership with clusters of advanced industry. .
6. And finally, a group of private universities focussing on the flexible delivery of corporate education and other special purposes (such as the Catholic Universities).
A mixed system satisfies a range of policy goals. It would correct each of the weaknesses in Australian higher education. Most notably, the international competitiveness of the sector would be enhanced. The institutional freedom available in groups four and five would give Australia its best chance of developing a university of genuine international standing. This is not likely to happen under the current system. Our best universities operate with recurrent budgets just one-third the size of the top institutions in the United States, Japan and Europe.
It is possible for Labor to craft a new agenda in education:
¨ one which embraces the concept of learning beyond the classroom
¨ one which mobilises learning resources from all part of society.
These themes need to be reflected in our National Platform. Next week's Conference needs to go beyond the old institutional format and forge a new approach. As a party, we must support Kim Beazley's promise to deliver the greatest skills modernisation program in the nation's history. This is the best way of securing government for Labor and a knowledge nation for Australia.
This is an edited version of a paper presented to this week's Unchain My Mind forum
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