Australia’s education system is complex, with shared responsibilities between the states and the Commonwealth, and with funding coming mainly from the Commonwealth. During the period of the Liberal government between 1996 and 2007, there were substantial cuts to education funding, particularly in the universities, with some associated adverse effects on quality. While equity of access to high-quality education remained good at all education levels under the Liberal government, there was nonetheless some deterioration in this regard, in particular due to increased funding of private schools and growth in full (upfront) fee higher education courses.
The Labor government elected in 2007 has sought to reverse these trends. Emphasis was placed on: improving learning outcomes; implementing a national school curriculum; increasing school retention rates; and providing more funding for schools, vocational education and training, higher education and research.
In order to achieve these goals, the government has announced a number of funding initiatives in the review period, including increased resources to schools in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas, increased funding for vocational training in schools, funding for 711,000 training places targeting low-skilled jobseekers, AUD 2 billion for computers in schools, and a AUD14.7 billion program to construct new buildings in 9,500 schools across Australia (as part of the 2009 fiscal stimulus). In addition, an agreement reached with the States and Territories in October 2008, backed by AUD 970 million in additional funding over five years, to achieve universal access to a quality early childhood education program for all children in the year before school. These initiatives have not been without controversy, with claims of wastefulness in the school building program and failure to meet the election commitment of providing computers to every second school student in a timely manner.
To implement the national schools curriculum, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) was established. To date, discussions about the curriculum with stakeholders are ongoing. However, one important – and somewhat controversial – development on this front has been the introduction of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), which commenced in Australian schools in 2008. Administered by ACARA, under the program, all students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 are assessed annually on the same days using national tests in Reading, Writing, Language Conventions (Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation) and Numeracy. ACARA is also responsible for a controversial website, myschool.edu.au, which provides NAPLAN test and other information about schools so as to allow parents to evaluate the performance of schools.
In the higher education sector, the federal government has abolished all full fee undergraduate courses at public universities for Australian students. It has also established two systems for assessing university performance, the Australian Universities Quality Agency and the Research Quality Framework, the later being abolished by the incoming Labor government in 2007 and replaced by the Excellence in Research for Australia program administered by the Australian Research Council, the first round of which will be completed in late 2010.
Australia 2008. Australian Education International. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia 2008. Available at http://www.aph.gov.au/library/intguide/sp/speducation.htm#34 Accessed 22 April 2010.
Australian Labor Party. The Australian economy needs an education revolution. Available at www.wa.alp.org.au/download/now/education_revolution.pdf. Accessed 22 April 2010.