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This is one commodity we do not usually measure in world terms yet perhaps doing so would be useful. The main problem would be how to measure it as one person’s definition might be very different from that of another, even from a similar background.

The question arose for me this week when one of our government ministers who, up until then had seemed to me upright and honest and working in Australia’s best interests, was exposed buying an investment property whilst on a government trip and then getting taxpayers to pay for the trip.

The murky details are still emerging but there are enough so far to show the huge gap between the vast majority of Australians and our politicians. How can the latter make decisions for the good of the country when they constantly distance themselves from most of us? They sit on a pedestal for a short period of time then disappear into obscurity, suggesting that what they had to offer at the time was of limited value.

Is this really how we want our leaders to operate? The current situation seems to be for people with limited talent to wriggle themselves into a situation in which they can exercise a bit of power for a while, improve their own financial situation, then wriggle back down again. Their personal new level of financial comfort satisfies them that they did ok.

Is this why we don’t seem to have a political party dedicated to achieving a country which is equitable for more and allowing everyone a chance to succeed? We had the sad spectacle at Xmas of seeing the PM serving meals, provided, prepared and paid for by others, to needy people. What a better world we could all look forward to if instead he had sat down with these people and talked to them about what it would take to make their lives more productive and liveable. That would really have meant Xmas.

We need a new category of politician for whom success should be measured more in terms of what they can do to for all citizens, helping them to achieve to the best of each individuals ability, not by the number of new assets each can purchase. We are an impoverished country if that is how our politicians measure their success.

We need to create a political party which has its sights set on Australia’s achievements, giving every citizen the opportunity to achieve, particularly the younger ones. We don’t need political parties in which members are engaged in self aggrandisement and self-enrichment. We need honesty in politicians.

 

 

 

I am sure that I am not the only person in Australia who is concerned about what seems to be a continuing debate concerning our higher education system, a debate which I feel is based on all the wrong, and inaccurate, assumptions.

I believe very strongly that the first priority in any country should be its education system, from Kindergarten to Ph. D. students. I believe that this should top all other demands on a country’s resources, followed closely by health, although the two are intertwined. The current debate centres on higher education, who can access it and how much it is going to cost them as individuals. The politicians seem to feel that there is no problem with expecting graduate students to enter the workforce with a huge debt if Universities, and the fees they can charge, are deregulated. It doesn’t seem to enter the heads of politicians that deterring bright and competent students from embarking on a degree because they feel they can do better in life without that huge debt is a problem in terms of  a lost resource. They confidently say that they will back students from a low sociological background by providing scholarships for them but we have not been given any details of this. The government should have details about how many students which fit this descriptor are currently in the system and how much it would cost to provide them all with scholarships. This is a very necessary part of the argument and it is interesting that this doesn’t seem to have been costed or such a detail publicised.

The other side of the issue, the motives of the Universities, is also a murky area. They seem to feel that deregulation would attract better staff and better research but again this argument does not appear to be substantiated. We would need to know what does attract good quality staff. It is hard to believe that they are entirely motivated by money. I would have thought that the research environment, quality colleagues and quality management would also appear in the equation. I need convincing that top research staff are only attracted and motivated by money. I wonder if quality Vice-Chancellors attract their own staff followers who primarily require a positive environment in which to pursue their goals .

With 5 degrees under my belt, both from overseas and Australia, my impression is that standards are deteriorating  because Universities, at least in Australia, are failing to attract top staff because of an amateur working and research environment, and inadequate management. Being able to offer staff more money in this situation is unlikely to attract quality staff.

The Minister himself seems to have had minimum personal contact with Universities, with only an undergraduate degree and post-graduate diploma, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Most of his working life has been spent in the peculiar and limited atmosphere of politics. This hardly makes him an expert on our Universities.

Optimum economic growth with all its benefits, professionally distributed, is the key to a country’s success. This can only be achieved if the potential of all its people can be liberated. It also involves talented and knowledgeable leadership. That seems to be what is currently missing.

There has been a lot of talk recently in Australia about spending more money on schools which in theory is an excellent idea but in practice has many flaws, particularly in light of current policy. Firstly the money is to come largely from University funding, taking it away from this sector without any thought given to the outcomes of this. As someone pointed out this means enabling more young people to get to University but when they get there the Universities won’t have the money to cope with them.
There are other flaws too. No-one with on the ground experience seems to have really looked at the current flaws in the way schools carry out their business. One of the biggest problems when I was teaching in schools was that as teachers we were required to do more and more of the parenting. I suspect that this is an inevitable consequence of more women being encouraged to resume their careers instead of parenting, particularly single parents who often have no choice. I am all in favour of this but society needs to recognise it and address it. The role of parents in schools needs to move from being thought of by some teachers as an unnecessary evil but rather as a school asset. It needs to be seen as a positive, and defined in more detail, to get the maximum benefit for school, child and parent. Currently we have an education system based on a tripod with a wonky leg.
Another flaw is that if I were to investigate the educational background of the politicians and policy makers I suspect I would find education being defined as being restricted to the first parts of life. I suspect few, if any, would regard lifelong learning as anything other than being experience based after the first couple of decades. Their own University learning would be likely to date back to when they were in their early twenties, often many decades ago. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that this may be somewhat out of date! In other words they are no longer really well-educated themselves.
The other aspect of this debate centres around whether the current biannual testing in schools is worth the huge amount of money it must cost. I am always concerned that a short test may measure little other than how much time the teacher has spent practising it with them. You can’t really measure real learning on relatively short little tests. Just because that is the best we can do in the circumstances doesn’t mean it is worth doing. It could in fact be doing more harm than good, as some people are starting to acknowledge.
This brings me back to the quality of the advisors, political and professional, in terms of their own up to date learning, and the amount of time they themselves actually spend in schools. The fact that we identify some schools as disadvantaged suggests that the policy makers themselves are out of date. This label in itself will be enough to lower the children’s aspirations and standards.
We need to bring our concept of education into the 21st century instead of just re-iterating what we did last century, and making the same mistakes. Is education itself falling behind?

This is a subject that occupies my mind quite a bit as my Ph D continues to drag on. Unfortunately I stumbled across a list of University rankings and found that the one I am studying at does not make the world top 500 on any of the main lists and is even ranked at the bottom of the Australian ones. This week the University has added two more people to their staff who are in no way academics. It used to be a requirement that to be appointed to a University at anything above tutor level you had to have a Ph D. A few years ago this University had less than half of its staff with this qualification, again well down even on an Australian list. Current policy seems intent on lowering even this figure.

Does this matter? I think it does. Our politicians run the country but they largely rely on others to provide the necessary background knowledge. We can easily dismiss the situation by saying that often people with higher qualifications don’t seem very bright and/or the subject of their thesis didn’t really contribute much to human knowledge ( I remember one thesis successfully submitted at one of the top 50 ranked Universities was based on whether two elderly ladies who lived together in Wales over a century ago were lesbians or not! This wasn’t world shattering knowledge!). The point is that research at that depth in any subject produces a really well-trained mind which the world needs although if the subject of the research adds value to world knowledge this is even better. If politicians were obliged to undergo the sort of mental activity involved in higher learning then political debate would be minus a lot of the crap which currently permeates it.

A second problem is that this type of, and level of, learning can’t be a one-off experience. I cringe when I hear politicians professing to support education, and recognise its benefits, as long as they are referring to other people! Many of them sprouting the need for universal access to education, which no-one would disagree with, haven’t undertaken any formal education themselves for decades. Do they think that what they learned in that distant past will last forever? Given the enormous rate of change in the world knowledge bank we need to accept that learning has to be a lifelong experience. Listening to people whose own learning is well out of date spruiking about the need for education for other people makes me wince. We need to realise that the world is constantly changing and our knowledge of it regularly changes and unless we make at least an attempt to keep pace with it we look silly when we open our mouths and sprout rubbish.

In many, if not all, countries of the world ordinary people strive to improve their own education if possible. They are even more adamant that where possible they will fight for their children to have access to learning. In developed countries more and more people strive to go to University not just to get degrees but an increasing number are moving on to higher degrees. If a country is to benefit from this then the quality of the education involved needs to be acceptable. If universities in other countries are also lowering their standards it will be less of a problem in a highly competitive world. If not Australia is in big trouble.