Right from the outset, I an telling everyone that I believe that the private education system in Australia is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the Australian public. It is hugely bigger than the Iraqi WMD, immensely larger than the Children Overboard scam and symbolizes the policies of the NeoConservatives who are now in government in Oz. To justify those claims, Australians pay billions of dollars to private schools in fees every year for their children to attend. This is then overlaid with about another four billion dollars a year in taxpayer funds. Australia is one of only three nations, I believe, that uses public funds to prop up the private system, but that is another argument.
Essentially, the claim is “if your kids go to a private school, they have a chance at a better life, because they get a better education”. Spurious claims there, a “better life”? I doubt it, a “better education”, that is utter nonsense. What they buy for their kids is, if they are at the right schools, pre-entry for medical school, preferential entry for law school, entry for the “right clubs” – exclusive, paternalistic, patronage. If they are at a private school, but not a first echelon school, they may gain entry to the above uni courses, but not the “right clubs”, but will be considered for management positions, but not upper management. A third echelon of private school students are likely to be placed in semi-professional jobs – but they will be competing with students from the state schools. Few State school students get into medical or law school, but they often find it difficult to stay in that course. (My niece went to a state school, displayed immense ability, but, as I understand it, only made it into medical school because someone else was unable to take a scholarship they were offered. She would never have been able to finish without that funding – and good on her.)
My question here is why is there such a disparity? Why has the State/Private divide become so great? Initially, like fifty years ago, less than ten percent of students in my home state of South Australia went to a private school. Most private schools were faith based, like now, but they did not receive public funds for anything. In 1963, the Menzies (Liberal) Government introduced public funding for capital expenditure in private schools. Essentially, the private school facilities were appallingly bad, so, in its wisdom, a Right winged government put money into the private system. What a mistake that has been, as public funding from the Federal Government to the private sector is now double what it is to the public sector. No matter what argument is put forward to support that, the reality is that public subsidies are paid to private businesses, a complete opposite to the professed beliefs of the NeoCons running government now.
Actually, they have managed to confuse and swap the words public and private, public money goes to private schools and private money should then go to public schools. As private organizations want to support private schools, that is where their bursaries go, not to public schools. It’s tough on the public schools, but they get public money so who cares? Another reality is that public funding of education is now a complicated morass of bureaucracy that is just getting more entrenched every year.
All this is secondary to the real question of fraud – but it sets part of the background. The attitude of the Conservatives is obvious, contemptuous of those less well off than themselves. When coupled with decision making processes of government, this attitude becomes dangerous. It is really echoes of “Let them eat cake!” I suggest the end result will be the same. Their contempt is based in the current times. Just as the more socially inclusive views of the ‘fifties and ‘sixties expanded to include peoples of different gender and ethnicity as a part of those times, the regrowth of exclusivity is a part of the current times.
Another impetus for the regrowth of exclusivity is the unbridled market. “Market forces” will make everything right, we are told. But what are those forces? Can we take advantage of them? No-one can describe what they really mean by “market forces”, even Milton Freidmann could not really describe them. Economists talk about them, but cannot quantitatively define them. If we cannot describe them, how can we use them? Simply, we cannot – we are at the mercy of the unpredictable ebb and flow of money. However, some people, wealthy people can exert a modicum of control over large sums of money, the rest of us can do as we please. Money buys influence, ask the politicians who get paid bribes called “donations”, politics is littered with examples of such. CEOs gain huge pay rises, millions of dollars and immediately lay off hundreds of workers. That is corruption, not a market force, unless corruption is itself a market force.
I once heard someone say that all systems tend to the feudal. At the time I thought, nonsense, but he was a “learned person” and would not be pleased by being challenged by an undergrad. I think I can see what he was getting at, that “feudal” does not necessarily mean a return to the feudal system, but something resembling it. The same kind of feudal structures are emerging again as social mobility declines.
Freidmann and others see a vital link between democracy and capitalism, claiming that democracy cannot exist without capitalism. Rubbish, the ancient Greeks practised a form of democracy, but the Athenian economy was more barter than capitalist. In recent years, it seems that democracy is more a threat to capitalism, than a consequence. But then, let us be more precise about what we mean by “capitalism”. The capitalism we practice today may owe its beginnings to Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” but it has little in common with what Smith described.
All these things impact on education and education impacts on all these things. As exclusivity rises in our education system, this reinforces the idea that exclusivity is a “good thing”. Private school graduates do not understand the value of public education, are contemptuous of it, so as they pass into the workforce, into decision making positions, refuse to support it. As they move up the scale, become Ministers of Education, unencumbered with any knowledge or understanding of education, they simply decline to support it at all.
What these people do not realise is that for the majority of people, a public education is not just a chance at improving their future, it is their only chance – and it is being eroded by the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the Australian public.
And that is happening in Australia now.