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Australia - Summary

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In an age of rapid change, it is clear that educational standards, content, and means of delivery are under constant pressure. The challenge for Australian education is multi-leveled. At the K-6 level, the devolution of funding and organization, on the one hand, tied to increasing bureaucratic control through imposition of external standards raises serious questions about the role of the Australian Welfare state. The presupposition built up among most Australians since the middle of last century was that the State would provide the basic needs of life. That expectation has been impossible, despite government review of national taxation systems, that have led to public angst about hospitals, roads, social welfare and other elements of Australian life. One spin off of this is a declining faith in public education, as marked by steady growth in private provision at all levels of education. For those institutions in the public system, the gap created by the status of government needs to be overcome, in particular by a closer embedding of institutions in real constituencies. The sort of alumni support of institutions and culture of private philanthropy which underpins the American system of education is largely absent in Australia, a lack which will be of supreme importance as institutions are increasingly privatized and forced into competitive markets. The launching of devolution programs among primary schools was often destructive, as the communities in which they were meant to fish for support did not actually exist in sociological terms (Welch 1996).

Geographical placement of schools means little in suburban settings when most members of those suburbs are free to create private spheres unrelated to their actual location. The information age continues to exacerbate this problem, with the extension of communities into supranational virtual spaces. This is a major challenge to a public provision system based on principles of geographical saturation. While the re-orientation of the Australian tax system towards goods and services taxation has released new resources for public expenditure, it has also worsened the shift away from the states observable in financial arrangements since the 1950s. Primary and secondary education are likely to see an increase in federal supervision of their activities, despite the fact that the legal responsibility lies with the states.

This federal supervision creates significant problems in meeting local needs and in overcoming the welfare gap. As Peter Berger noted with regard to religious organizations, the vacuum created for mediating institutions by the overarching welfare state will no doubt continue to provide considerable impetus to the growth of private providers. The problem this creates is that private providers have historically been unable to unlock the sorts of resources needed to meet the huge range of social needs found in a multicultural, scattered, and geographically extensive Australian society. Public schools thus face the threat of becoming providers for special needs only.

A small player in a large international market, Australian education has much to teach the world about distance education, flexible delivery, and teaching in a first world, multicultural society. It is, however, facing significant issues in terms of retaining coherency between public policy and actual provision and social outcomes, issues which will remain with Australian education for years to come.


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—Mark Hutchinson

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