Beyond the Clever Country

| April 26, 2013

As the Federal Government is proposing to cut the funding to universities to help reform the school sector, Tara Brabazon, Professor of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University, argues that we are jeopardising the future of education.

I don’t want Australia to be a ‘clever country’. I want Australia to be a learning nation, a knowledge economy, where we take the resource boom and build this windfall into a sustainable, careful, respectful strategy for our future.

Education is superannuation for the mind. It is never wasted and always useful. The best economies are dynamic, resourceful and outward in focus. The problem throughout Australia’s history is that schools and universities have been corroded by intra-sector warfare between public and private, secular and religious, vocational and elite.

These divisions have now reached a moment of crisis, with the Federal Government proposing to cut the funding to universities by $2.8 billion. This was the budgetary strategy to pay for the ‘reforms’ to the school sector, implementing some of the recommendations in the Gonski review. Premiers have already critiqued the plan. Divisions remain. Planning is stalled. Policy development and implementation is paralysed.

Cutting university funding will inevitably harm schools. What is the point of creating aspirational scholars and widening the participation and opportunity for higher learning if the university sector crumbles before they walk onto the campus?

I have already seen this possible future for Australia. Having just returned from the United Kingdom, I witnessed what happens when higher education is neglected, demeaned, compromised and attacked. Standards decline. Highly qualified academics leave the sector for better remuneration. Scholars exit the country for better opportunities, and students lose consistency in their degree pathways and teaching.

When one sector – universities – has finances restricted in order to fund another level of education, particular disciplines suffer more than others. Teacher education is doubly jeopardized. We must work between schools and universities. Yet what is the point of funding schools if the institutions that educate and shape the teachers are endangered?

If Australia wants to be modern and competitive in a post-industrial age, then we will need to train and retrain the workforce. We need to listen – however difficult it may be – to what General Motors told Australians. Fewer people want to buy Australian-made cars. A chapter of Australia’s manufacturing history is coming to a close. But whatever is written in the next chapter of Australia’s working history, it will require education to summon this future. Australia should be known not only for our mines, but also for our minds.

My ambition is to ensure that Australia is recognized as a learning nation, a place that took the opportunity presented by natural resources and transformed into a careful and balanced economy, managing primary production, manufacturing, service industries and education. Schools and universities are the core of our country, rather than an inconvenient embarrassment to address when our students do not reach international ‘standards’ for numeracy and literacy.

Most importantly, we must move beyond creating adversarial relationships between early childhood and primary education, primary and secondary education, and schools and universities. We must not divide higher from lower education, but instead consider a whole-of-sector commitment to quality learning for all citizens, whatever their age, race, gender or state of origin.

Teacher education in Australia is passing through the greatest change in its history. By its nature, teacher education is parochial and sliced up into state-size chunks. Every state has different values, assumptions and goals. So part of the movement to a national curriculum is the goal to move outside our comfort zones, reflect on our practice, and think beyond an individual classroom, school, region or state. Such an imperative requires consistent funding, but more importantly it requires every Australian to believe in learning, believe in the value of thinking and to start a campaign for the interests of every child, every adult, every teacher and every learner from Broome to Ballarat, from Darwin to Dubbo, from Hornsby to Hobart, from Alice Springs to Adelaide and on to Canberra. Only then will Australia become a learning nation.



  1. Sam Kharman

    May 7, 2013 at 3:33 am

    Beyond the clever what??

    Your article touches on several important subjects that deserve a more in-depth analysis individually. I have really tried very hard to find a more diplomatic word other than stupid to describe many decisions implemented by our current government who seems to place self-preservation at the summit of priorities.

    You mention the resources boom; I am stunned at the level of incompetent mismanagement of the windfall and the missed long term opportunities. Instead the windfall morphed into a debt. While the rest of the world wrestled with an international monetary crisis our government’s economic prowess extended to investing our windfall on “pink” elephant UN seats, “pink” bats, and other failed short sighted initiatives. I feel nausea writing about this.

    I agree with you whole heartedly on the negative effects that reduced funding would inflict on our Universities. It is worth noting that historically our Universities are recognised internationally for their high educational standards. Australia is one of the top 3 countries where many international students are seeking enrolment to achieve doctorates in their respective fields after graduating from their own countries or other overseas universities.

    In desperation I believe the current government is resorting to deliberately create adversarial relationships not only as you mention “between early childhood and primary education, primary and secondary education, and schools and universities” but also along the lines of rich and poor, and gender to mention a few. Divide and rule seems to be the order of the day.

    “The clever country” is fast becoming a myth.
    Sam Kharman, Not a professor, published nothing