Geelong Advertiser, Saturday 3 February 2007, p. 31.
Education looks like it will be one of the big issues at the next election, with both major parties awakening to its importance to the future of this country.
Kevin Rudd has already launched the first parts of what he claims will be an education revolution in this country, while Julie Bishop, the federal minister of education is planning a single Year Twelve assessment system for the country.
Rudd has promised that Labor will reverse the trend towards full-fee courses at Australian universities and outlined plans for investment in teachers and facilities so that four-year-olds can get a start in play-based education.
At state level, Steve Bracks has begun to tackle years of neglect of state school infrastructure and has pumped more resources into teacher training and recruitment.
This may moderate some of the divisions between resource-rich private schools and a state system of secondary education which still provides for the majority of Victorian children in the relevant age groups.
The major parties are responding to a number of polls which have shown that Australians are concerned about education and its place in society.
We have had campaigns in the past with their slogans ‘The clever country’ or ‘Knowledge Nation’ and international comparative studies often show that Australia is fair to middling in comparison with other developed countries.
But for a small population in a large country this may not be enough.
Australia has no hope of competing in world markets as a low labour cost producer of simple manufactured goods.
No amount of forcing down wage costs will bridge the gap to countries like China, so the only strategy must be to find markets where the technical and scientific content of the products or services is significant.
Often this will mean co-operative effort rather than going it alone and that means knowledge of other languages, cultures and economic systems, so it is not just scientific and technological skills which come into play.
Mention of other cultures suggests another reason why a broad-based modern education is not just valuable but essential.
If we are to get beyond the stereotyping of groups in the world and here in Australia we have to understand better the different cultural groups which exist and find the common ground which links them.
There is much talk these days about ‘Australian values’ but much less close analysis of what we share with the rest of the world, and which elements can be claimed to be uniquely Australian.
A greater appreciation of other cultures through education would help reduce some of the fears which the more unscrupulous politicians and media have exploited in recent years.
As the bumper sticker says, ‘If you think education is expensive, try ignorance’.