Australia’s education deficit in the Asian Century

Colin ChapmanNOTES ON THE NEWS: Just a few weeks after the publication of the government’s Australia in the Asian Century booklet – as an aspirational document without legs it hardly justifies the term ‘white paper’ – some flaws are already emerging.

These cracks include immigration policies, productivity and competitive issues, and defence and trade uncertainties. I’m not going to get into these now, except to say that AIIA NSW will be addressing each of these in some detail at meetings early next (election) year. By way of a teaser, I will just point out that I attended an excellent conference run by the US Studies Centre on trade, which raised all kinds of issues that relate to our future in Asia.

In this last column of 2012, I want to focus on one issue where the aspiration of Australia in the Asian Century is so far out of line with today’s reality that it is difficult to see how this government, or the alternative, is going to be able to catch up. That area is education.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard set a target that by 2025 – just 13 years from now – our schools system will be in the top five in the world. It is a laudable aim, perhaps the most important of all the goals that were set, but the prospects are not good.

Last Wednesday came the shocking news that Australia’s primary school students – the kids that will be at university or joining the workforce in 2025 – scored the lowest of any English-speaking nation in an international test of reading. They also performed poorly in maths and science. By contrast many Asian nations were at the top of international comparisons, confirming what we already know, that Asian governments take education seriously.

We are actually performed worse than England, a country that has become notorious for declining educational standards. The results, published by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, show Australia is sinking in standards, while Asians are at the top.

For example, in Year 4 reading, Hong Kong comes first; Australia is 27th. In Year 4 science South Korea is top, with Singapore second; Australia is 25th. These same two countries lead maths, where we do a bit better, at 18th.

You can read a full analysis by Dr Sue Thomson, Director of Educational Research and Monitoring at the Australian Council for Educational Research in The Conversation. She doubts that PM Gillard can achieve her goals.

The reaction from politicians and unions has been disappointing. Peter Garrett, the schools minister, concedes the problem but thinks things have improved since these tests were done. The Coalition talks about better teachers, and the teachers argue for more money.

This is a complex issue, but I would have thought it worth asking our missions in Asia to tell us why their countries have done so well. The motivation of students and parents is at least one factor, as I learned on visits to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore recently. Both the students – and the teachers – put in the hours.

One other aspect of Australia in the Asian Century was highlighted by the United States National Intelligence Council report this week forecasting that by 2030 Asia will be more powerful than the US and Europe combined.

There are no surprises in that. But as my friend, the author Robert Kaplan pointed out, Asia is a huge continent with many varied, competing countries; Security is by no means assured, and a lot can happen between now and then, and undoubtedly will. You can view my latest conversation with Robert on The Rise of Asia here.

This is my last column for this year. I wish all readers of the Glover Cottages a very Happy Christmas wherever you are. Thanks for your support for the AIIA NSW.

Colin Chapman is president of the AIIA NSW, and a former education editor of the London Sunday Times. He is Vice President for the Asia Pacific at Stratfor. 


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