Category Archives: Education

Education policy and funding in the federal system

I’ve read a couple of articles this week about proposals to introduce a Victorian Baccalaureate and an Australian Baccalaureate, as an alternative to the exam-focused VCE Certificate and interstate equivalents. In Victoria, and I believe in most other states, the International Baccalaureate is already offered, though usually only by the top, most exclusive private schools (of course in metro areas). There was also an opinion piece by Brian Caldwell in support of the Victorian proposal. These baccalaureates would be more focused on longer, thesis assessments and include an element of public service.

Caldwell highlighted the history of Victoria’s innovation in education, comparative to the rest of Australia particularly, citing Kennett in particular. He also focused on what I found most striking about The Age article I referred to earlier – that Martin Dixon, Victorian Education Minister, said the Victorian Government would not wait around for the Australian Government to enact reforms. Anyone who follows education reform would know how slowly the Australian Government moves on such matters. The current model of federalism in Australia leaves a lot of responsibility with state governments to run the educations systems – I believe this is good. This has led to innovation and differentiation between states and has allowed localised solutions to be found for local problems. However, the funding still comes from the Australian Government, and the cumbersome bureaucracy this brings leads to stifling innovation and a very slow, reactive approach. I am sure that this two-tiered system of double bureaucracy for the one system also leads to a lot of education funding actually being bureaucrat salary – particularly at the Commonwealth level which doesn’t provide direct education services itself.

I’m not advocating, as many current Republican presidential nominees would, to completely abolish the Commonwealth Education Department, however it’s clear from the history of education provision in Australia that the real innovation and reform of service delivery comes from the states. Victoria has the most efficient primary and secondary education systems, and (I can’t remember this reference as I read it a few years ago) studies have shown that it’s the empowerment of local schools to decide how their funding is spent which has driven this efficiency and good outcomes, comparative to other states in Australia. A Commonwealth bureaucracy telling states how to spend their money, instituting national curricula and creating uniform national systems flies in the face of such evidence for localising the system and allowing local experts to make decisions which suit the local community best.

7 billion

This post over at Feminist Philosophers is succinct but brilliant. It captures the feeling of hope which I think has been completely lost in all the doomsday articles on over-population and armageddon type scenarios about the end of the world as we know it now that we are 7 billion, and not 6-billion-and-something.

Yes, if all 7 billion consumed the resources that I do right now, it really would be the end of the world, and quick. But they don’t, and hopefully we will all find ways to meet the challenges that this population will bring with it.

Interestingly, addressing climate change is inherently linked with empowering women and girls. As this blog explains, a recent paper has found the most cost effective ways of spending climate change intervention dollars is via educating girls and increasing access to family planning. Through these outcomes I would also hope that maternal mortality and morbidity would decrease.

I too hope that this generation of girls has a brighter future than what we are currently able to see, particularly those who are born into the developing world.

Repression and sexualisation: connected opposing phenomena?

Over the last few days, I have been reading Lipstick Jihad, by Iranian-American Azadeh Moaveni. It is a beautifully written book, and what has struck me recently is how universal, though different in nature, oppression and repression can be. I want to be clear – I AM NOT conflating the kind of oppression and repression that happens in Iran with any repression that happens in the West, that is a ridiculous notion. However, I believe there are some similar effects of repression which can be observed where repression occurs.

Moaveni describes the stifling atmosphere of the Iranian regime’s compulsory Islamic dress for women, and segregation of the sexes. She explains the way no Iranians have social skills for interacting with the opposite sex, and how her American ‘frendliness’ – smiling, engaging men in conversation, is taken as a sign of her sexual availability, because all Iranian women have learnt to be stern to avoid such issues. She paints a clear link between the two things – the banning of interaction between men and women leads directly to her ease of interaction to signal her interest. Moaveni also illustrates the effect of the compulsory covering of women; she describes the way it sexualises everything, suddenly everything is about what people cannot have, that which is forbidden. It is a classic example of why prohibition (of anything) will eventually fail.

All of this was spinning through my mind as I finally watched Kinsey a few nights ago. I’m not sure of the historical accuracy of the film, but what struck me was how we have simultaneously, since Kinsey’s time, found more out about human sexuality, yet also in many ways we are not any more comfortable with it. Our society is paranoid about so many ‘bad’ kinds of sexuality, but most particularly what I was thinking of was how we are so scared about the “sexualisation” of children. As Kinsey saw it, the problems with people’s sexual expression came from the repression of sexuality in general. Perhaps there is a link between what Kinsey saw and our current hysteria about children and sexuality.

The so-called “sexualisation” of children concept starts from an assumption that children are not at all sexual. Let’s unpack that. Children are inherently curious about everything, including their own and other’s bodies. There are a lot of people who have written about child development, so I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about that, however I think it’s worth noting that maturity is a continuum, and our young people do not suddenly wake up, at 13, turn into adolescents and become aware of their bodies, sensuality and sexuality. There is such a thing as age-appropriate exploring of bodies and sexual expression at all ages, and it’s important to keep this context when we consider children and development of sexuality. It is also very important to keep in mind that diversity exists among all people, including children, and that such diversity will also exist in sexuality itself, as well as the way it is expressed, developed and understood by young people.

With this in mind, let’s now consider the dominant view of children, and “sexualisation of children” within Western societies like Australia. See for example, Melinda Tankard Reist. This view is not only quite hysterical, it’s also denies that children have the right to self-expression. Of course, this should be within an age-appropriate developmental stage, and much of what people like Melinda Tankard Reist are concerned with, essentially, is the way some of this may be rushing development, or imposing a certain kind of expression onto young people. I think this is a concern that many people have, I personally am concerned with age-appropriateness, as well as the accuracy of information we give young people about sex and sexuality. I am also concerned with the messages young people get from society about these things. Being hysterical about any kind of sexual expression from young people though, is completely counterproductive.

Let’s now consider what a denial of all self-expression of curiosity about bodies, sexuality, sensuality, and sexual development means for young people and children. What can Moaveni’s descriptions of the forbidden being all one can think about, and of Kinsey’s linking the taboo nature of sexuality with the lack of understanding and acceptance of sexuality tell us about how our society currently views and understands children?

Sex and sexual expression are generally uncomfortable, taboo topics in Western culture, and many parents still do not feel comfortable to talk with children openly and honestly about sex and sexuality. It’s possible this reflects their own level of comfort with their own sexuality, or that this is a symptom of expectations of parents – it is not considered something that should be discussed openly with children as it’s viewed as inherently damaging and private. Particularly for children. This repression and black-and-white view of children as completely innocent, non-curious beings, completely without sexuality or sensuality – could this be contributing to the current situation where children are being “sexualised” by society? The thing we are supposed to have covered, the thing we are not supposed to talk about, the thing society tells children they are not. Does this lead to it being expressed in the last way possible? And, does this uncomfortableness lead to the expression being in an inappropriate and unsocialised way, similar to the expression of male desire in Iran, as described by Moaveni, or shown in the Kinsey film through a society uncomfortable with sexuality and sexual difference.

What if adults were open, honest, and age-appropriate in their discussions with children about sex and sexuality? What if we could start to break down these taboos in order to allow children’s curiosity about themselves and others’ gradually develop into healthy, well-informed, empowered sexuality as they move through adolescence and towards adulthood? This kind of open-ness would also allow adults to have conversations with children about what is not appropriate – preventing or opening a dialogue to intervene in situations where children are being taken advantage of or abused.

This kind of honesty could also create an opportunity for real sex and health education before people reach the shock of experiencing puberty without knowing what is happening to them, and create a society where adolescence isn’t viewed as a horrible marginalised experience, but one which is embraced as a natural developmental step; of course adolescence poses many difficulties, but does not have to be as difficult as it often is. Who knows the impacts this may have on the way adolescents engage and contribute to the world.

Tertiary Education and Structural Barriers to Participation

After a massive week of work (full-time) and uni (part-time), I’ve been continuing my reflections about the tertiary education sector in Australia. What a complex beast.

I must say right from the start, given the presence of HECS/FEE-HELP I’m going to stay right out of any discussion of fees etc at this point, though this is something which I am equally interested in. For now, I want to focus on the way tertiary education is structured in Australia. We have TAFEs and Vocational Education providers. I know many of these operate only in ‘business hours’, similar to what I’m about to discuss with undergraduate education. I have to admit my knowledge gap about the Vocational Education Sector, and will focus mainly on Universities, though I understand many of the same issues are being experienced in the Vocational Sector.

I have been a perpetual uni student for some time now. I’m still an undergrad, though I have now studied more than 3 years of full-time equivalent load, from 3 different degrees. Yes, much of this is down to my own personal choices and some indecision about what I wanted to do, and how I wanted to get there. The transition from year 12 to university is often not smooth, and this was compounded for me by having to relocate to a city when I had grown up in a regional area. This was all expected.

What I didn’t expect was how difficult it can be to get a semi-decently paying job while at university, how classes sprawled in one or two or three hour blocks and bits across at least four days of the week… This made work-uni balance very difficult, particularly when there was rent to pay. A part-time job would have entailed working business hours – the exact hours that classes are scheduled in, all be it very short segments of them. So, work has most often meant something casual, with no security, often low pay, often less-than-desirable conditions, and often at night. I remember my law lecturer telling me that any work which took more than 10 hours a week was considered excessive by the law school… needless to say my marks weren’t very good and I wasn’t really engaging with the material being taught.

But this isn’t a poor me story. I’ve finally found a way to fit almost everything in – it involves lots of compromises and has made me into an old-lady-undergrad, but I’m very happy. What was striking at university, when I was actually attending on-campus classes, was the disenchantment with the system, from all sides. Lecturers and tutors would make comments about how little time they felt they had to teach, or conversely to write and research, and how teaching loads meant sustaining research through semester was nigh on impossible. Even students living at home (with much less expense to meet) felt frustrated with the lack of options and opportunity to engage in meaningful, rewarding work. Their parents wanted them to work, in many cases needed them to work to cover their own expenses like books, food, clothes, drinks etc, however many felt it was a waste of time during semester, and that it was a constant trade-off. Then, we would all sit almost idle over the semester breaks, for somewhere near 4-6 weeks in winter and often up to 3 months in summer – either working the same 10-25/30 hours in the same job, or trying to find a job we could work ful-time hours, but only until uni started… It all seems rather contradictory and quite unbalanced.

Many universities offer flexible classes for post-grad students, recognising that many already work full-time, and might prefer or in fact need, night classes, intensive weekend classes, or classes delivered in totality in a week or two, in order to condense the content delivery into managable chunks for people who have other things going on in their lives. This flexibility is not generally extended to undergrad subjects or degrees, as undergrads are presumed to be living at home, not in need of ‘real work’ and not in need of flexibility. In a perfect world, society would support undergrads to undertake their first degree in a model like this. However, we have a system which expects undergrads to be something they are not.

Lecturers too would benefit from an opening up to alternative models of material delivery, allowing greater work flexibility, greater freedom to engage in research and professional development, and hopefully such flexibility would also lead to innovative ways of ‘doing’ education – using emerging technology and allowing education to be more inclusive.

Of course, the structural barriers disproportionately affect those already disadvantaged and marginalised in society. We have so many methods which are supposed to foster greater diversity and inclusion at universities; scholarships, access and equity units, income support, quotas for under-represented populations, the list is quite long. These are all admirable, and hopefully have some impact. However it is quite clear that universities are still dominated by people who are more privileged. Perhaps one of the most effective ways of addressing this is to build flexibility and inclusiveness into the structures of the university model, rather than make corrective, affirmative action type adjustments after the fact. What if we needed less scholarships and programs and support units because people could just access university because the model was flexible enough to be inclusive and foster diversity?

I’m not pretending I know the answer to the current structural problems, far from it. However it is becoming increasingly clear that the current model is quite broken and is in dire need of an overhaul. As far as I can see, it’s a relic from the “good old days” of students being the elite of society, supported by mentors, family, philanthropy, or in the 1970’s for a while, the state. These kinds of student support are still useful and most welcome of course, however it is clear that they are not enough on their own any longer, and that reform would be beneficial to the central aims of the tertiary education sector.

We know that our society is becoming more stratified along class lines, and it seems that one of the only effective ways of achieving class mobility in today’s society and market, is to ensure all people have access to a good education. Therefore, the tertiary sector represents an important social justice tool for Australia. Retaining people in high school is very important, but people who have the ability and the desire to study at a tertiary level should not be turned away simply because they have to work to earn money and support themselves. The neo-conservative free-market types should encourage this, as well as encouraging people to be able to have ready access to tools to better themselves with. In the long-term, this also insures society against a large unemployable population.

Gillard wants to build an education revolution and the tertiary sector is ripe for a revolution now. It would be a fantastic way to ensure Australia can compete in the global markets as they increasingly move toward ideas- and service-based economies, rather than resources and exporting materials. It seems everyone but the university management-types, and government bureaucrats can see that real structural reform of the sector is long overdue.

Economics and Feminism: an existential crisis?

Recently, through my pondering of my future directions and the impending grown-up-ness of turning a milestone age next year, I’ve been considering studying some form of economics as a postgrad. Economics? 18 year old me would be having a fit about now. Where did the social-progressive, pro-welfare safety net, social justice crusader go, and where the hell did this lady come from? 20-something me has realised that they are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps my social justice crusading could be best advanced by the ‘credibility’ and analysis that some economic knowledge would provide. Reading books such as Economics 2.0 and engaging with Game Theory and new ways of economic modelling which move beyond ‘Rational Economic Man‘ have of course helped my fondness for and understanding of economics as a powerful tool.

More than that though, is the realisation recently that half of what I am passionate about and half of what I spend my time thinking about is economic policy, or social policy which is fundamentally impacted on or achieved by economics. So much social justice can be understood in economic terms. Further, making strong economic arguments in favour of socially progressive policy seems to be the best and most effective way to show the social conservatives that social justice is good for their economic bottom line. Policies such as paid parental leave, including more women in business and on boards, ending discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability and many other factors, supporting diversity through encouraging free movement of labour are all things which have been variously shown to have positive impacts on economic bottom lines, depending on execution.

More than this though, economics is a field which is still, from the outside at least, dominated by the status quo – middle aged white males. Diversifying the voices within fields like this means that we can challenge traditional assumptions. Until very recently, traditional notions, such as Rational Economic Man had gone almost unchallenged in economics. Modelling all economic assumptions from the understanding that humans are dispassionately rational can create all kinds of flawed market based systems. Events as big as the GFC, or as small as shopping at a supermarket can show that humans are rarely engaged with the economy in a purely rational fashion, and that there are complex emotional investment and impulsive risky decision-making process which have little if anything to do with calm rationalism. Of course, this assumes a dichotomy between the rational and the emotional, which is also something I have previously written about (unpublished, should fix that!) The short story is that the reason/emotion dichotomy is used to oppress in all kinds of ways (see for example Prokhovnik)

Development economics and the inclusion of women in development agendas has taught us much about global economic systems, even for supposedly developed countries. If focusing our energy and attention on including and empowering women in poor countries is so overwhelmingly successful, then one would think that engaging women globally in financial empowerment will have far-reaching impacts for good. Social enterprises (SE) like Girl Effect have focused such approaches on girls in the developing world (seriously, check out the website, I dare you to find someone who doesn’t cry while they do!) while a relatively new SE in Australia, 10thousandgirl is aiming to empower women locally to take control of their finances so the next generation of both retired women, as well as working women, grow older with financial stability and security, whether or not they are partnered.

Hopefully movements such as these which encourage education and financial independence can be inclusive of the GLBTIQ communities locally and globally, as women without men for financial partners often suffer when society is built around the male breadwinner and the female homemaker. As much as our world is changing and moving away from this model, we know that pay equality is still a long way off, even in OECD countries like Australia. Of course, these figures are worse in the developing world. Australia is celebrating after a victory for the female dominated community welfare sector workers won an equal pay claim at the Fair Work Commission last week, however since then the celebration has degenerated into a fight about who will pay and how such fairness will be paid for.

Equal pay has long been the fight of feminism. After much scepticism about ruining a poignant moment in history, I watched the film Made in Dagenham with amazement last year as the Ford women joined and led a movement for equal pay for equal work. It was such a strong reminder that this was a radical notion not very long ago. When you think about how long and hard women across more than 3 generations have worked for it, the fact that the notion of equal pay is still met with cries of economic armageddon is quite outrageous. It’s taken for granted in many developed countries. I grew up with the knowledge that that fight had been “won”. Studying social work at university and realising the salaries of those in the community sector fixed that egalitarian view of society pretty quickly of course. But it’s also an example of why we need women in all areas of work, and thought. And not only women, but people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds so that discrimination and bias against many minority groups can be challenged, and assumptions which may be more true for one group of people can be called out as not very true for many other groups of people.

This extends to more than just equal pay of course, though this is the most glaring example of economics and feminist inter-relation. Economics is one powerful school of thought which is used time and time again to justify the status quo, and to reinforce and defend kyriarchical systems and structures within society. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to challenge this uncritical application of bad assumptions is to have champions within the economic schools of thought in order to call research and argument out when such assumptions are used.

Antipodes and Diversity

For a while now, I’ve been quite frustrated at the lack of value this country places on thought. This manifests itself in a number of very broad ways – it can be seen generally across our education system, particularly in secondary and tertiary systems, as well as the way we don’t value teachers, academics, writers and others whose realm is ideas, thought and concepts. So far the lucky-ness of this country has been transported from the sheep’s back to the mining boom, but where to from there?

Gillard’s education revolution, begun when I could still believe she believed in anything, could have been the beginning of a change in these values, but sadly I’m yet to see a single revolutionary anything as a result of the ‘reforms’. At the moment from what I can see, our education system from start to post-grad study finish values only mediocrity and ‘yeah, that’ll do’, much more than teaching real thought and challenging established ideas with new ones. There are much more eloquent people writing great things about how our education system can be improved, but the point I’m trying to make here is about value and how we convey value, particularly to those who are in the process of learning.

This of course has a huge impact on Australia’s culture – this can be explored through the complete lack of ideas jobs in Australia. If I want to work as an advocate, a researcher, a writer or a policy developer in the social sciences broadly, then I’m either going to work for/in government, perhaps for one of a handful of think-tanks or NGOs, or in a University. As far as I’ve been able to find, all the rest is done for love, not money. Which is fine, if you want a small number of people who are paid to think, and to foster an elite who are most likely not going to represent the diversity of people in Australia. This leads to stagnation of ideas, replication of the same kinds of research, and policy that is at risk of being developed in the absence of good evidence.

The broader ramification for this situation is that there are a whole lot of people who could make a fantastic contribution to the ideas and innovation economy in this country who are just blogging, article writing zombies in their free time because their ideas aren’t valued by everyone else enough to be in paid employment for them. This burning the candle at both ends is of course familiar terrain for many writers, and happens in many countries. But compare the amount of thinking jobs in Australia, and the diversity of the kinds of jobs, to ideas jobs in a country like the US, and you start to see that the stagnation of ideas in Australia really stems from a lack of value of ideas in the first place.

Very soon, Australia will be a Twentieth Century economy when the world has moved far beyond this. We are a naturally resource rich country, but these are finite resources and we cannot rely soley on this as the basis for our economy. Again, many people have written about the ‘two-speed’ economy which is currently occurring in Australia, with much more authority than I. But going forward, we are in the position to be leaders in technology and services – this requires investment in ideas, both research and development, as well as the education system that allows people to drive innovation. Similarly to science and technology, social sciences are suffocating under a lack of funding and support – some of our most prominent challenges will be attempted to be addressed via social policy (homelessness, inclusion, migration and integration, refugees, drug use and abuse, the list goes on) however we currently place no value on new and innovative ideas and research in the sector. How will Australia meet these challenges when we do not have the intellectual capacity to construct the policy to facilitate the change necessary to do this?