Australia: Union calls for increased public education funding to reduce ‘vast inequities’ in sector

published 27 November 2020 updated 1 December 2020

The Australian Education Union (AEU) has reiterated its demand for increased and proper funding of public education. Its call comes as the COVID-19 pandemic highlights long-standing inequities in education.

On 17 November, the AEU issued a statement calling for the increase in public education funding. Such funding is vital, it said, as investment in public education delivers benefits to students and communities now and into the future

“Public education provides every child with the opportunity to reach their full potential. It improves health and employment outcomes, boosts informed participation in society, and promotes equality,” the union said.

Investment in education leads to higher tax take by government

It insisted that investment in education also increases earnings. Those with post-secondary qualifications earn an average of 20 to 40 per cent more than those without. That means government revenues are increased through the tax paid on higher incomes.

While spending on schools provides a direct and immediate economic stimulus, the long-term benefits to students and communities are arguably even more valuable, the AEU said. Public schools provide a rich education for students, with teachers striving to meet the needs of every child. However, schools are not properly funded.

Public schools below minimum funding benchmark

However, the educators’ union stressed that, by 2023, most public schools will remain below the minimum funding benchmark, the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS), while all private schools will be at or above the target.

The shortfall in funding for public schools is A$16.3 billion in the current parliamentary term alone. This will climb to A$22.7 billion dollars by 2023, according to AEU analysis.

In addition, a 2018 Public Education Foundation study calculated the national cost of education inequity over a six-year period at A$20.3 billion dollars, equivalent to 1.2 per cent of Gross Domestic Product.

The Public Education Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that provides scholarships to young people in public education as well as their teachers and principals.

The study’s solutions included targeted teaching and extra teachers, alternative learning programmes, and a firm commitment to needs-based funding for schools.

The AEU has told a Senate inquiry into the government’s response to COVID-19 that an immediate injection of funds to bring all schools to 100 per cent of SRS was now urgently required.

“Proper funding will not only help to bridge the equity and achievement gaps between students from high and low socioeconomic households, but extra work is now needed to support students who have fallen behind during remote learning,” AEU federal president Correna Haythorpe stressed.

Capital investment urgent

Another important area in need of proper federal funding is school infrastructure, the AEU insisted.

Public school enrolments grew by 263,534 students in the decade to 2018, an increase of 10.3 per cent. New schools are needed to accommodate these students and existing schools must be improved to increase capacity, said the union.

“A guaranteed long-term, federally funded capital works package is critical,” according to Haythorpe. “Existing schools need new classrooms, libraries, heating and cooling and sport facilities to properly accommodate students now and to provide for the coming increase in enrolment.”

A federally funded school-building programme, developed when government borrowing is cheaper than ever, would also provide a valuable stimulus to Australia’s construction and manufacturing industries and drive employment, she said.

A “vast inequity” among schools

The AEU’s Senate inquiry submission says the “vast inequity” in the way federal government funding is distributed to schools means that many students are not provided with the additional resources required to enable them to overcome their disadvantage.

“If Australia is to recover and return to growth following the current economic shock, the upcoming 2020 Budget will have to provide very significant stimulus,” the submission says. “This stimulus should be targeted where it can have the most immediate and long-term impact.”

Looking to the future

Haythorpe also insisted that the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted long-standing inequities in education, and that, “as a priority, governments must put public education first with a significant investment to address that inequity”.

Many students are from disadvantaged backgrounds and their families have been deeply affected by this crisis, she explained.

In communities across Australia, education is the “stabilising factor” for children, “as it not only leads to better life outcomes for individual students but enormous long-term benefits to society, the economy and the entire country”, Haythorpe added.

It is imperative that governments invest in public education to remove inequality and make sure that every child receives the education they need, she concluded.

Schools funding action plan

The AEU is calling on the federal government to:

  • Provide true needs-based funding to Australia’s schools.
  • Immediately invest funds to bring all schools to 100 per cent of the SRS, with associated loadings for students with complex needs.
  • Create a guaranteed long-term, federally funded capital works package.