Investment counts… even in education

There is a long tradition of claiming that education spending has increased by various dramatic amounts in Australia, but any careful examination of these claims shows that they are either false or meaningless.

The original figure, which is meaningless, has been repeated and exaggerated ever since the Grattan Institute’s original sloppy claim that a 44 per cent increase in total spending occurred in the nine financial years to 2008-09, a claim that now has a life of its own and that keeps getting changed and exaggerated by the gullible. Sometimes it is 40 per cent; sometimes it is 40-50 per cent. Sometimes it is over ten years; sometimes it is over nine years. Sometimes it is over the last decade. Sometimes it is earlier. Sometimes it is total spending; sometimes it is spending per student:

Frank Furedi - a large increase (“Raise status of teachers, add some authority and watch our students blossom”, 3-4/3/2012, The Australian);

Ben Jensen - 40 per cent between 2000 and 2009 (“Funding consensus of school sectors the real test”, 6/3/12, The Australian);

Scott Prasser - 44 per cent (“AEU blitz a class in bully tactics”, 4/7/2012, The Australian):

Paul Kelly - 44 per cent over the 2000-2009 decade (“Wake-up calls on Asia century”, 16-17/6/12, The Australian);

Christopher Pyne - 44 per cent over the past decade (“Better teachers, not more, the ‘education revolution’ we need”, 21-22/7/12, The Australian);

Christopher Pyne - 44 per cent in the last 10 years (“Labor’s ‘top five’ goal for schools”, 3/9/12, The Australian);

Barry O’Farrell - 40-50 per cent over the past decade (“Do the maths: states cut as Gonski gives”, 13/9/12, The Australian);

Martin Dixon’s - 40 per cent over the past decade (“Student testing to step up a notch”, 12/12/12, The Age);

Bjorn Lomborg - “growth in education spending rose by 44 per cent in the past decade” (“Let’s talk about our future”, The Weekend Australian, 9-10/11/2013).

Judith Sloan has the prize for the greatest exaggeration; viz., that real per-student recurrent spending had risen by nearly 50 per cent in the 2000s (“Why I don’t give a Gonski for more school spending”, The Australian, 28/8/2012). She backed away slightly in her next claim by saying that it was a more than 40 per cent “increase in real-per-student spending” (“ALP’s school zeal will have to wait until 2525”, The Australian, 4/9/2012)

The assertion is also made in various forms on The Drum and other ABC programs without anyone challenging it.

The facts are given in the National Reports on Schooling in Australia, which show that government spending per student in Australia was $8,115 in 1999-2000 ($11,731 in 2012 dollars) and $13,544 in 2008-09 ($14,637 in 2012 dollars). That is a real increase of only 24.7 per cent,

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports a real increase in per capita GDP over the ten years from 1998-99 to 2008-09 of 24.4 per cent. The relevance of this is that the salaries of teachers have to keep up to some extent with the general living standards of the population as a whole. Does anyone really think we would attract able people to teaching and retain them if that 24.7 per cent increase in education spending had not occurred and, as a consequence, the top Victorian teacher salary was now only $70,449 and the beginning salary was now only $46,184?

Other figures are given for different periods, but they suffer from the same meaninglessness.

Andrew Leigh gives an increase in real expenditure per student of 333 per cent in between 1964 and 2003 ( Those who say this increase is unjustified should do the exercise in reverse. We can do that by cutting teacher salaries by 77 per cent (i.e., to $21,518 for the top classroom level in Victoria) or by increasing the maximum class size by 333 per cent (i.e., to 108 students in a secondary school), or by increasing teaching loads by 333 per cent (i.e., to 97 hours a week in a primary school), or by some combination.

Others make meaningless comparisons with other countries claiming that they spend less than Australia does on education. South Korea spends less per student than we do because it is a poorer country. OECD figures show that it actually spends 20 per cent of its per capita GDP on each primary student (compared with Australia’s 17 per cent) and 30 per cent on each secondary student (compared with Australia’s 23 per cent). Again education spending has to be examined relative to the overall income standards in the country.

The most revealing thing about this issue is the gullibility of the media, whose members never think to ask a probing question.

Chris Curtis