Why education should be free to everyone

With an education system increasingly set on squeezing all students into a tiny classroom, there are signs that some students are getting a little too excited about their education.

A new report from the Australian Centre for Educational Research and Evaluation (ACER) found that while the quality of schools in Australia remains good, the number of people able to attend is falling.

While this is not the same as being “in the classroom”, it’s clear there is a gap in opportunities for people who are low to middle income.

The report, which has been released ahead of the National College of Nursing and Dentistry’s annual conference, said a majority of Australians who attended a school at least once in their lives were either low to mid income or in the lower middle income bracket.

ACER chief executive officer Andrew Rau says the number is an important indicator of access and affordability.

“It is one of the key indicators that shows the affordability of the education system,” he said.

“It’s one of those things that is very often used by parents who are worried that they are not getting the quality education that they want.”

While a higher education system that includes a strong academic sector, including tertiary education, would have a positive impact on people’s lives, it would be good to see a system where all Australians could access a good education and get the right support, he said, pointing to the Government’s $10,000-a-year scholarship scheme for tertiary students.

Professor Rau said it was important to remember that the primary goal of any education system is to give everyone the best possible chance of graduating from high school, not just the best of the best.

We should also remember that education has a much bigger role to play in the lives of the disadvantaged and those who are older, the more than 50 per cent of the population aged over 65 who do not have a university degree, Professor Rau noted.

With the number falling, he suggested there could be an increase in enrolment, but he said this was likely to be driven by low income Australians who are likely to leave school early.

While the Government has made encouraging announcements to boost enrolment at schools and to ensure access to education for all Australians, Professor Pauline Hochberg from the Institute of Public Affairs says this will be difficult to achieve for some groups.

She says the Government should make sure the primary target of all schools is to get the best students to the best schools.

“There’s a lot of things that are going to be harder for disadvantaged groups to get to the top schools,” she said.

“If they’re going to get there, they have to get on top of a lot more barriers that are out there.”

The Government should be doing more to try and support people who have not got the right education and who are not ready for that education, so they’re able to have a better life, she said, adding that education should not be a “free lunch”.

“The more you squeeze the system to the point where it is no longer affordable, the less likely you are to have that type of society in the future,” she noted.

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