Issue Analysis

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Valuing Education: A Response to the Australia Institute Report 'Buying an Education'

Jennifer Buckingham | IA43 | 21 January 2004

The Australia Institute recently published a report called Buying An Education: Where Are The Returns Highest?. The author of the report, Richard Denniss, argues that parents would be wiser to save the money they might spend on non-government schooling, and use it to pay for a full-fee university place.

This argument rests on two claims. First, that schools do not directly affect achievement, so non-government schools are not worth the expense. Second, that anyone with enough money will be able to enrol in the course of their choice at their preferred university.

This paper shows that the evidence used by Denniss to support these claims is flawed:

  • The report suggests that the cost of a non-government school education is higher than the cost of a public school education, and is increasing at a greater rate. They are, in fact, very similar when all categories of expenditure are taken into account.
  • The report erroneously assumes that parents choose non-government schools mainly for academic reasons, and as a means of accessing university.
  • The evidence presented to establish that socioeconomic status is more important than the school attended, and that non-government schools do not offer any educational advantage, misinterprets and misrepresents the research cited.
  • Universities cannot offer an indefinite number of full-fee places to anyone who wants one, and the places they do offer are in addition to government-funded HECS places.

It is impossible for parents to predict whether their child will have to pay for their university education, or whether full-fee places will even exist then. Parents have to make decisions about what is best for their children in the short, medium and long term. This is to ensure their children receive a quality education.

There is good evidence that non-government schools, on average, offer an educational advantage. Such broad stroke comparisons may not apply to individual schools, however. The fact that parents can only compare school sectors, rather than individual schools on their merits, is one of the far more important problems in education that the Australia Institute report fails to address.

Jennifer Buckingham is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies. She is the author of numerous publications on school education, including Schools in the Spotlight: School Performance Reporting and Public Accountability (2003) and Families, Freedom and Education: Why School Choice Makes Sense (2001).

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