Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Solving wicked problems

Fiona Mueller

04 October 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Education is a ‘wicked problem’ if you go by Australian Public Service Commission criteria.

The APSC has long claimed that some policy areas are so complex that they are “highly resistant to resolution.”

Maybe that explains why truckloads of taxpayer dollars are being spent on myriad reviews of separate aspects of Australian education, with little evidence of any profound, long-term vision to bind them all together.

This is despite the OECD’s advice that solving complex problems demands a whole-of-system perspective and strategic thinking.

Just this year, in addition to a NAPLAN Reporting Review, projects include: a Senior Secondary Pathways Review; the Review of the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians; a NSW Curriculum Review; an Australian Qualifications Framework Review; a review of the ‘national education architecture’, a National Teacher Workforce Strategy, and the Early Childhood Education – Universal Access National Partnership. Given that work has already begun on the adoption of a new (and experimental) format as part of the ‘refinement’ of the existing Australian Curriculum, it is not easy to imagine how a planned review of that document in 2020 will complement all the other pieces.

Now there is also to be the sixth review of NAPLAN.

All this reviewing is a futile undertaking if it does not form part of simultaneous consideration of rigorous national academic standards for Kindergarten to Year 12, the design and content of the national curriculum, teacher capacity — and numerous other aspects of education that need more than fads to sustain them.

Education surely warrants the APSC’s call for “a broad recognition and understanding, including from governments and Ministers, that there are no quick fixes and simple solutions.”

OECD research recognises the challenges of ‘governing education in a complex world’ and notes that “creating the open, dynamic, and strategic governance systems necessary for governing complex systems is not easy.”

Nearly 250 billion dollars will be spent on Australian school education through to 2027, notwithstanding evidence of nation-wide failure to improve student outcomes. Complaints are loud about school leavers’ knowledge and skills, teacher quality, curriculum standards, assessment practices, student behaviour, equity and disadvantage, school funding models and many other issues.

The patient is suffering, but the medicos are treating the symptoms and not the illness. A fragmented, piecemeal approach to education policy reform almost guarantees that nothing will improve.

It’s a wicked problem, indeed.

Change of guard in culture battle

Peter Kurti

04 October 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

The departure of my colleague, Jeremy Sammut, from the Centre for Independent Studies after 12 years here caps a very fruitful and productive career in policy research.

Jeremy’s work in health policy, child protection, and adoption brought him to national — and influential — prominence, and he helped shape the ways governments responded to these pressing issues.

Over the past year, Jeremy’s attention has been directed towards issues of culture and society as he directed the new CIS program Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society.

The program was established to articulate and defend the key principles that form the foundation of a free and liberal democratic society and an open economy.

Even in its infancy, the CP&CS program has produced a significant body of work on corporate social responsibility, religious freedom, euthanasia, free speech in universities, culture, and hate speech.

Jeremy’s ability quickly to understand complex issues and then to formulate concise responses intended to help address those issues was crucial in establishing the authority and scope of the program.

While his work at the CIS is finished, the work of the program is not — and there is much to be done. Appointed recently to helm it into the future, my role is to ensure that it carries on the path started by Jeremy.

As the federal government gathers responses to its exposure draft bill on religious discrimination bill, the program will continue to contribute to the ongoing national debate about religious freedom.

We will soon publish research on attitudes to religious freedom; and also on antisemitism — a very specific form of religious and ethnic vilification.

We will continue as watchdogs guarding against the identity politics that have become the scourge of a free society by politicising differences and creating special privileges for some at the expense of others.

In a free and open society, we also need to be on guard against the tyranny that would enforce ideological conformity on matters of faith, sexuality and race – all done in the name of ‘diversity’.

Many Australians are very worried about the direction in which the country is heading, and they are alarmed by illiberal attempts to regulate how people think, speak and act.

The work of the CP&CS remains focused on providing leadership on precisely those matters of culture and society at a time when so many fear for the future of a country they know and love.

Jeremy’s departure from CIS draws the first period of the CP&CS program to a close. But the second period now begins — with the continuing fight to ensure Australia remains prosperous, free, and open.

Uni lifts standards pinpointed in CIS paper

Salvatore Babones

04 October 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Some of Australia’s most prestigious universities are starting to make sensible changes when it comes to international student recruitment. In recent weeks, the University of Melbourne has eliminated language on its website that seemed to encourage international students to take a casual approach to English language standards. This positive development comes in the wake of CIS research that highlighted potential problems with the recruitment practices of Australian universities’ English-language ‘foundation programs’.

The China Student Boom and the Risks It Poses to Australian Universities pulled together data from universities, state and federal agencies, foreign governments, international organisations, and press reports to present a full picture of the risks being taken by Australian universities in enrolling unprecedented numbers of Chinese students.

The University of Melbourne had previously explicitly pitched its foundation programs to students who “don’t meet entry requirements” and suggested they could take ‘equivalent’ tests or subjects as alternative pathways to admission. But now the university more responsibly encourages students to explore admissions options without suggesting that the alternatives are any less rigorous than the usual entry requirements.

It may not sound like much, but it’s a good start. Compare the improvements at Melbourne with marketing at the University of Sydney, which advertises that if a student is “unable to meet the minimum academic requirements for undergraduate study”, its foundation program “could be your ticket to study with us.” Other leading universities — such as ANU and Queensland — feature similarly enticing language. They seem to treat their foundation programs more as services for sale than as rigorous educational experiences requiring hard work and perseverance.

The University of Melbourne’s reforms are cosmetic, but important. Marketing may sound like a frivolous issue, but it sets expectations that stay with students throughout their studies. If other universities follow Melbourne’s lead, we can start a race to the top in international student recruitment. The higher we set our sights, the higher our students will set theirs.