Education is a key issue in every election (along with health, and the economy). With these high salience issues there’s always a great deal more detail and nuance than in a transient issue (like for example, Adani) because everyone has had some experience or some connection to education, it feeds into many other issues, and it’s never going away.
We began as always by asking what education means to our respondents in a political context, and very few answered literally with something like ‘schools’. Funding, and frustration around equitable funding for schools in particular was commonly mentioned, as was politicians using schools, TAFE and universities for political purposes (from staging photo ops or cheap sound bites about ‘our kids’, through to grants for schools in their electorates). Class sizes, the curriculum, the quality of teaching, and respect for teachers were also frequently mentioned. A smaller number talked of the value of education, to the economy, society, and as the bedrock of our future.
There were four specific issues we probed into – two for schools: NAPLAN and school chaplains, and two for higher education: student fees and demand driven university funding. The only one with a clear consensus opinion was the school chaplaincy funding.
NAPLAN does invoke some strong opinions, particularly from parents whose kids don’t deal well with the stress of the test. While there is no consensus on whether NAPLAN is good (33%) or bad (32%), there was a very consistent refrain in the comments – as you can see from the 7% of respondents which used ‘other’ and wrote the same thing: benchmark testing is fine as a concept, having data is good, but the way it is being used – the league tables, publishing the numbers, scores being used to get into private schools, and the ‘teaching to the test’ that results from the way the data is being used – are bad. This sentiment crossed all demographics and partisan leanings.
Good in theory (good to see how kids are tracking and whether they’re meeting outcomes) but awful in practise because ranking schools against each other based on NAPLAN results is awful for the kids, and makes teaching even more difficult for teachers.
28 year old female voter
When their value becomes “how well is that school doing” rather than “how well is that student doing and how can I/we enhance their learning”, then the NAPLAN is serving the wrong purpose.
57 year old male voter
I think their original intent (to identify areas across school that needed more focus) was valid but they are now used to compare schools and get kids into private schools so are no longer something I support.
46 year old female voter
The concept is great – to find where the areas of need lie. But the hijacking of it to grade schools, teachers and students is just plain wrong.
73 year old male voter
This has long been a contentious issue, and a highly partisan one, so the clear results here are not that surprising. Clear opposition, and most of that opposition is coming from the left… but not all of it. Aside from the 3 points of Coalition voters that are opposed, which is larger than I expected, there are some minor party right wing – including those supporting religious parties – that oppose it. Similarly, there are Greens and Labor party voters that support it. The strong support from the Hanson base is also surprising, given they don’t generally profile as being particularly religious, however a number of those conditioned their support with restricting it to certain religions.
The comments were unfortunately not very illuminating – some stated simple premises of religion shouldn’t be in schools, or it’s a parents responsibility. One conservative did give us some insight into opposition: it funds chaplains from religions other than Christianity, and they weren’t ok with that. There was also some ‘noise’ or interference with people talking about George Pell, making an argument for why religious figures shouldn’t be allowed around children. On the other side of those supporting it that you wouldn’t expect, there were anecdotes of positive support from chaplains that didn’t have any religious overtones, or that a chaplain was better than nothing.
The issue of whether higher education students should pay for their own education is a vexed one, as there are two diametrically opposed forces pulling at each other – first, the genuinely good desire that people should have access to education, and the second, being economically responsible. The question as presented deliberately pointed to the moral dilemma with two of the intermediate alternatives (other than the current HECS/HELP system of a student contribution paid via a loan): “Some should, some shouldn’t (e.g. degrees in the national interest should be free, or people from disadvantaged backgrounds shouldn’t have to pay)” and “The first degree should be free, after that they should pay”. As far as I know, neither of these positions are any party’s policy, although some do talk about free degrees/courses for either the national interest OR people from disadvantaged backgrounds, they usually aren’t the same parties; and the first degree/course free was developed from initial testing and a feeling that a step was required between free and free for certain people or courses. The very low figures for either university or TAFE students paying for all of it should cheer education advocates.
Many commenters expressed concerns around who decides who gets what if there are free degrees for some, the current contribution levels being too onerous, and issues with the current funding per student structure. Alternative solutions were also offered, like refunding students as they pass, or other mechanisms to make students who drop out or don’t apply themselves pay.
I’d go for ‘some should, some shouldn’t’, but it would be hard to sort out who qualified for what. It could lead to a lot of problems, fiddling, and unfairness.
88 year old female voter
Having had the benefit of predominantly free undergrad and post grad degrees, and then having paid taxes for more than 40 years, I think that the cost of tertiary education is paid back over time. My children, on the other hand, finished uni with debts of $35,000 and $40,000, which is ridiculous. Perhaps there is room for a co-contribution, but to start your working life with this sort of debt is difficult. I think there should be time limits on years supported to finish a degree, with some special circumstances for extensions being allowed.
65 year old female voter
I think education should be free, it is a social good. However, the current system where uni’s get paid for each student is flawed in that uni’s are creating ‘popular’ courses that are not beneficial to society. eg all the computer gaming courses that are available where there are very few careers. An education has more benefits (how to research, reason, prepare logical arguments..) but trade specific degrees like gaming and film and television, I think, are of questionable benefit to society.
58 year old male voter
There was a notable difference in dentiment between TAFE and University students paying for their respective education. Some participants were quite firm that career orientated TAFE courses should be the only free or subsidised ones… if you’re doing a course for personal enrichment in, say, some type of art or craft, you should pay for that. There were many that the compulsory courses as part of apprenticeships should be absolutely free, as should the education alternative courses, such as people doing their HSC through TAFE. The ‘first course should be free’ numbers are also lower than the University equivalent because of the staggered certificate approach of TAFE, and that you may need to do many courses for your trade or required work learning. It was also noted that a student may still not be ‘work ready’ on completion of a particular TAFE course, and their likely earning power was considerably less than a university student, thus a TAFE student could not be expected to pay such large contributions, and because they will take longer to pay them off and indeed may not be able to pay anything for some time, that no interest should be charged on any TAFE HELP loans.
Demand driven university funding used to be a bipartisan position, so it’s a little unusual that the partisan split here is so clear (other than the question was framed in a partisan way, which does tend to lead to people supporting their party line). As there was no clear consensus on where it was good (29% support) or bad (35% oppose), the comments do become quite illuminating. There were a large number of respondents using the ‘other’ option to indicate a condition on their support or opposition. The phrase ‘bums on seats’ (as a bad thing) was frequently used, notably by a number of people who identified themselves as having experience working in the university sector, as well as concerns about decreasing quality of education, devaluing degrees and resulting in a lot of unemployable graduates. And the obvious concern: it not being economically viable.
I think universities should be able to offer unlimited numbers of student places but serious safeguards need to be in place to ensure the system does not provide financial incentives to maximise student numbers at the expense of degree quality and usefulness or academic standards, etc. Universities have been turned into businesses by government and many are cash-strapped, so they will respond to the financial incentives built into the system. The incentives have to promote genuine educational needs and goals of students and society, not just reward bums-on-seats.
55 year old female voter
I’m not sure. I like the idea of everyone being able to study what they want, but the reality is that can only go so far, as there’s not an infinite bucket of funds, or indeed buildings in which to house “unlimited” students. Unlimited can’t actually and absolutely apply.
53 year old male voter
Yes, as long as hard numbers of jobs available for certain courses are made clear when enrolling – kids deserve to know that an average of 30 people from their course get a job each year and that they are currently the 589th person enrolling.
33 year old female voter
Unsurprisingly for an issue like education, it is a significant factor in the decision making process for many voters. However, it’s not the type of issue that lends itself to single issue voters – there were 3 in the sample.
Thanks as always to all our participants. This is the very last issue short survey. Panel members can complete any of the issue surveys they have missed from the Surveys page. IF you’re not a member of the Panel, you have until April 10 to sign up.