University of Sydney

School choice: why are more parents picking private over public?

More students than ever before are being enrolled in Australia’s private schools, according to new data on school choice from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. Most states and territories have experienced a similar trend. Even before current increases Australia had among the highest proportion of kids enrolled at non government schools in the OECD.

Why are private schools growing in Australia?

The growth tends to be concentrated in what’s called the lower-fee sector although that can still be a burden – two or three children at school at $5,000 per child before tax income, so it is still quite an expense. By far the highest growth has occurred in the newer, non-elite non-government schools. This group of schools is heavily funded by governments. 

I think there is a mystique around private schools – parents feel that they’re doing the right thing by their children by sending them to private schools. I get asked a lot about values.

What does ‘values’ actually mean?

Public schools have very good values, the most important of which is their fundamental mission to welcome all children. When people talk about values in relation to private schools I get quite irritated because I think of all the reasons why you might choose one school or another, ‘values’ are not really the reason unless you are thinking about a particular religious set of values and religious beliefs. 

The majority of private schools belong to the more traditional Christian churches, the Christian denominations Catholic or Protestant. So  in terms of values, the schools that have the strongest anti-discrimination values, for example, are actually the public schools. Those are values. Anything else is a myth.

When it comes to school choice, does it benefit someone to go to a private school or public school in the long term, in terms of either earnings or job success?

The big difference is to do with other factors: social class is the big factor statistically that shapes people’s outcomes.  Success comes in all sorts of different individual experiences.

Some people from very modest backgrounds go on to the highest offices of the land. Former Prime Ministers John Howard, Julia Gillard, Scott Morrison all attended public schools. Current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese went to a Catholic school.

The correlation between class and schooling success

And some people from extraordinarily privileged backgrounds go belly up. Statistically speaking there’s a very strong, long-term and robust correlation between family wealth, or social class or whatever measure you’re going to use, and schooling success. In a wealthy country like Australia, that’s pretty shameful. It’s much stronger than it should be. 

It’s very easy to blame the media. I think media report things that are interesting, and that have conflict, and the discussion about sending your kids to which school you send your kids is a bit of a backyard conversation, a topic among parents. People have arguments about school choice. People hold passionate views, they disagree about it. Sometimes parents disagree with each other. Sometimes grandparents disagree with their children about where the grandchildren are sent. It’s a cause of struggle and interest and so I think that’s where the media interest comes from. There are also widely publicised issues public schools face, such as teacher shortages, which may contribute to parents considering private options.

There has been a long-term disparagement of public schools, there’s been many people talking them down. It is very hard for public school leaders. If they don’t talk about the crisis and the resources, how are they going to get anything done? On the other hand, if parents hear about teacher shortages, they’re naturally going to get very worried.

In a sense, Catholic schools have Catholic offices to lobby for them–as a day job. The private schools have various peak bodies to lobby for them.

Who lobbies for public schools?

No one has the day job of lobbying for public schools yet they still enrol the majority of Australian kids and presumably the majority of Australian parents are pretty happy with their local public school.

We are currently undoubtedly facing a crisis in the nation’s public schools. Now, that’s not all public schools. It’s very much determined by certain localities and certain sort of clusters of areas where there are problems. 

Public school people are in a real bind. If leaders of public schools say nothing, and they say everything’s fine, how are the problems ever going to get addressed? 

And yet if they talk about how much they need more resources, which they do then it has this effect of implying that the education that they’re offering is below standard and one thing we know about parents is that they are absolutely risk-averse. 

That’s their job description, parents’ job description is to be risk averse. If you’re reading in the newspapers, if you’re listening to the radio or you might even see the local public school with, you know, demountable walls or falling-down buildings, your natural instinct is to do what you can to to send your child somewhere else.

Those thousands of unstaffed classrooms across the nation have an impact on parental school choice.  How could it not? If you’re hearing that your child might not have a maths teacher, what are you going to do? 

What impacts school choice?

Of course, you’re going to make a certain set of decisions. I would say to parents, have a look at your local school and see how your local schools are going, because it may well be that you’re not in it in an area where there are those shortages. 

But yes, of course, people are going to be worried about that. And that’s not to say anything about the abiding quality of public education or the dedication and commitment of public school teachers. It’s to say that it’s shameful that a wealthy country like Australia cannot find it in its coffers to properly fund public education.

We know that public schools are the only schools that systematically enrol all children, they enrol all children in an area, they enrol all children,  no matter how savvy their parents are, no matter how wealthy their parents are, no matter what kind of connections that parents have. And so it absolutely is critical to all of us, whether we send our own kids public or private to have a really strong public sector. 

It’s a question of national importance.

Helen Proctor is a professor of education at the University of Sydney, with a research interest in how schools shape social life beyond the school gate. She uses historical methods to examine the making of contemporary educational systems by focussing on the changing relationships between schools, families and ‘communities’.

What teachers need now to survive (hint: not this old trick)

The advice given to teachers entering the classroom for the first time is often ‘Don’t smile until Easter’. The expression suggests hostility, attempting to place the teacher as the enforcer and the one who will wield the power for the year. 

While the phrase might still ring true for some teachers, we, as teachers, are dealing with very different classrooms and students today that require a more socio-emotional approach. Classrooms are more heterogeneous than ever; the breadth of diversity and needs of students has grown. Students are entering the classroom with ever more diagnosed and undiagnosed disabilities, and growing wellbeing issues. 

The classroom can and should provide a warm, safe learning environment where students feel known and cared for. And whilst such an approach is highly applicable in primary schools, it also has its place in secondary classrooms. 

Teaching is social and emotional

We know teaching is a social and emotional practice, and using the first weeks of the term to build positive connections with students can have long term benefits for both teachers and students. Research tells us that positive teacher-student relationships can assist positive social and emotional development in students; influence student motivation and engagement; improve academic outcomes;  support at-risk students; provide a sense of belonging for students; and are beneficial for teachers and their wellbeing. The research is there, but how do teachers build these relationships in the classroom, especially in secondary schools when teachers often teach up to 180 students per week?

My research into teacher-student interactions in the classroom, collected data from 42 teachers across NSW secondary schools, covering all sectors and spanning 17 disciplines. I was curious to know how teachers interact with students in their classrooms to build teacher-student relationships and whether a teachers’ workload may be compromising these relationships. Many of the practices observed and counted are evidence-informed and low cost, high gain. The practices were split into those that teachers can proactively implement directly and those that indirectly contribute to creating and maintaining an optimal learning environment. 

Eye-contact, a warm voice and good manners

The early findings give insights into how teachers are navigating the classroom and their relational interactions with students (Figure 1). Highest counts came from teachers providing genuine praise, modelling respect, reflective and supportive listening, getting to know students and providing feedback. Teachers effectively used praise during lessons for positive behaviour, academic work and actions of individuals or a collective group. They modelled respect through eye-contact, a warm voice and good manners. Supportive and reflective listening through shared dialogue was characterised by teachers reflecting on a student’s thought or idea by supportively listening, then converting that thinking into further thinking and inquiry. Feedback came in the form of verbal advice to students of ways to improve and develop their thoughts. And teachers shared stories of themselves, and used familiar ‘teenage’ or contemporary examples to explain work or reference a students’ interest, to demonstrate knowing their students. 

Figure 1: Counted practices

Hello and goodbye

Two of the simplest techniques, positive greetings and farewells, which were only counted once per lesson, recorded one the lowest of counts. Over a third of teachers didn’t positively greet their students and a quarter of teachers didn’t finish the lesson with a positive farewell. This could reflect a number of things prevalent in the observation of lessons and the teacher interviews; the constant time constraints that teachers face such as the need to work through content or towards an assessment meant that teachers started lessons immediately with little personalisation; or the time it takes to travel to a new classroom each lesson, provide paper, pens and equipment for students, and student lateness often chewed up the time to genuinely greet students. The lack of time to build quality relationships was evidently a major concern for teachers in post interviews, claiming:

 “It’s a bit more of a lack of a chance to talk with them. There’s a lot of…’everything needs to be doing’ things all of the time and that lack of…slowdown to sort of have a chat with them and see them as people, to get them to see you as a person”. (Teacher 21)

“I wish that I had more time to interact with them in the classroom and I wish I had more time to interact with their drafts and things like that and give them that timely feedback. And I think that the fact that I don’t. I just have to go “You’ll be ok”  that makes me feel like I’m not doing enough for them.” (Teacher 28 )

What gets in the way

Many of the lower counts came from interpersonal practices that teachers adopt and can indirectly affect the teacher-student relationship and shape the learning climate (see red in Figure 1). These teacher actions can be done before and during the lesson. They help structure the learning environment, set the expectations and manage students positively. It is a way for teachers to bolster student confidence, build trust, and set and uphold classroom expectations. None of the 42 teachers in this study found time to write in a diary or provide a positive note to parents during the two observed lessons. Instead, time was taken up with constantly documenting student misbehaviour and negative incidences, all of which must be logged. A teacher reported:

I try to make a phone call to parents and say this kid has been good, but I just don’t have the time. I have 3 or 4 ‘negative’ calls to make, to inform a parent that their child is not working in class. (Teacher 23)

What do teachers value

Secondary school lessons can range from 40 to 75 minutes with the expectation that students sit still for the duration of the lesson. Studies show that small movement breaks contribute to less disruptions and better student concentration. Lesson time is often the most inactive part of a student’s day at school with the expectation, in a traditional sense, that students sit, listen and partake in learning. Three quarters of teachers provided no movement breaks during their lessons, even when observing students falling asleep and heads on table. Many lessons observed lacked peer collaborative strategies and student choice of their learning which can contribute to student motivation. Teachers reported resorting to ‘lecture style’ teaching or ‘talk-and-chalk’ due to the demands of additional work or workload which took away from planning and preparing for more engaging, student-centred lessons.  

Teachers were also asked what they value in their teaching, with 42.9% stating relationships, and 57.1%  stating other factors such as the curriculum, getting through the content, planning and preparation, and student understanding. Many of these teachers, speaking about how they form relationships with students, were unclear how this happens, whilst others spoke about specific tasks they may do at the beginning of the year as a way of getting to know their students.


These involved asking students to write introductory letters; informing students about yourself and your interests; learning their names and using them regularly; collaborative making of classroom rules, goals and expectations; playing ‘getting to know others’ bingo; or general discussions, either as a group or individually about likes, dislikes, interests etc. Much of the research, using student voice, reported care as a quality students want to see in teachers often commenting that the teacher doesn’t know them personally. Students also respect teacher competence; not being able to ‘run the room’ can be the quickest way to lose the students. 

Teachers influence their students, not only through their pedagogy and behaviour, but also in teaching and modelling social and emotional constructs. Creating positive teacher-student relationships is not about making friends. As the adults in the room, teachers instruct, direct and guide their students and their behaviour, not hesitating when difficulties arise. But also as the adult and leader in the room, teachers can help students feel safe, known and cared for, something which might not be happening at home.

Smile on day one?

So perhaps standing by the belief of  “Don’t smile until Easter” is an outdated adage. Instead, bring the humanness back to teaching; show a little of yourself, bring humour, get to genuinely know students and show you care. Underpin this with established routines and structure, transparency and predictability, and trust, to create a conducive learning environment that builds strong teacher-student relationships.  

Julianna Libro is a PhD candidate at The University of Sydney. She is interested in teachers’ growing workload and the consequences this has on teachers themselves, their practice and relationships with students. Julianna has over 20 years teaching experience in secondary schools as an English and History teacher and has taken on a variety of leadership roles throughout her career. Recently, Julianna presented her initial findings at ICERI Conference in Seville, Spain and AARE, Melbourne.

Special schools: should they be phased out?

Even before the release of the Final Report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, the differing views on segregated settings for people with disability in education received media attention. Soon the debate was framed around the closing of special schools. Acknowledging the calls for a faster phase-out, I focus on the first step of the proposal to phase out special settings. I see a need to better understand special/segregated settings in the process of phasing them out. 

Is change possible? 

For a long time, Australian governments have supported a dual system of education for students with disability. Hence, changing course won’t be a natural reflex but an act of vision. Australia has invested in providing support for the nearly one million school students (just over one-fifth of total enrolment) receiving disability adjustments (ACARA) across all settings. This is now a historical opportunity to prioritise inclusive equality towards a unified system for all. 

The Commission was tasked to identify “what should be done to promote a more inclusive society that supports the independence of people with disability and their right to live free from violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation”. It operated within a Human Rights approach informed at international level by the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). 

The CRPD’s understanding of equality moves beyond formal equality, i.e., treating everybody the same. It promotes substantive equality, i.e., the provision of different treatment such as adjustments for achieving equitable outcomes. It also introduces inclusive equality, which looks to reshape the way society is structured. A human rights approach requires a shift of deep-seated beliefs, attitudes, practices, and responses to disability.

What are the divergent positions?

The Commissioners themselves expressed divergent views on segregated settings for people with disability in education, housing and employment. But all Commissioners agreed that the current education system needs to be transformed to become more inclusive. They differ on the role and future of educational segregated settings.

Phasing out of special/segregated settings. Three Commissioners with lived experience of disability – Bennet, Galbally and McEwin – recommend phasing-out and ending special/segregated education over 28 years. They perceive such settings as incompatible with an inclusive society and linked to abuse and low educational, social and employment outcomes.

Maintaining of ‘non-mainstream’ settings, increasing their proximity and interactions with mainstream settings. The Chair, Sackville, and Commissioners Mason and Ryan prefer the use of the ‘non-mainstream settings’ term. They perceive them as compatible with an inclusive education system when the choice to attend is ‘free’, and interactions between students with and without disability are cultivated. They emphasise the provision of such settings for ‘students with complex support needs’ and prioritise ‘parental choice’.

What would happen if the phasing out of special/segregated settings starts next year?

The proposal for phasing out special settings includes six phases:

  • Phase 1: 2024-2025: Agreement to a national inclusive education roadmap
  • Phase 2: 2026-2027: Preparation for implementation
  • Phase 3: 2027-2035: Transformation of mainstream education
  • Phase 4: 2032: No new enrolments of children with disability in special/segregated schools
  • Phase 5: 2041: No new placements of children with disability in special/segregated units or classes
  • Phase 6: 2051: By the end of 2051, all students previously in special/segregated schools have finished their education.

The central aim of the proposal is to transform mainstream education. For existing segregated settings, changes will take place in later phases. But phase 1 requires “no new special/segregated schools being built, or new special/segregated classes or units being included within schools replacing education in a mainstream classroom from 2025.” 

This will halt the trend of growth in segregated settings provision, re-allocating resources and planning priorities.

Special schools

A conversation around special schools is needed. 

There were just over 50,000 students attending special schools in 2021. Nearly 47000 were funded for having a disability under the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability (NCCD). The report defines these special schools as“schools exclusively or primarily enrolling children and young people with complex support needs”. The number of schools  increased  from 414 in 2010 to 520 in 2022 – an increase of 26 per cent. And that increase is predominantly in independent schools (from 55 to 132, 140% increase), Catholic School system (additional 20 schools, 74% increase) and nine schools in the government sector (2.7% increase).

The report doesn’t distinguish

The report doesn’t explicitly distinguish between two types of ‘special schools’ as per the Australian Education Act 2013

–        Special Schools catering exclusively for students with disability and for which a diagnosis of disability is an enrolment condition

–        Special Assistance Schools which cater for students with social, emotional or behavioural difficulties.

The ABS and ACARA data used in the report record most (but not all) ‘Special Assistance Schools’ under ‘special schools’. Special assistance schools, also called flexi schools or non-mainstream alternative schools, cater for students who have experienced substantial disengagement from mainstream education. A recent report by Independent Schools Australia reported that in a large proportion of Independent special assistance schools either most or all of the young people enrolled have a disability funded under NCCD. The overwhelming majority of new special schools are special assistance schools with more planned for the near future.

The Royal Commission didn’t include a dedicated public hearing on special schools. There is work to be done to understand different types of special schools, who is attending them, pathways in and out of special schools, and what special schools offer to their students. This work isn’t about improving special schools (although it hopefully will achieve this while special schools are still in operation), but to inform the transformation of the education system.

Special classes in mainstream schools

Information around special/segregated provision in regular schools is even more limited. The Final report doesn’t include statistics by state/territories and sector but acknowledges evidence of increase in such provision across Australia. There is however data to start this conversation.

For example, the New South Wales Department of Education publishes data on students enrolled in support classes. The increase of enrolment in support classes is a long-term trend, but it is worth looking at short-term impact. For example, in 2018, 7,827 full-time equivalent students were attending primary support classes increasing to 9,542 students in 2021. This is 1,715 extra students. Similar increases are evident in secondary support classes and special schools. At the same time, the NSW Department of Education developed its Disability Strategy and Inclusive Education Statement for students with disability

These are substantial resources to tap in to support the transformation of mainstream schools. A national and state commitment to redirect resources is not about ‘losing’ these extra places. It is about gaining clarity of direction towards inclusion and utilising resources that are instrumental in releasing innovative possibilities. This will require considering the function of existing support classes during the different phases of the process.  

The Final Report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability was released on Friday September 29. It comprises 12 volumes with 222 recommendations.

Ilektra Spandagou is an Associate Professor at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has more than twenty years of experience in researching and teaching internationally in the areas of inclusive education policy and practice, comparative education, disability, classroom diversity, and curriculum differentiation.

The header image comes from Volume Seven of the final report of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.

What happens when we cut corners: Suffer the little children

Jack Swindells is why regulations for early childhood care matter.

The early childhood sector is regulated by standards and laws for a reason. One of those reasons is to ensure the quality of care for children: a quality of care that provides children with the opportunity to develop in an environment that is safe.

These regulations protect children from harm, harm such as the shocking incident concerning Jack Swindells, reported by the ABC this week in their investigation into the number of early childhood centres that do not meet national standards (17 per cent). This investigation speaks to the crisis in the sector and one that our research at the University of Sydney has been hearing about from educators.

Their greatest concerns included the child to teacher ratios and the lack of supervision:

Educator to child ratios – we do not have enough time in the day to support each child to their full potential and respond to challenges in adequate and effective ways. This makes it difficult to assist the development of children and to spend equal time with each child.

Educators are underpaid, badly treated by some centres and families, deal with the very best and worst of caring for large groups of children, put themselves at risk of illness, injury and mental illness, and still many maintain such a love of being an educator. I can’t think of a better word than resilient.

Leadership at my service is in crisis due to the demands of the job; I work with a minimum ratio of 1:11 in my preschool, making it very difficult to cater for all children and do anything “extra”; we have no or very little time out of the classroom to plan, reflect and do admin.

An article in the Australian Financial Review in July suggested “Staffing and education rules at childcare centres contribute to costs that make it harder for mothers to return to the workforce”.

Would loosening the regulations in the early childhood sector make childcare more affordable? Is this the answer to the crisis in the field?

We asked educators what they thought about their profession. Remember these aren’t the people who own the childcare centres, they are the glue holding these centres together. They are already one of the lowest paid professions in the country. These propositions are hardly new – the idea to reduce the ratios has been raised in the media in the UK and the US

And why haven’t these ideas been warmly embraced? There is  overwhelming evidence which supports the benefits of quality early childhood education and care for children. The professional knowledge and experience of educators is essential for this quality.

The article lacks awareness of the physical, relational work, not to mention the professional knowledge required for “quality” education and care of infants and young children. 

It is this lack of appreciation that impacts the profession and resonates with how educators see themselves portrayed in the media and viewed by society overall. Early childhood education is not just a place for children that allows their mothers to go to work. 

The educators I work with are highly effective and always have the best interests at heart. They are paid a pittance and their work as professionals is constantly undermined by policy, media etc. As a degree qualified ECT, I am not paid equal pay for the same work my government employed teachers are paid.

We are STILL seen as babysitters no matter how much the sector wants to push that we aren’t.

After listening to the educators in our research, of their resilience and dedication to the care of young children, the suggestion to reduce ratios is one guaranteed to add further pressure to one of the lowest paid professions in the country. It will only contribute to the number of staff departing the workforce, and the loss of significant experience and knowledge. Lowering the numbers of educators diminishes the quality and quantity of time adults have with children.

One participant in the research wrote: “I believe that we can shape the lives of young people and their families. We can help to shape their views about children’s lifelong education and influence their Iives and the way they grow into young people.”

The role of our educators is far beyond the actions involved with babysitting and includes every breathing moment that professionals are with young children, from the moment the infant is transferred from their primary caregivers’ arms into their own, for every diaper change, feeding time, in soothing, singing, playing and response to the child. It requires a complete physical and social investment by adults.

This is what quality care looks like. The difference between holding a baby and holding a baby in the position that is comfortable to them, the difference between singing a song to them and singing the song they are  sung to at home, in the language they hear at home. It is this difference that explains why infants indicate a preference for one educator at a preschool over another.  I was reminded of this when visiting Lily * (a second-year student on her professional experience). She was attempting to console a 9-month-old infant, tears running down her cheeks. As I approached them, sitting on the floor in a large play area, I asked if I was the cause, as sometimes children will be afraid of unfamiliar people. No, Lily shook her head, this baby was crying for her favorite caregiver, she could see her in the toddler room next door as she had been moved to cover staff shortages, an unavoidable change in the daily routine that is upsetting to children, families and staff and limits the opportunities for:

Enjoying simple everyday pleasures together such as engaging in and admiring nature and weather, sharing stories and ideas.

The simple pleasures that build the relationships essential for infants to transition from being dependent to independent and to become trusting in their own ability and to trust in others. This happens when educators create play-based learning experiences that evolve from the children’s curiosity and expand their abilities. To do this, educators need to know the children. 

The suggestion to reduce ratios also ignores the views of educators, as does the idea of reducing qualifications. In both phases of our study, educators described the value of professional knowledge for the children and themselves, of their desire to further their professional learning and the learning of colleagues. One teacher highlighted the need for more:  

Time to adequately support and mentor other educators and feeling like they need more education to lift standards.

Another teacher taking her master’s degree in special education said:

I believe that the best educators are the ones who invest themselves physically and emotionally in their work. We can’t teach children to establish strong relationships without modelling/feeling strong relationships.

Reducing ratios means educators, like so many in our study are constantly doing two things at once, cleaning or changing nappies and supervising:

Managing the room safely during times when staff are still “in ratio” but not actively caring for most of the children in the room (think nappy changes, doing journals/charts, managing children who need one-on-one care etc), transitioning the under 2s up and down stairs during family grouping, and being out of ratio in the mornings.

It is scenarios like this that lead to children like Jack getting hurt.

Educators know what is needed to support their work and their working environment. Policy is needed that creates time and space for professionals to be with children. We will not arrive at that by reducing the qualifications or the staff. Our professionals are telling us what they need. We should listen.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

We Found Education Schools Across The Nation Are Victims Of Targeted Cuts But More Threats Are Looming

At every university around the country, academics in schools and faculties of Education have been hit hard.  Hundreds, maybe thousands, have lost their jobs. Many of them are people we know. Yet it is not easy to identify the particular staff who have ‘disappeared’ from classes, courses and schools of Education among the seventeen and a half thousand other university staff who lost jobs around Australia during the initial COVID response alone.  These losses continue: we read about them daily. And higher education job losses affect far more than individuals and their personal aspirations. They also affect their families, their health, their mortgages, and the families and welfare of the communities in which they live, work and shop.  The fall-out is being felt everywhere, although it is most obvious in those regional cities highly dependent on the local university for their economic prosperity.

But what we are failing to notice is that these effects are particularly important in our Education faculties, at a time when states are facing a looming teacher shortage and the Federal Minister for Education and Youth is reviewing the capacity of our universities to attract high-quality candidates into teaching and to supply highly effective teachers.  If education is crucial to nation-building, there could not be a greater need for high-quality graduates to staff schools around the country.

But the academics who have survived in our schools of Education, either scraping a career together as short-term casuals, or scrabbling to remain as full-timers, are doing it tough.  

The climate of anxiety and insecurity in which these people (our neighbours, relatives, friends, clients and colleagues) are living is reminiscent of accounts of totalitarian regimes. In every capital city and university town around Australia, people are living in fear – afraid to say no when they are asked to do things that do not sit well on their consciences; afraid not to agree with the rationalisation to course content and assessment review needed to cope with  increased workload; afraid to admit that they haven’t had time to properly read and consider the implications of the policy changes they are being asked to approve in governance committees. Heads down, they are keeping under the radar as much as they can in order to survive. They are not proud of what they are doing at work, and they know the quality of what students are being offered is suffering too.  Headlines this week such as Murdoch Uni gags staff as students disillusioned over education quality  are beginning to reflect one reason why departing staff are often silenced by the non-disclosure clauses in their redundancy agreements.

She fears for her career if she names this place. In another university, a key professional staff member, whose knowledge and expertise in supporting the faculty’s upcoming course accreditation renewal are literally irreplaceable in the short term, has chosen to move on because he can no longer live with the moral disappointments of his daily work.  He needs to keep referees on side. And in a third institution another casual staff member, studying for the PhD that may now, ironically, lessen her chances of future employment, has been given three new subjects to teach with less than a fortnight’s notice.  Only one of these subjects is in her area of expertise.  She knows she hasn’t got time to read the material she will be teaching, but she needs the work. She will do her best, based on years of classroom teaching experience. While she knows it isn’t, her generalist knowledge is deemed adequate to teach the specialist knowledge that the Course Team, the Academic Board, AITSL, the profession, and Education Minister Tudge all see as necessary for her students to meet Australia’s Graduate Teacher standards.  A staffer at QUT, ‘safe’ for the moment, describes effects that are also experienced by peers in other places: “Everything that gets done is being pushed back to academic staff – everything. Academics who are not experts in professional tasks are doing professional tasks, which takes incredible amounts of time. There is a training video or a pdf training note for everything – and you get sent hyperlinks for these if you ask for help”. The loss of professional staff, or their relocation to central service areas, also affects the quality of what can be done across the board.  For Education, this is not good enough.

A long-term casual staff-member at one NSW university has been told that she is no longer being offered teaching or marking work because she has a PhD, and “people without doctoral qualifications are cheaper”. 

Schools and faculties of Education have been particularly hard-hit by longer-term structural change and stringency in universities, beginning before COVID. More recent reports of stress, overwork, anxiety are not limited to Education staff of course, highlighting the bleak picture across institutions.  Staff who are still employed must pick up the work of lost colleagues, and they are increasingly worried about what they are offering their students.  This is a sector in crisis. A WHS survey conducted earlier this year at the University of Wollongong indicated that, there, 90% of respondents believe there are not enough staff to get the work done, and 66% have considered leaving because of workplace stress (NTEU 2021p. 3). And alongside the serious problem of human and workforce costs, there is a pressing long-term issue for the nation in terms of the quality of what faculties of Education can offer their students ‘on the cheap’.  

It is obvious that the people who are being made ‘redundant’, or who are ‘separating’ from the institutions where they work are workers – the people who get things done.  They are not the managers, the highly paid senior executive staff, outside of Faculties, who direct and should govern what goes on. Mostly it is more senior academics – the more experienced workers – who are targeted for redundancy, because they are by definition not at the lowest pay rate.

In some institutions, such as the University of New South Wales, Canberra, QUT, and UniSA, the impact of staff losses is not visible in current numbers. At UNSW, four senior Education staff took Voluntary Redundancies at the end of 2020, but as a staff member there says, these are being replaced by three new appointments this term. Staff at UniSA say the situation is similar there. At UNSW, there are still hidden impacts – the increase in workload due to online and dual mode delivery, an increase in class sizes and what colleagues see as the exploitation of casual academics who are pressured by students to spend more time working with them online – and are afraid to refuse. At Macquarie, while education staff are hopeful that after losing six staff in 2020, they should avoid further redundancies in 2021 because they have made “sufficient internal savings”, yet staff cuts within the faculty will again be considered at the beginning of 2022.

Other places are already in real trouble.  At the University of Newcastle, which has earned a strong reputation for its educational research in NSW, staff say their numbers in 2020 were already down more than 10 in recent years, and they will have lost at least another 10 FTE staff members by the end of this year. Unlike other areas of that university, it seems, these education positions do not seem to merit replacement.

Similarly,  staff at the University of Melbourne report the loss of at least 13 FTE academic staff who have left Education, either taking redundancy packages or losing fixed-term contracts – half of these positions were at senior levels. While this has also been effective as a cost-saving strategy for the University, staff who are left report that they now find it hard to contract sessional staff, who are getting much more secure and rewarding work as casual teachers in schools (and who are being targeted by some state departments as potential ‘career-changers’ for more permanent roles). Staff at Griffith University say they had around 55 full time academics in 2020, but this is down to around 44.  And at UTS, over recent years, education has been steadily decreasing in size. What was a Faculty of Education was reduced to a School of Education, and then most recently to a merged School of International Studies and Education. As one staff member reports, “We started to feel more and more invisible, despite being told by the University leadership that commitment to Education was a part of the University’s social justice mission”. 

But they don’t have relationships with experienced professional staff, and they often don’t know the reasons why they need to adhere to policies. They don’t know who to talk to when they need to understand something to give good advice to a student; and they can’t see why they should not ‘improve’ the assessment task that has been carefully designed by a course team and approved by an Academic Board.

When experienced people disappear, so does the corporate knowledge that oils the gears of any institution, and is essential for it to run smoothly and efficiently.  When they are replaced, it is almost always now by new ‘teaching-only’ staff who are doing the very best they can.

In some cases, the disappearing staff are also taking the higher-level disciplinary expertise that the faculty relies on to meet TEQSA’s HE standards for staff qualifications.  As a staff member at one institution says regretfully: “It is now even more possible that a student undertaking their Master of Teaching course at this university may get through their whole degree and have only been taught by sessional teaching staff. This is in a faculty that is supposed to be ranked 1 or 2 in Australia for Education!”  

Worse, universities are disguising this information in their reports to government.  James Guthrie and Brendan O’Connell’s analysis of data from the Department of Education, Skills and Employment shows that changes have been made by universities in how they are accounting for their employees in 2020.  This means that official government reports can not be reconciled with the numbers for staffing presented in the same universities’ 2020 annual reports. In his account of the obfuscation of numbers currently reported at the University of Wollongong, Guthrie has also pointed to the unacceptable variation of reported figures to the public and government of staff losses – estimating that this accounts for up to 500 positions in this university alone.

And even worse still, at a time when the Morrison government has indicated that Australia’s 39 comprehensive universities may not be offering Australia an “optimal model for the quality of teaching or research”, the scene is being set for a possible return to a binary system in higher education. After the 2019 Coaldrake Report’s insistence that (real) universities should be involved in both research and teaching, these impacts on the quality of teaching in Education schools are indeed alarming. Regulations that institutions are required to meet in the HES are simply not being met. While some universities clearly consider that this can be disguised for a short time, the academic risks are enormous, and some universities are clearly making no effort to sustain the quality of their Education faculties.  

This is particularly noticeable in relation to the Coaldrake requirements for universities to be producing high-quality, world standard  research in the disciplines they wish to teach – and it is now a matter of urgency for Education faculties around the country. A recent report into the critical need for addressing research with education faculties  cites Coaldrake to argue that these events are not just bad luck or bad timing for Education. The university ideal of retaining both teaching and research in one academic position is fundamental to the teaching-research nexus in academic work. It seems “more than a minor oversight that the move to increase teaching-only positions in many universities also prevents them from doing research” (pp.52-53).

But while teaching is suffering, research is in dire straits.

In many institutions, even those that have not yet had academic job losses, staff report that this is happening.  At UTS, at Flinders, at QUT, “People are stretched, and time for research for most is limited. Some struggle to find time even for service or HDR supervision because they are doing so much teaching and have so many students to mark for.”

As the AARE national survey of staff in Education schools and faculties has found, education research is becoming a luxury.  Their data shows that “education research is now not only being subsidized by significant amounts of unpaid labour but also the direct financial contributions of individual academics trying to keep their main form of research development available” (Brennan et al., 2020, p. 36). One academic in one of the few Faculties of Education left in Australia speaks of how her research profile is only being sustained by “the generosity of colleagues in other institutions”, as her teaching workload allows no time to contribute to the writing up of their research.  

The example of the decline of Education at UTS shows the inevitable result of these circumstances. As staffing cuts led to the structural changes noted above, staff tell how in the new Faculty they were presented with data about the ‘viability’ of Education as a discipline. It is not surprising that fewer staff produce less research income and fewer high impact publications. As one staff member says:  “We’d lost so many of our Level D and E academics over time, and Level Cs were expected to demonstrate research leadership beyond their experience.

It is clear that both education research and teaching are under threat in our universities as well as in our university system.  Education is the key to any sort of future for Australia, and while every state appears to be facing imminent teacher shortages, the complicity of universities in allowing the quality of education research and teaching, at the present time, is a serious concern that should be worrying TEQSA as well as our politicians. 

Jo-Anne Reid is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Charles Sturt University. She has collaborated on a range of national competitive grants over her career, focussing on primary/secondary literacy and English teaching, teacher education, minority-group and Indigenous teachers, literacy and the environment, and rural teacher education.