Monday, December 31, 2012

Do We Want For-Profit Schools in Australia?

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...
Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Annette Rome, Casual Lecturer, Melbourne Graduate School of Education at University of Melbourne and Adam Smith, Board member at Australian Council for Educational Research, The Conversation:

For-profit education is something that really doesn’t exist in Australia … yet.

But in many other countries around the world it has become a normal part of education and there are now many companies providing a range of educational products.

One of these, for example, offers a “platinum-style” education costing up to $US100,000 or so, all the way down to a cheaper “basic model”.

This company aims to cater for five million students by 2024 and may offer its shares to the public to fund further expansion.

The idea behind many of these companies is to fill a gap, providing cut price education relative to the established private schools in countries such as the United Kingdom. But these groups are also now considering heading our way.

Do we have for-profit education?

Currently the majority of Australian schools are not-for-profit. Being non-commercial is a pre-requisite for government funding, whether they are independent, Catholic or government. They are all required to put any profit they make back into the school.

So even the so-called “totemic schools” ultimately plough money back into the provision of extra facilities, services and scholarships for students. Certainly no single or group of individuals directly gains financial advantage from involvement in such schools.

The for-profit institutions that do exist in Australia do not operate in the primary or secondary school sectors. In Australia we have an expectation that government is primarily responsible for the core provision of school education. This is outlined in each state’s Education Act.

In addition to legislation, culturally we have an expectation that government will be the primary provider of school education.

Public culture

This expectation works, to a point, as our nation has the infrastructure to do this. Interestingly some countries where private providers have grown most rapidly have been in Eastern Europe, parts of Asia and Latin America – where suitable infrastructure often does not exist.

There are those who suggest that we, as a nation, should rethink the orthodoxy that certain services such as education must be delivered exclusively by the public sector or on a not-for-profit basis. This is a complex discussion and one that will need to consider cultural, educational, economic and even philosophical issues.

Are we talking about private, stand-alone institutions or are we talking about the government handing over the provision of public education to private providers? Perhaps it is timely that we examine again what we want in providing an education for our citizens.

Shift in thinking

If we see education as reflecting the societal goals of the host culture, then a certain schooling product is envisaged. If the goal is one of profit, where a subset of the citizenry is advantaged, then a different paradigm will exist.

At present, there is a move towards greater school and community partnerships, and indeed this is a federal government imperative. If the $5 billion dollar education funding boost estimated by the Gonski review is right and the government is unwilling or unable to provide this, then one response might be to outsource provision to private providers.

The recent Review of Funding for Schooling estimates $1.4 billion was provided to schools from private sources including donations in 2009. While education is still coming to terms with the involvement of not-for-profits in the delivery of education, we are challenged to ensure that schools and teachers remain at the heart of reform and innovation.

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