Corporate Australia and the ‘Education Revolution’

Andrew Gonczi, The University of Sydney

The term ‘Education Revolution’ has become one of the most recognisable policy catchphrases of the new commonwealth government. In the public mind, the term is most strongly associated with the widely-reported promise to provide computers for all secondary school students. But the Labor Party’s fully articulated education policy is actually far wider, concerned primarily with building national productivity and prosperity. In January 2007 the ALP issued a policy paper: The Australian Economy Needs an Education Revolution. This policy document focused on the need for investment in human capital and to redress both the quantity of investment in education and the outcomes that the education system delivers. In taking this focus, the Australian government is following a trend that has been apparent in developed countries for over a decade. The nexus between education and economic and social policy has meant that in Australia many groups outside the education’ industry’ are belatedly showing an interest in education policy. This article examines some of the current directions in education policy and evaluates the recent contributions of the Australian business community to that policy debate.


Over the last fifteen years or so, a host of widely-read business and management authors such as Peter Drucker (1993), Lester Thurow (1996), Charles Handy (1984) and Richard Florida (2003) have popularised the notion that, in the current era, knowledge is the key to the economic success of particular countries. This view has been championed by the OECD in a plethora of studies and publications (see, for example, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 1996a; 1996b; 1997). There are some dissenting voices: Frank Coffield (2000) and Michael Peters (2001), for example, point to the link between knowledge and capital and to how the knowledge economy discourse benefits some groups in society more than others. But the reality today is that the ‘knowledge economy’ is the frame within which governments in OECD countries view education policy.

Most individuals, like governments, see education as a means to an end.

The way the somewhat abstract notion of the knowledge economy becomes concrete for most people is through anxiety about individual school performance, choice of school, and the positioning of their children in competition for university places leading to rewarding careers. So while their focus is different, most individuals, like governments, see education as a means to an end. Across the OECD the debate about education in general, and school education in particular, is now undertaken largely in these instrumental terms. The current orthodoxy is clearly expressed by the World Bank (n.d.):

[School] education is a gateway to the opportunities and benefits of economic and social development. … Furthermore, globalization and the increasing demand for a more sophisticated labour force, combined with the growth of knowledge-based economies gives a sense of urgency to the heightened demand for secondary education … Quality secondary education is indispensable in creating a bright future for individuals and nations alike.

As a result, deciding on the appropriate level of investment in human resources (which, in effect, means investment in education, training, and professional development) has become a major focus for public policy in the developed world. Globalisation and increasing economic competition have sharpened this debate over recent years. Each developed country looks closely at regularly published OECD statistics on educational funding and on the performance of various parts of their education system.

It is hardly surprising, given the economic focus of current educational debate and its own interest in the results of this debate, that the business community should begin to lobby government about the directions and outcomes of school education. What is surprising is that the current campaign is developing in association with Australia’s leading educational research organisation—the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER). This is a cause for some optimism, because it suggests that the business community is prepared to come to grips with the complexity of the issues, rather than merely criticising the educational workforce when problems with our education systems emerge. The fact that leading educationalists are discussing school education with the business community is also a cause for some celebration, given the many decades of suspicion and mutual misunderstanding.

On 26 May 2008, the Business Council of Australia (BCA) released their report: Teaching Talent: The Best Teachers for Australia’s Classrooms. This report followed an earlier paper: Restoring Our Edge in Education (Business Council of Australia 2007). In this earlier report, the BCA argued for a five-point plan to improve educational outcomes in schools (2007, p. 4):

  1. Early intervention identifying potential learning problems before they become entrenched and difficult to address.
  2. Customisation: making education and training more responsive to the needs, interests and aspirations of individual learners.
  3. Professionalisation of teaching: supporting teachers and school leaders to improve their qualifications and knowledge.
  4. Increased investment: increasing public investment in education.

Improved governance: clarifying roles and responsibilities and improving mechanisms for ensuring that the education and training system is meeting the needs of individuals and Australian society.

There has been very little obvious interest in the business community in school education.

The more recent report focuses on the teaching workforce as the key to a high quality education for all children. Not surprisingly this is driven more by the desire to create a strong economy than egalitarian principles per se—though of course the two are not dichotomous. In the introduction to the more recent report, the BCA argues for ‘the development of a framework for quality (school) education which enables each individual to meet their potential and to live a life of meaning and purpose’ (2008, p. 1). As becomes clear in the report, however, this laudable aim is driven by:

the aspiration of becoming a top-five OECD country supported by a highly skilled and innovative workforce … if we are to compete effectively in the global market of the twenty first century, the quality of our educational system needs be among the very best in the world. … Making sure that every student … [develops] … the knowledge skills and values that will enable them to enter and be successful in a rewarding career or vocation must be amongst our highest priorities’ (2008, pp. 1–2).


Of course, business organisations have for a long time been involved in vocational and professional education. The Business Higher Education Round Table (BHERT), for example, has engaged in debating and lobbying for particular directions in higher education for many years. Similarly in vocational education, various industry groups have been influential in changing the nature of that sector over the past fifteen years or so, ensuring that it has become much more responsive to industry ‘needs’. But there has been very little obvious interest in the business community in school education. During the period of the Hawke and Keating governments, as part of the wider reform agenda, there were also reforms in education. The embedding of vocational education into schools and reforms to curriculum are examples. However, these were driven largely by unionists like Laurie Carmichael of the ACTU. While the government was able to enlist the help of prominent businessmen—such as Brian Finn from IBM, and Eric Mayer from National Mutual Life Association, who chaired committees looking at how to increase school retention rates and to reform curriculum—there was no involvement from the key business organisations.

That the Business Council is engaging now is arguably a result of current problems of labour supply—that is, skill shortages caused by the significant expansion of jobs over recent years. The issue of skill shortage is a complex one as the recent report by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research has pointed out (Richardson 2007). There is no clear definition of what a skill shortage actually is and, whatever definition is used, shortages are difficult to measure. What is clear, though, is that employers look for a range of qualities in a worker beyond technical capacity. These include personal qualities such as enthusiasm, communication capacity, and flexibility. When workers become more scarce, some employers have to accept people with fewer of these qualities and often see this as a failure of the education system and a decline in standards. In fact, better workers have gone to other better jobs (with more pay and better hours, etcetera) as the economy expands.

Nevertheless, as a recent Australian Government (2008) discussion paper, Skilling Australia, points out, if current education participation continues as is, in 2020 Australia will have three times the proportion of low-skilled workers than countries like Finland and Singapore, which have the best-performing economies. So even though, arguably, things are no worse than in the past, it is easy to agree with the BCA that improvements need to be made to educational outcomes for all students in the future.

Government unease about the health of our school systems is longstanding.

This policy debate has been intensified by the development of international indicators of educational performance at school level. Two international measures of performance: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) have provided international comparisons of students’ achievement. In the latter, Australian students perform well by comparison with OECD countries overall, but there has been a decline in our relative standing in the last five years. In addition, students from low socio-economic groups perform badly by comparison with such students in similar countries, such as Canada. That is, while our results overall are quite good, there is a long tail of underachievement.


While the interest of the business community is recent, government unease about the health of our school systems is longstanding. This is evident in the number of government reports on various aspects of education over recent decades. The federal parliament has held major reviews of many aspects of school education and the professional preparation of teachers during the last ten years. These include a major review of boys’ education, with Boys: Getting it Right (House of Representative Standing Committee on Education and Training 2002), of the role of vocational education in schools, with Learning to Work (House of Representatives Standing Committee on Education and Training 2004), and on teacher education with Top of the Class (House of Representative Standing Committee on Education and Vocational Training 2007). Similarly, the Ministerial Council on Education, Employment Training and Youth Affairs has published reports on national professional standards for teachers (2003) and the future nature of the of teaching workforce (2004) in addition to their annual benchmark reports on schooling. In the area of teacher education, there have been more than 100 reports in the last twenty years, which have recommended literally thousands of reforms.

Yet very little has changed in any area of education.

The reasons for this inertia are very complex. Lack of consensus about the aims of education is a major reason. From the time of the ancient Greeks, there have been debates over the value of education for its own sake versus education for employment. Socrates, for example, famously valued the capacity of the general to explain his action more that the capacity to wage successful campaigns. The importance of promoting equality versus the developing of all students to their maximum potential is another area of contention. These are often ideological issues where consensus cannot be reached, though they are often less dichotomous than they are portrayed to be.

Another problem is the lack of robust evidence from research to support one set of reform ideas over another. In addition, action is limited by federal-state relations, where reforming commonwealth governments need to act with the agreement of the states—often of a different political colour. Yet another problem is that there are some vested interests. For example, university decisions on teacher trainee numbers and composition don’t take account of the needs of the education system, but rather accord with their own imperatives. Then there is the power of teacher unions; they are traditionally conservative and focused on the needs of their members, making change very hard to achieve. All of this means that if there is to be reform, a real educational revolution, then we need a far-seeing, audacious and courageous commonwealth government willing and able to work with—or even occasionally override—some of the other stakeholders.

There is a lack of robust research evidence to support one set of reform ideas over another.

The current period could provide fertile ground for real reform, however. In addition to the skill shortages that have led to the interest of the business community in educational reform, the current government came to power partly on the back of its educational reform agenda. Also, over recent years there has been far greater consensus amongst educationalists that the key to improving educational outcomes is improvement in the quality of teachers. However, on the other side of the equation, unions are still strong and suspicious of any reforms that might favour a minority of teachers rather than the teaching workforce as a whole. Meanwhile, the states are unlikely to give up their control of education, or even to agree to commonwealth initiatives that might cost the states money.


What does the BCA report add to the current debate about educational reform?

The report takes as its starting point the need to improve the quality of teachers. This is not surprising, given the consensus that already exists amongst educationalists, and the fact that the report itself was written by prominent educationalists at the ACER. The report then goes on to make a long list of suggestions as to how this might be done. The overall thrust of the report, although it is careful not to say this directly, is the need to professionalise the teaching force. The authors know that to say, directly, that teaching is not a profession would be offensive to many teachers. But it is an inescapable conclusion of the reports’ recommendations.

While there will be some disagreement at the margins, it is widely accepted amongst sociologists that eight criteria need to be met if an occupational group is to be classified as a profession: first, high quality candidates need to undertake a rigorous course of study. Second, practitioners are licensed, which provides an initial warrant to be public that they have met certain standards. (Often these are standards determined by the profession itself and available for public scrutiny. Included in these standards is an ethos of service to the public.) Third, members of a profession undergo continuing training and receive mentoring during their early practice. Fourth, practitioners undertake on-going professional development throughout their careers. Fifth, there is the possibility of specialisation within the profession. Sixth, a profession governs itself. Seventh, members of a profession receive high levels of remuneration compared to the average wage. Eighth, members of a profession enjoy relatively high prestige or social status. I think it is important to add that professionals enjoy a high quality physical work environment, since the absence of this is something that teachers themselves believe make teaching unattractive.

Teaching as an occupation does not currently meet many of these criteria, though in Australia there have been several reforms in recent years that have sought to address the gap. Chief among them has been the establishment of agencies at the state level, which set professional standards for teachers and have a role in accrediting the courses universities offer for entry into the profession. Nevertheless most of the criteria listed above remain unmet, and the BCA report is an attempt to grapple with the areas of deficiency.

In summary the BCA report recommends, among other things:

  1. transparent national professional standards for teachers;
  2. recruitment of high quality entrants and some system for demand and supply management;
  3. big increases in salaries which will attract and help retain high quality candidates;
  4. career paths based on developing expertise and rewards for demonstrated excellence;
  5. a mechanism for ensuring quality of initial teacher education courses.

The report also calls for a plan that moves the responsibility for implementing these measures away from the state bureaucracies. In particular, it recommends a national organisation to determine national rather than state standards for high accomplishment and for determining which teachers meets these standards. The need to ensure that there are standards for each of the professional teaching areas (for example, specialisation into secondary physics, primary, primary music) is also recognised. They argue there should be two levels of excellence—one being paid twice starting salaries and the other two and a half times that salary.


These are a thoughtful set of recommendations which, if implemented, would move teaching a long way towards the goal of making it a profession.

The BCA’s report takes as its starting point the need to improve the quality
of teachers.

As Don Aitkin (2008) has recently pointed out, national standards would be a good idea. Such standards would help to establish a common language among teachers for discussing professional practice, and help to bring Australian teachers together as a single profession. However, Aitkin believes the likelihood of national standards being implemented is remote. Despite the desire of federal governments to develop a national perspective and to ensure people are treated equally, the people who live in the states have a strong sense of loyalty not at all diminished over the last 40 years, Aitkin claims. In addition, as mentioned earlier, many of the states have set up their own agencies to determine standards and are not likely to want to cede these powers to the commonwealth. Meanwhile, teacher unions, which have acted as de facto professional associations in some ways, will fight hard to retain their role with the states, because they risk loss of power if teachers moved to national accreditation.

On the question of recruitment into teaching, it is hard to disagree with the BCA report, which in essence calls for increasing minimal entry levels to university courses in teacher education. It is well know that many low quality candidates (as measured by tertiary entrance scores) are admitted by some universities as they struggle to fill the student quotas on which their funding depends. Although these students may well pass their teacher education courses, there is at least the impression in the community that teaching is populated by a long tail of low quality candidates. The problem here is the golden rule of demand and supply. Currently there is (or is about to be) substantial demand for teachers as the baby boomers retire in large numbers. At the same time, the supply of high quality candidates have been reduced as new occupations are created and women continue to expand their numbers in professions which were previously dominated by males (for example, law and medicine). There are particular problems in certain specialisations (such as physics and maths) where the supply is at best a trickle.

Of course the suggested BCA reforms to salaries are one way of addressing the supply issue. Research in the United States by Ingersoll and Perda (2008) suggests that teachers’ salaries and benefits are one of the three most important things for increasing commitment to teaching (the others were autonomy/self government and assistance for new teachers). However, there is evidence that increasing the salaries of teachers in general in a district or nationally has unintended consequences. As Ballou and Podgursky (1997) have argued in their detailed study of changes to pay in the United States, higher pay for the profession as a whole leads to less teacher turnover and less capacity to overcome the problems of low quality teachers already in the system. Their suggestion is to introduce much higher pay for expert teachers rather than overall salary increases and enhancing teachers’ capacity to move up the pay scales quickly.

Thus, from a public policy perspective, it would seem that differential pay for particular specialities in demand and substantially increased pay for expertise and excellence would be the preferred path to professionalisation of the workforce. For the states this is much more realistic from a budgetary perspective than increasing salaries overall, given the very large number of teachers they employ. The barrier to this suggestion, however, is likely to be the teacher unions, who naturally need to represent all their members rather than the relatively few. Of course it would be possible to both increase salaries overall modestly and substantially for accomplished and expert teachers.

The other issue, even if the teachers’ unions supported the idea of pay for accomplishment, is the method used for determining excellence or accomplishment. It is understandable that the BCA seeks a separate national body that bases standards for professional accomplishment on career-long professional learning and the capacity to share and disseminate good practice. There is a history of anti-intellectualism in the Australian teaching force which views formal studies and professional learning, apart from practical experience, with suspicion. The contrast with some other high performing education systems, like Finland and Canada, where most teachers have a masters degree, is stark.

The nexus of the state bureaucracies and teacher unions would not, on their past record, support such a reform so a national scheme would be necessary.

Teacher unions will fight hard to retain their role with
the states.

The NSW Institute of Teachers (2008), for example, is developing standards for accomplished teachers that make scant reference to ongoing professional studies or learning as criteria for accreditation. Rather the Institute has proposed ways of accrediting accomplished teachers without further learning or further specialisation (though professional development is mentioned as one of the things that could help a person’s case for accreditation). Nor has there been any discussion of mandatory professional development and re-accreditation of teachers, something common in other professions.

An interesting contrast in the accreditation of higher levels of a profession can be drawn with the medical profession, where each of the various colleges has an extremely rigorous training program for membership, that is, for becoming a specialist, which last up to seven years in some cases. In addition, once registered, medical practitioners are subject to a rigorous reaccreditation program. Similarly, in the legal profession the various law societies have a demanding set of examinations and other assessment for registration as a specialist solicitor. While the law specialisms are not as rigorously accredited as medical specialities, all specialists need to demonstrate their participation in ongoing professional development. Of course, it could be argued that the medical specialisms seek to restrict entry and limit numbers, while the impact of the accomplished status in teaching is aimed at increasing numbers. But the point remains that professional status for teaching will depend on how well the eight criteria outlined above are met, and ongoing professional development and rigorous reaccreditation procedures are essential to meeting them.

What the BCA is proposing, then, would move teaching closer to the other learned professions. However, if the example of the NSW Institute of Teachers is followed in other states, it is unlikely that a national scheme will be developed, because teachers will presumably opt for the least rigorous path to ‘accomplished teacher’ status.

It is worth mentioning in passing that the link between the profession and the universities could also be enhanced by the scheme the BCA proposes, much as it is in medicine where there is a large adjunct faculty drawn from the profession. This would have the effect of encouraging the profession to have more confidence to undertake research and experiment or at least keep up with recent developments.

The other issues that teachers themselves feel would increase the attractiveness of teaching are autonomy and ongoing support after entry to the profession. Both these are necessary criteria for classification as a profession and both are mentioned in the BCA report, though they are dealt with in less detail than some of the other criteria. Yet it is difficult to see how a mass bureaucratised occupation like teaching can enable individual members to become as autonomous as, say, medical practitioners or architects who in most cases work for themselves. But the degree of power that teachers should have is an important issue in contemporary discussions about leadership and school organisation. In some states, such as Victoria, schools themselves have far more autonomy over decisions that affect the running of the school than they do in bureaucratic state-wide systems such as New South Wales. In the former case, however, the degree of individual teachers’ control still rests with individual school principals. Nevertheless, it is pleasing that the trend in all states has been towards more distributed leadership in recent years, which has meant more control and responsibility to teachers. This is perhaps one criterion, then, which could be met over the next few years.

There is a desperate need to profession-
alise the teaching workforce.

On-going support and training for new entrants into the profession has also improved slightly in recent years. Most states provide induction programs for new teachers but the implementation of this is quite patchy, not only in Australia but in other countries such as the United States. By comparison, other professions provide a much more systematic and rigorous training program for new entrants. In medicine, for example each newly graduated doctor must complete a year’s internship of five, ten week terms (in surgery, medical, and emergency departments) before they can be fully registered in New South Wales. Then they complete a second year as a resident medical officer. While it will not be possible to provide the same intensive internship for teachers in the short term, it would be highly desirable if authorities could begin to plan for a one term internship under the guidance of one of the accomplished teachers developed under the BCA scheme.


The BCA report has made a considerable contribution to the educational debate. Not all the suggestions go far enough and others are not likely to be implemented easily, given the realities of the federal system and the interests of the teacher unions. However, the report has focused the debate on one of the most important issues that school education faces over the next few years—the composition, nature, and thus the quality of the future teaching workforce. It is only when both governments and the workforce itself face up to the fact that teaching is no longer an attractive occupation for high quality recruits that the first steps can be taken in what will be a long and painful path leading to the development of a true teaching profession.

How well the ideas contained in the BCA report fit with those of the federal government remains to be seen. The government’s rhetoric about increasing productivity and prosperity and how these depend on increasing investment in education and training seem to be entirely in line with the BCA’s views. However, if the recent reported pronouncements by the Prime Minister and Minister of Education on reporting on school performance (Hartcher 2008) ‘and recruiting high flying graduates’ into teaching (Tomazin 2008) is any guide to future policy, then there is little hope for real reform. Neither of these suggestions would necessarily be bad policy. Transparency of school performance on standardised tests is important for parents seeking to make difficult decisions about their children’s education. This arguably outweighs the dangers of sensationalism and trial by media pointed out by teacher unions. Also seeking to recruit high quality graduates and providing them with a shorter teacher education course should be tried and evaluated. But to focus government action on these reforms is to misunderstand the magnitude and complexity of the changes required to produce even modest reform, let alone an educational revolution. If the government wants a real education revolution it needs to realise that there are no easy or cheap solutions. There is a desperate need to professionalise the teaching workforce along the lines suggested in the BCA reports. This can’t be done quickly, but the time to start is now.


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Andrew Gonczi was professor and Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Technology, Sydney from 1997 to 2006. He is currently honorary professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney.