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Education is a public good, not a private commodity

Written by Stewart Riddle (USQ) for The Conversation

We are at an important juncture for education in Australia. With the government’s higher education reform agenda well underway and its school funding stasis, teacher education and Australian curriculum reviews, now is the time to be asking: what is education actually for and who does it benefit?

Education tends to be argued about in terms of weighing up public and private benefit. At one end, you have the notion of education as a public good, where the benefits spread across society in terms of employment, economic prosperity, health and social cohesion. At the other end, you have education as a commodity, which fits into a user-pays system.

Who benefits from education?

The neoliberal position on education is that it is a private benefit, measured in terms of economic and social attainment. In other words: study hard, get a good job and you will reap the rewards of your individual efforts.

A more nuanced position would consider the social benefits of education, which are well documented. Increasing literacy rates, for example, leads to improved health outcomes, broader participation in democratic processes, reduced crime and poverty rates, environmental sustainability and social equality.

In a recent report, UNESCO outlined how education performs much more than an economic function, by enabling:

individuals, especially women, to live and aspire to healthy, meaningful, creative and resilient lives. It strengthens their voices in community, national and global affairs. It opens up new work opportunities and sources of social mobility.

Earlier this month, the OECD released its Education at a Glance report, which emphasised the need for equity in education, where all students have the same opportunities for educational success. This was also the underlying message of the Gonski funding review, which has been used as a political football ever since.

It has been a very busy year for education politics. Funding and equity continue to feature in media reports and need to be understood in terms of the current policy agenda.

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Posted 2 October 2014 Posted in Editorial, General