Michael Pascoe: Australia, like the Wallabies, fails to invest in its future

Australia should be investing in its education system for long-term rewards,  Michael Pascoe writes.

Australia should be investing in its education system for long-term rewards, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: TND

Non-rugby readers stick with me for a moment: The Wallabies’ failure to win contains an urgent message for Australia – that which has the Wallabies losing now promises to have Australia falling behind in the future.

Rugby Australia has not and is not seriously investing in the core of the code’s long-term future – children – so the Wallabies have fallen and are falling down the international rankings.

Australia’s investment in its long-term future – children – is failing. Relative educational performance continues to fall, domestic literacy and numeracy standards are static at best.

In the end, the sustained international success of a football code depends on having the cattle – attracting people to play and support the game. With four codes competing for domestic attention, attracting and holding the most talented cattle becomes even harder.

In the end, all government can really do for the nation’s future is to invest in its people – in their education, health and welfare – as it is the talent and ability of the people that ends up securing the country’s wealth and security.

Last-century attitude

Rugby Australia has a last-century mindset of deigning to allow fortunate children to play rugby if they and their families have the money and dedication to do so.

Learning nothing from continuing to do the same thing and getting the same result, Rugby Australia’s latest effort has been to throw a Hail Mary pass to Eddie Jones – a 10-month plan for a recycled coach to achieve success at the Rugby World Cup when rugby needs a 10-year plan to reverse its slide.

Similarly with our educational failings, there is a last-century attitude towards the tertiary sector and something even older about schools.

There is another gaggle of reviews and studies of our education systems under way, mostly well meaning and all subject to a variety of self-interested and ideological commentary.

(The neoliberal cheer squad likes to simplistically focus on more money failing to improve results, part of the usual schtick of seeking less government spending; teachers unions inevitably want higher pay and smaller classes.)

At the tertiary level, we persist with the 1989 mindset that saw the Hawke government reintroduce fees and their accompanying student loans, initially HECS and now HELP.

User-pays failure

Part of the idea a third of a century ago was that a university degree was a ticket to a guaranteed high income, so it wasn’t fair that taxpayers on low incomes were paying for the ticket.

The education arms race means a first degree now isn’t such a guarantee, but the bigger problem is nicely framed by Fiona Hill in her book, There Is Nothing For You Here.

The book has broad themes examining similar policy failures in the “rust belts” of the US, UK and Russia that contributed to the disastrous rise of populist politicians – Trump/Brexit Boris/Putin.

Writing about US student loans, Dr Hill could have been describing the current Australian attitude:

“In short, a college degree and other advanced or technical training were individuals’ personal investments in their own future, not part of the state’s investment in its population’s education or in the country’s future. The ethos of Thatcherism and Reaganism had spread from economics to education.”

Post-secondary education now is pretty much what finishing high school was last century, but it is not being treated as that fundamental good for society.

Early promise

But it is at the school level, especially the primary school level, where the biggest investment should pay off for both Australia and rugby.

An objective review of Australia’s school system in 2023 would conclude it had been designed to entrench privileged and disadvantaged classes, in the process guaranteeing a substandard average for the nation.

That is not just the private school/public school divide, but also a geographical stratification not dissimilar to what Dr Hill focused on in England’s north-east and America’s impoverished regions.

In reporting a Productivity Commission report on the Gonski reforms, the AFR quoted Professor Jim Watterston, University of Melbourne’s dean of education:

“There are only four million students in Australia at any one time and they are in four different education systems. It’s like a stepladder. If you take the eight metropolitan cities, students are as good as anywhere in the world. When you get to regional, it’s one step down where outcomes are average. When you go down another step to rural, the outcomes are really poor – and by the time we get to remote and rural, then we are in a Third World country.”

The Gonski proposals were compromised from the start by the political need not to offend private school parents/voters and there’s no sign of change in that.

Results matter

Australia is unique in its high level of government funding for private schools. The inequalities of resources – both hardware and software – flow through to results and opportunities for the rest of children’s lives and weakens what Australia overall can eventually achieve.

Money and skills are required for targeted programs to catch underperforming children and regions early, or their potential is permanently compromised.

The same applies for rugby union, though the solution is much easier – I’ve seen it in practice.

Rather than the leather-patches idea that kiddies will want to pay to play rugby because, well, you know, Wallabies and tradition and the old school tie and such, Rugby Australia needs to pay and take the joy and wonder of competitively catching, passing and running to the children.

Rugby can learn from AFL’s catch-and-kick infiltration of primary schools in former rugby strongholds and go a step further.

Last time I looked, there was no competitive inter-school team sport in the local state and Catholic primary schools.

If rugby offered – for free – to coach and run Walla Rugby mixed touch competitions, primary school PE teachers wouldn’t be able to hand over their children fast enough.

Good, healthy, inclusive, non-contact fun with the lessons of teamwork and competition – and the important introduction to rugby principles to entice further involvement. And in a decade or so, more talented cattle to select from.

In the meantime, the Wallabies have a wonderfully favourable World Cup draw and, on the day, the stars sometimes align beyond theoretical form.

It’s rugby union, a game you play to discover the result – and winning the Rugby World Cup is easier than fixing our education system.

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