newsCO.com.au–Australia falling behind in science graduates and public funding: OECD report

September 12, 2017

Australians are attending university at one of the highest rates in the OECD but the country has one of the lowest rates of graduates in science fields, which have some of the highest levels of employment.

Australia also relies far more on private funding sources, including households, for educational institutions at all levels than other similar countries, according to a new report comparing education outcomes across the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.


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Nearly 50 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 34 have studied at the tertiary level, compared to an OECD average of 43 per cent, found the report which was released globally on Tuesday.

Australian university students are studying business, administration and law courses at far higher rates than other OECD countries, with these fields producing 34 per cent of graduates compared to an OECD average of 24 per cent, according to 2016 figures.

At the other end of the spectrum, Australians are studying engineering, manufacturing and construction courses at a much lower rate, with about eight per cent of graduates in these fields compared to an OECD average of 14 per cent.

Graduates in the fields of natural sciences, mathematics and statistics, and information and communications technology are at the OECD average, accounting for six and four per cent of students respectively.

Ittima Cherastidtham, a fellow in higher education at the Grattan Institute, said it is important to promote growth in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) areas that are seeing a rise in the number of jobs, including engineering and technology.

“STEM graduates are very important for the country but we don’t want to produce graduates in fields where there’s nothing for them to do,” Ms Cherastidtham said.

“For more students to study in these fields, we would need to create more industries and jobs. There’s not enough of that in Australia. [But] we’re moving more towards services than manufacturing, so we’d expect more jobs in technology fields.”

The report finds that university graduates in Australia enjoy lower earnings benefits than other OECD countries, typically making 40 per cent more than people who do not study past the upper secondary level. In comparison, those with a tertiary education earn an average of 56 per cent more across the OECD.

Australian university students also pay some of the highest tuition fees among OECD countries, with bachelor courses at public institutions costing more than $4000. Public universities in most OECD countries charge less than $2000, with a number providing free education, while others in countries including Chile and the US charge about $8000.

The fee for students at private institutions in Australia is about $8000, which is the fourth highest among OECD countries, with only the UK, Latvia and the US having higher fees.

Public spending on tertiary institutions is relatively low in Australia, accounting for about 40 per cent of total expenditure, far below the OECD average of 70 per cent. Only the UK, Japan, Korea, the US and Chile have lower rates of public spending, according to 2014 OECD data.

Households account for about 47 per cent of spending on tertiary education in Australia.

Australia also has one of the lowest shares of public funding for primary and secondary institutions in the OECD, with only Turkey and Colombia recording lower rates of public spending.

At the primary level in Australia, 88 per cent of funding for institutions comes from public sources and 12 per cent comes from private sources, with the report noting that “households contribute the largest share of private funding” at all levels of education.

In comparison, public sources account for 93 per cent of primary-level funding on average across the OECD.

The share of private funding increases to 24 per cent for secondary institutions in Australia, far higher than the OECD average of 12 per cent.

Adjunct Associate Professor at Victoria University’s Centre for International Research on Education Systems Chandra Shah said the high proportion of education spending left to households contributes to “growing inequality”.

“In terms of funding for primary institutions, even the US spends more public money than us,” Dr Shah said.

“It means we’re going to have growing disparity, with people who can afford private schools separated from [other students].

“When you put education students from different socioeconomic backgrounds together, they understand each other’s problems. It’s a long-term issue.”

However, the report notes that “certain features of Australia’s education system support students’ ability to finance their education”, particularly at the tertiary level, including public loans, scholarships and grants.

When subsidies to households and private entities are taken into account, 13.4 per cent of total government expenditure goes towards education in Australia, which is higher than than the OECD average of 11.3 per cent.

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