The federal government’s efforts to have Australian schoolchildren match their Asian and Finnish peers on international literacy and maths tests might need to start earlier if the latest OECD’s Education at a Glance 2013 report is any guide.
The report says only 13 per cent of Australian three-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood education programs, “an insignificant proportion when compared with the OECD average of 67 per cent”. Worse still, the proportion of these toddlers enrolled in early childhood classes fell by 4 percentage points between 2005 and 2011 compared with an average increase of the same amount for all OECD countries.
The effect of the decline has placed Australia 33rd among the 36 OECD countries included in the analysis. Similarly, enrolment rates for four-year-olds in pre-school education are also behind the OECD average, with only two out of three little Australians going to kindergarten or childcare centres, compared with an average of more than eight out of 10 elsewhere – putting Australia at number 30 out of the 36 in the ranking table.
However, the OECD figures can tend to be misleading because of the way Australia differs from many other countries: here the education programs available to young children are not compulsory and it is up to parents to decide.
From the start of 2013, all Australian children should have access to 15 hours of early childhood education each week in the year before school. This program may yet lift the performance of our pupils as they go through the school system, although problems remain: out of Australia’s total expenditure on early childhood education in 2010, parents contributed almost half the cost and only 56 per cent was met from the public purse – compared with an OECD average of 82 per cent public funding – and the rest was from private sources, probably parental pockets.
By the time children have reached school age, however, 99 per cent of 5 to 14-year-olds are sitting at their desks, although that still only lifts Australia to 12th out of the 38 countries where figures are available.
Still, our educational attainment is high: 74 per cent of people aged 25 to 64 completed secondary school, just below the global average of 76 per cent.
Also, the Australian ratio has increased significantly across generations, with 84 per cent of those aged 25 to 34 earning a final school certificate, compared with 61 per cent of those 55 to 64.
Tertiary attainment rates are also above the OECD average: 38 per cent of working-age Australians have graduated with a university degree whereas the global average is 32 per cent. The proportion here rises to 45 per cent among those 25 to 34; the OECD average is 39 per cent.
But the presence of large numbers of foreign students on campus affects estimated graduation rates, the report says: “The most significant feature of the tertiary education landscape in Australia is the large proportion of international students. Australia is a key destination for students from around the world, hosting more than 6 per cent of the world’s foreign students – the third most popular destination after the United States (16 per cent) and the United Kingdom (13 per cent).”
One in five students in Australian higher education in 2011 were from overseas, the highest proportion among all OECD countries and against an OECD average of only 7 per cent, which means Australia attracts almost 20 times more international students than the number of Australians who go abroad to study.
This high proportion of overseas students on campus also inflates our graduation rates: if international students are excluded, the report says the ratio of students completing tertiary courses drops by a startling 17 percentage points while the rates for first-time shorter and more vocationally oriented rates fall by only 3 percentage points.