Australia’s School Expenditure is Below OECD Average

A new OECD report on education shows that Australia spends less on school education than most other industrialised countries. Australia ranks 16th in primary school spending out of 22 industrialised countries and 13th out of 23 countries in secondary school expenditure according to the OECD’s latest annual review of international education, Education at a Glance, published last week.

In 2007, expenditure per primary school student in Australia was $US6498 compared to the average of $US7673 for all the selected countries [Chart 1]. The highest spending countries were Luxembourg’s ($US13985) and the United States ($US10299). Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland all spent between $US9000-10000 per primary student. The countries with the lowest expenditure per student were Germany ($US5548), Korea ($US5437), Portugal ($US5011) and New Zealand ($US4675).

Australia’s secondary school expenditure was $US8840 per student compared to the average of the selected countries of $9510 [Chart 2]. The highest spending countries were Luxembourg ($US17928), Switzerland ($US13982) and Norway ($US11997). Other countries which spend significantly more than Australia include Austria, Denmark, Netherlands and the US. The countries with the lowest expenditure were Portugal ($US6833) and New Zealand ($US5933).

Australia ranked 9th out of 20 countries in terms of increases in education expenditure from 2000 to 2007 [Chart 3]. Australia increased its expenditure on school and post-secondary non-tertiary education by 16% per student compared to an average of 19% for the 20 countries. Ireland, Korea and the UK increased their expenditure massively over the period: 63, 61 and 56% respectively. In contrast, several countries only increased expenditure by 4-6%, including Belgium, France, Germany, Norway and Switzerland. Italy’s expenditure decreased marginally over the period.

The latest results from the OECD’s Programme for International Assessment (PISA) show that Australia has higher average results for 15 year-old students than many of the countries which spend more on education. For example, the average reading results for Australia’s 15 year-olds were significantly higher than all the countries which spend more per student, except Ireland, Netherlands and Sweden whose results are statistically similar to Australia’s.

In mathematics, Australia’s results were higher than all the countries which spend more on education, except for Switzerland and the Netherlands whose results were higher than for Australia and Belgium whose results were similar to Australia. In science, only the Netherlands amongst the higher spending countries matched Australia.

On the other hand, Australia has lower average results than several countries which spend less on education, most notably Korea, Finland, Canada and New Zealand in reading; Korea, Finland and Canada in mathematics; and Finland and Canada in science.

New Zealand, in particular, has the lowest education expenditure per student of all the selected industrialised countries. Its primary school expenditure is $US3000 per student less than the average and its secondary school expenditure is $US3500 less than the average. Yet, New Zealand is consistently one of the highest achieving countries in reading, mathematics and science.

So, it would seem that the level of education expenditure is not everything; it depends on how you use the money. Australia does better at this than many, but not as well as a conspicuous few countries.

Despite its spectacular success in achieving amongst the highest average results with the lowest expenditure of the major industrialised countries, New Zealand does very poorly on equity. It has very large achievement gaps of about three years’ learning between students from low and high socio-economic status (SES) families in reading, mathematics and science. Indeed, it has by far the largest achievement gaps of the six highest performing countries.

Australia, Canada, Finland and Korea all do much better on equity than New Zealand and they spend significantly more per student than New Zealand. So, it seems money does matter for equity.

Nevertheless, Finland, Korea and, to a lesser extent, Canada – all of whom spend less than Australia on school education – have smaller achievement gaps between rich and poor than Australia. Clearly, Australia can learn from these lower spending countries in how they use their funding.

Yet, the Labor Government continues to ape the US whose average results are much lower than Australia’s and whose achievement gaps are amongst the largest of all the industrialised countries. Such slavishness threatens Australia’s own high results and is likely to widen its achievement gaps.

The US spends $US3731, or nearly 60%, more per primary school student than Australia. Just think what a difference such an increase in expenditure targeted to low achieving students and schools and drawing on the approach of Finland could mean for equity in education in Australia. It would provide a strong basis for turning our high quality, low equity school system into a high quality, high equity system.

Trevor Cobbold

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