Published on February 17th, 2008 | by Hans Fruck


Australia, Egalitarian?

After years of hardship and scrimping, Scott's College finally got its new tennis court
After years of hardship and scrimping, Scott’s College finally got its new badminton courts

Australia fancies itself an ‘egalitarian’ nation whose sense of itself was forged on the beaches of Gallipoli and built on a bedrock of ‘mateship’ — or some such after-the-fact romanticism. I guess all nations create a sense of who they are through stories that describe where they came from.

All stories that purport to describe a national ‘character’ are probably two-fifths bullshit. That’s the nature of foundational myths. The reality of a nation and its people is too unruly, too complicated, and too self-contradicting to be distilled down into a series of narrative-friendly adjectives or snapshots. So historians, and journalists, and the people themselves employ artistic licence.

And I guess there’s a tendency among some people to quibble with these foundational myths, especially where they fuel jingoism or gloss over the sordid pockets of history that, over time, any nation accumulates. But sometimes it can be churlish to quibble, because these stories we tell about what it means to be an Australian (or a NZer or an American etc) are as much aspirational as they are factual. I reckon there’s reason to hope that if a nation wants to think of itself and be perceived by others in a particular way, then it might actually embody that way of being a nation and a people. And after all, the Australian story isn’t such a bad creation myth: sacrifice, camaraderie, and equality are all noble impulses.

Sorry, I don’t really know where all that came from. I didn’t mean to get all windy and philosophical. But today, when I opened The Age or, more accurately, when I clicked through to its homepage, I couldn’t help but laugh cynically about the notion of “egalitarianism” in present-day Australia. Under the headline “$50m schools piggybank”, The Age details the inequities of public vs private school funding. To wit:

[quote=The Age]Victoria’s top 10 most “profitable” private schools made more than $50 million from school fees and Federal Government largesse in one year alone, with one school pocketing a $12.7 million “profit”.[/quote]

Except the private schools don’t like to describe the money they’re swimming in as profit. According to Michelle Green, chief executive officer of the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria, “it was wrong to describe the figures as ‘profits’ because the surpluses were not distributed to shareholders”. Thanks for successfully splitting that hair, Michelle. But the point is that, whether you call the money “profit” or “surplus”, some private schools are getting shitloads more than they need while some public schools aren’t getting enough.

The Age adds some more brushstrokes to the financial picture:

[quote=The Age]The audited figures of the top 10 schools revealed they made a collective surplus of $54.4 million, with their coffers bolstered by $40.5 million in federal grants. The schools’ combined wealth put their net worth at $677 million.[/quote]

To the surprise of absolutely fucking no one, critics have described this funding situation as “obscene and gobsmacking”. Also predictable is that this funding system was devised under the auspices of John Howard and his then Minister for Education David Kemp. These two champions of the Fair Go put in place a funding model under which “a student’s home postcode is linked to a socioeconomic profile based on census data. Funding is based on that profile.” Given that schools like Scotch College are turning profits, sorry, surpluses, that would do Exxon-Mobil proud, you can only assume that money is allocated per 4WD parked in the family driveway.

Andrew Blair, president of the Australian Secondary Principals Association (govt schools), notes that at the same time as some private schools have experienced 500% increase in Commonwealth funding under the Kemp-Howard formula, they’ve also been increasing their fees. With admirable restraint, he also points out that while some private schools have been gold-plating their desks and blackboards “We see some government schools in all jurisdictions being ‘squeezed’ for funds, struggling to meet growing expectations being placed on them. We see some schools simply not up to standard in the facilities and equipment they provide students.”

Unlike Blair, Michelle Green, head of the Continuing Enrichment Fund for Privileged Australians — sorry, CEO of the Association of Independent Schools of Victoria — isn’t so keen on revisiting the funding formula:

[quote]Now is not the time to reduce education funding. Today governments are recognising that Australians want more, not less money invested in educating young people at school. Taking funds from one sector and giving it to another is not the answer.[/quote]

There! Did you feel that? That was Michelle Green frowning pensively and looking sensible while inserting her laser pointer up your unsuspecting arse. See how she equates redistributing tax-payer funds with reducing overall education funding. Say it with me: straw-fucking-man! What’s being suggested here is taking government money from schools such as Xavier and Wesley and rerouting it to Insignificant Plebeian Secondary in Ringwood, or somewhere else where the little people live.

Convinced that her bullshit tastes like fairy-floss, Michelle then tries to befuddle you with statistics:

[quote]The latest Productivity Commission figures show that in 2005-06, government schools in Victoria received combined Australian and Victorian Government funding of $10,352 a student, while non-government schools received $5613 a student. Government schools received $5.569 billion compared with $1.638 billion for non-government schools.[/quote]

Which proves what exactly? I should fucking well hope public schools get more money per student than private schools! After all, they’re not charging 20-large per Year 12 student as Scotch is, nor receiving donations from rich former students, and don’t have financial stakes in Iraqi oilfields*. What’s under discussion here, and what Michelle’s trying to obscure, is finding the right ratio for that funding. Any formula that’s abetting multimillion-dollar surpluses for privileged private schools needs to be revisited. Simple.

The pièce de résistance to Michelle’s piece-of-shit argument is the claim that “If federal funding for independent schools were to be reduced, the education bill for Victorian taxpayers would go up”. No, sorry, this does not follow — not when the schools in question are raking in multimillion-dollar surpluses. The reduction in federal funding can simply come out of the enormous surpluses that these schools have been running up. No need for yet another hike in fees, which have been climbing at an unconscionable rate, anyway. And no need for the Victorian Govemment to step into the breach to keep the private-school trough overbrimming.

The kicker in all this is that the Rudd Government promised during the election campaign to leave the current funding formula in place for the next few years. Yep, that’s your ALP government for you: knowingly perpetuating gross inequities. Cos, fuck knows, we wouldn’t want to deprive those poor Geelong Grammar waifs of their heated lap pool, stretch Hummer schoolbus, or helipad, would we?

Ah, Australia, so “egalitarian” we don’t even aspire to it any more.

–Hans Sebastian Fruck

*OK, I made that last one up. But you get the picture.

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