ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 1, Spring 2011

Vice-Chancellor's column

You can't pay peanuts for good teachers

For a very long time, teachers have been the earthworms of our society: worthy, vital, underpaid and overlooked.

Now and then, someone comes up with an idea to fix this. The most obvious is that those responsible for forming future generations should be paid more than trick cyclists and traffic bollards. Der!

But that would cost governments money. So now there is a new agenda, vigorously peddled by various public qangos and endorsed interest groups. We are going to make teachers better and make them feel better by raising their "prestige".

This could be termed the "Finlandisation" of Australian education, after the country where every teacher is claimed to be top of their class, blonde, happy and has a two-reindeer garage. The fact that Finland has as much in common with Australia as Tasmania apparently is ignored.

But note the cleverness of the agenda. If we can divert attention from the fact that teachers are underpaid to whether the profession is "prestigious" enough, government and regulatory authorities are home free. It's like blaming Oliver Twist for the state of the workhouse.

Naturally, raising the "prestige" of the profession needs a more respectable, alternate trade name. This is "quality", and sounds fair enough, until you work out what it means.

Quality here does not relate to the quality of those teaching your children, which actually matters. It relates to the "quality" of students entering teaching degrees.

This is bureaucratic responsibility-shifting with a double pike: the problem has to do with everybody else, but never with public investment.

The idea is that if we can only ensure that "better" students enter education degrees, they will be more esteemed. The status of the profession will rise. Parents will love them. Love costs nothing, except on Kings Cross, so Treasury coffers will stay full.

Various intergovernmental acronyms in search of an empire have floated a grab-bag of options. One is artificially raising the school-leaving score for entry to teaching degrees. Another would involve some sort of professional qualifying test, either before entering or after leaving university.

Sounds plausible. Who could object to having cleverer, better teachers in a well-regarded profession? The only difficulty is that, like all cheap wallpaper, this cover-up peels like a banana.

In the first place, why are Year 12 geniuses going to enrol in a course with an inflated cut-off simply because education bureaucrats wish to feel better about themselves? The simple reality is that if you want brain surgeons and international lawyers to consider teaching as an option then you are going to have to supplement altruism with cash.

Second, if we are to have an entry test, what are we to test? Literacy and numeracy, comes the ready answer. Call me Bob Carr, but if we are getting serious here, I would see history, civics, cultural literacy and ethics as equally important. Are teachers going to do one or two Year 12 exams?

Worse than that, I am much more interested about what students are like when they go out than when they come in.

If universities are all about value-add, what is the point in testing someone before they have been added? It is like calling a glass of milk a poor block of cheese.

This is a critical point. It is undeniable that many, though not all, education cut-offs are relatively modest. But this does not mean that students emerge the way they went in.

Years of excellent university education can and do produce a profoundly transformative experience.
Just ask some of the current educational protagonists in this debate about their own high school performance.

This is particularly important in two related contexts. First, teaching has been a traditional entry point for lower socio-economic students. Typically, they have neither Ferraris, nor high enter scores. Are they to be denied entrance to university and the profession, in defiance of the commonwealth government's higher education participation agenda?

The same goes for the regions. Regional universities and campuses have limited pools from which they can draw their students. Are we happy to erect roadblocks to aspiring teachers from far north Queensland to the western plains of Victoria?

Then there are the universities: constitutionally independent in the setting of their courses, the conduct of their research and the selection of their students. No self-respecting university will accept being told who it can or cannot enrol in a teaching degree.

Still, it's cheaper than investing in education.

Professor Greg Craven is Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University.

This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper.

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