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Australia, a clever country? Education and life chances

By Janet Taylor - posted Friday, 9 April 2010

This paper assumes that to be a clever country Australia needs to provide an inclusive education and training system that provides opportunities for all young people to develop their potential. A clever country values not only academic but also vocational skills. A clever country has a high quality university system, but it also provides appropriate and accessible training and employment for those who have creative, manual or interpersonal skills, rather than, or in addition to, academic skills.

A key element of an inclusive education and training system is that it does not exclude people because of the costs involved. Australia provides “free” government school education but many low-income families struggle with meeting the costs of this schooling (Bond & Horn 2009, 2008). Australia has the third highest university fees out of all OECD countries after the United States and Japan (Payne & Percival 2008 (PDF 1.18MB)), although some 20 years ago university education was free. TAFE fees vary greatly in amount. There have been some large recent increases which have led to falls in enrolments in Victoria (The Age, March 24, 2010). For some young people from low-income families, even the delayed tertiary or vocational education debts will be a disincentive to further study.

In addition to the direct costs of education there are the living costs, transport and for many, accommodation costs. A clever country facilitates its students from all locations to be able to study. Costs must be acknowledged and met as necessary. Youth Allowance, Australia’s income support for young students, has not kept pace with increased in costs of food, rent and transport over the last decade (Payne & Percival 2008).


The recent data from the Brotherhood of St Laurence’s longitudinal Life Chances Study illustrate a number of challenges for Australia providing an appropriate education for all (Taylor & Gee 2010).

The Life Chances Study

The study has been following the lives of some 138 young people from diverse families since their birth in 1990. All were born in inner Melbourne, and at 18 the majority lived in Melbourne, with some in regional Victoria or interstate. The most recent report explored their situations and experiences as they turned 18.

Their pathways differed according to family income. While 98 per cent in high-income families had completed VCE at Year 12, and 86 per cent in medium-income families, the figure was only 44 per cent in low-income families. However 15 per cent from low-income families had completed other Year 12 qualifications, and 15 per cent were still at school planning to complete Year 12. A quarter from low-income families (26 per cent) had left school early, but none from high-income families.

The activities of those who left school before completing Year 12 included studying at TAFE, undertaking apprenticeships and/or working part or full-time. Some were settled in what seemed to be positive pathways, but others had tried various courses and jobs unsuccessfully and had had long periods of unemployment.

Issues for a clever country raised by these young people’s experiences include the diversity of standards among schools and opportunities for tertiary study. For example, two boys, both from very disadvantaged refugee backgrounds, attended government high schools in different areas of Melbourne. One school had a strong academic focus and a high proportion of university offers, while the other had a low proportion. The young man at the first school attained a tertiary entrance score of 97, the other a score of 33.

Interviews with selected young people explored their perspectives on finishing school and on further training and employment. Some were flourishing, others struggling:


The university students (from both high and low-income families) who had already started their courses were generally enjoying the experience, including having greater freedom than at school, although some found this a challenge as was the need for different study skills. Sometimes their part-time jobs created difficulties. The high cost of textbooks was often mentioned.

The TAFE students felt their motivation and their interest in their subjects helped them study, while difficulties included travel and finding part-time work to help them meet living costs. One early school leaver explained why she preferred TAFE to school:

“I’m doing something I enjoy and that I’m good at and I feel I’m getting somewhere.”

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Acknowledgement. Thanks to my colleague Michael Horn for his helpful comments on this paper.

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About the Author

Janet Taylor is a Senior Researcher at the Research and Policy Centre, Brotherhood of St Laurence in Melbourne, Victoria.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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