Center on International Education Benchmarking

Australia was among CIEB’s Top Performing Countries for 2009. This profile has been archived and is no longer being updated.

European settlement of Australia began with its establishment as a British penal colony in 1788.  For almost 200 years thereafter, the Australians worked hard to bring Europeans to settle in their country, as they felt that their rich natural resources and sparse population made them very vulnerable to their neighbors. In 1972, Australia dropped its Europeans-only policy and began opening their borders to others, especially Asians.  Though 92% of its population is still descended from Europeans, Australia has now become one of the world’s most diverse nations.

Australia started out as a collection of colonies, eventually becoming one united country as a member of the British Commonwealth.  Until the end of the Second World War, Australia was, from an economic standpoint, oriented almost exclusively to Britain and its mercantile system, sending raw materials  to the mother country and getting finished goods back.  But the Australians noticed during the war that it was the Americans and not the British who came to their aid at the penultimate moment, and after the war, that the Pacific had become an American, not a British, pond.  Cast loose from their mercantilist moorings to Britain, the Australians began to view the entire world as their market, to develop indigenous manufacturing industries and to be the beneficiary of growing American direct investment.  The Australian economy took off.

Later, in the late 1970s and early 80s, the challenges from the Japanese and the “five tigers”, major recessions in countries to which they sold most of their exports, and the oil shocks combined to produce a major recession in Australia.

Anxious about the future, they looked up to realize that the fastest growing markets were likely to be not in Europe, but in Asia, their backyard.  And their most formidable competitors were likely to be from Asia, too.  After centuries of looking to the British for guidance and for their customers, the Australians realized they needed a whole new strategy.

Fortunately for Australians, the very sense of distance from the great population centers of the West that they had up to that time felt so keenly had made them avid benchmarkers; just like the Singaporeans. Before beginning any great enterprise, they would routinely send teams abroad to see how the leading countries did whatever they were interested in doing and used that information to fashion their own approach.  So that is what they did in this instance, putting together teams of employers and representatives of labor to analyze the dynamics of the global competitive landscape to come up with strategies to cope with the emerging competition.  Australian labor leaders played a key role in this process.

The benchmarkers concluded first, that, because Australia had a relatively small population, they could not possibly make the full range of products they wanted access to.  That meant that they would have to be a major exporter if they were going to be able to earn enough to purchase what they wanted abroad.  Second, the path to ruin lay in trying to compete with their Asian neighbors on wages, which were far lower than Australian wages. Their only chance at maintaining their standard of living lay in being able to add much more value to the goods and services they produced than their neighbors. That, in turn, meant that their salvation lay in investing heavily in education and training. The countries their teams looked at to establish their education benchmarks were all using standards-driven strategies to accomplish their goals.  The Australians concluded that they needed to bring both their academic standards and their vocational standards up to the global benchmarks as rapidly as possible, but they also concluded that they needed to take a decidedly Australian approach as they did so.

A broad and stable political consensus emerged on these points.  Reform commissions were put in place, academic and vocational standards were created (standards that became the envy of many other leading industrial nations), curriculum was developed and measures were taken to further strengthen the teaching profession.

Today, thanks to the emerging world’s insatiable demand for the raw materials that Australia has in such abundance and the wise management of Australian banks and government finances, Australia has largely escaped the ravages of the global financial crises and is well positioned to benefit from the eventual resumption of economic growth around the world and especially in their own backyard.

Visitors to Australia remark on Australians’ frontier spirit, their can-do orientation, their practical bent and their determination to learn from others before they decide on their often rather independent course.

Australia’s education system is decentralized, with policy largely determined by the education ministers in the six states and two territories rather than the federal Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). However, Australia has been moving towards a national curriculum and assessment system over the last decade which will provide a common framework for the country’s states and territories. In 2008, Australia began developing a comprehensive National Assessment Programme (NAP) and a national curriculum; the national assessments were introduced in 2009, and the national curriculum was adopted in 2011. NAP is centered around literacy and numeracy tests (collectively known as NAPLAN) administered yearly to students in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9; additional national sample assessments in science, civics and citizenship and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) literacy are administered every three years. The results of these assessments are presented to schools, government officials and to the public on a website, where visitors can find test scores and a great deal of other information about any school in the nation. Now that both the national curriculum and NAP have been developed, Australia is working to ensure that the two systems are aligned, creating common educational standards for all students.

Australia has consistently been a top performer in international assessments. The 2009 PISA results reveal that Australian students rank ninth in a field of 75 (34 OECD member countries and 41 partner countries and economies), and far outpace both the OECD average and the United States. Australia’s science scores have remained steady across the PISA assessments. The government has turned its focus to math and reading, which both experienced small declines on the most recent assessment.

The DEEWR has responded to this decline with an infusion of nearly $67 billion into the education system between 2009 and 2012, as well as a series of initiatives designed to target ailing school infrastructures and underserved students. Among these initiatives are the Digital Education Revolution, which aims to improve students’ skill sets in information and communication technology and make them more employable once they complete their education; a National Partnership to improve teacher training and retention through enhanced professional development opportunities; and the Trade Training Centres program, intended to revitalize vocational education.

Australia’s Education System at a Glance

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