In his keynote address at the first day of Annual Conference Federation President Maurie Mulheron shone a light on neoliberalism’s powerful and insidious influence on public education.
“Neoliberalism is an invisible ideology that has an impact on schools in our daily lives,” Mr Mulheron said.
He gave a brief account of the beginnings of neoliberalism as a crank movement in the 1940s and its entry, in the Reagan-Thatcher years, into mainstream public policy in the 1980s.
The President drew attention to the proliferation of hugely influential think-tanks and foundations that are flag-bearers for the profits to be made from that ideology, specifically, the billions of dollars being made now from schooling.
Neoliberalism was driving the incursion of edu-business into all levels of schooling, from teaching to textbooks to testing.
“Why is education such easy prey? Because everyone has to send their children to schools. Schools are always there – it’s a gravy train for life,” Mr Mulheron said.
“We will never do well at NAPLAN because Pearson [the edu-business giant which runs the tests] will lose in selling a product as a solution.
Neoliberalism is affecting education through cuts to public education finding, high-stakes testing regimes, the politicisation of curriculum, loss of tenure and salary cuts for teachers, the commercialisation of education moving education funding to a contestable basis, structural changes to school management resulting in divisive “school autonomy” policies, the rise of edu-businesses and attacks on teacher unions.
The ideology is behind structural changes that remove the obligation by governments to make itself responsible for the welfare of public education, Mr Mulheron said.
He pointed out that just .25 per cent of the Budget was spent on education, contrasting it with the fact that the Turnbull government is prepared to spend more than 10 per cent of the Budget on corporate tax cuts.
“The reason Malcolm Turnbull’s government didn’t bring spending on education to 1 per cent of the Budget is because it simply does not believe in public education,” Mr Mulheron said.
Mr Mulheron focused on teacher qualifications as one redoubt in the battle against neo-liberals. Federation has always urged higher entry standards for teacher education at universities, enhanced qualifications and the importance of accreditation.
We’ve got to fight government attempts to downgrade teacher qualifications or remove the need for it entirely, he told members. This had already happened in VET, bringing learning in that sector into disrepute, and the government wants it to happen in prison education.
“There will be hundreds and hundreds of new players in tertiary education if the Liberal Party achieves its aim of deregulating the university sector, and they will reduce the time needed to train teachers properly and offer online courses without any face-to-face teaching.” Big corporations and foundations such as the Gates Foundation were backing such moves.
“We must protect our qualified status,” Mr Mulheron said. To have unqualified teachers will result in the suppression of teacher salaries. Members were shown slides of job ads in British newspapers for unqualified teachers being offered miserable salaries of 18,000 pounds to demonstrate his point. “There are literally hundreds and hundreds of these jobs – all over the UK there are schools saving money by employing unqualified teachers,” Mr Mulheron said.
“We have been successful in Australia in putting a fence around neo-liberalism because we’ve seen what’s happened overseas,” Mr Mulheron said.
“Neoliberalism supporters are powerful and very well connected – but last night [election night] proved that they don’t always win!”
Federation has commissioned a four-person team from the University of Queensland to study the reach of edu-business in Australia, and the President asked members to support this effort by participating in greater numbers in an information-gathering survey that will soon be re-launched after a poor pick-up rate the first time it was emailed out to members.
Mr Mulheron said the reason he had chosen to speak about neo-liberalism at the start of Annual Conference was because there was concern about its influence on public education that had informed the Gonski campaign. “This is a really profound campaign,” he said. “It’s not just about simply being able to pay for a literacy support teacher, it’s about workload, professional development, salaries – every single thing that comes out of recurrent funding.”
Mr Mulheron said one of the tenets of neoliberalism is that inequality is important because its proponents believe it motivates people to change and claim it as a generator of wealth, even a reward for those on the winning side of inequality.
The reality of neoliberalism, he said, is seen in effects such as the global financial crisis, the transfer of wealth overseas, the privatisation of public utilities ranging from banking to schooling and social alienation.
Neoliberalism is “private wealth, public squalor”, Mr Mulheron quoted the economist J.K. Galbraith as saying; an OECD report has found that the gap between the rich and the poor is at its highest in 30 years, the years of neoliberalism.