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Go8 Submission: Review of the Melbourne Declaration

I am writing on behalf of the Group of Eight (Go8) in response to the Discussion Paper on the Review of the Melbourne Declaration that has been published by Education Council.

I would also like to thank you bringing the Group of Eight into this consultation, following from the forum in Melbourne in February this year. As you appreciate, the Go8 is closely engaged on issues relating to quality, equity and excellence across the spectrum of issues that affect us and Australian higher education more broadly.

Although I am making high-level comments here on behalf of the Go8 collectively, please note that Go8 member universities may each make their own, more detailed contributions to this Review.

In summary the Go8 makes the following observations and recommendations:

As a nation, it is hard to argue that Australia has delivered on the goals of the Melbourne Declaration. Attainment of the first goal in particular – that schooling promotes equity and excellence – is not supported by objective evidence.

As noted in a 2018 report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia, while the performance of socially advantaged students in Australia and Canada is comparable, socially disadvantaged students in Canada significantly outperform those in Australia.[1] Also, over 60% of Indigenous students in Australia failed to meet the international benchmark in Year 7 National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy testing, while for non‑Indigenous Australians 27% did not make the benchmark.

Similarly, 50% of students whose parents did not complete Year 12 did not met the international benchmark, compared with 13% of students whose parents have completed Year 12.[2]   

For younger students (Year 5) the achievement gap between those with high versus low educated parents is the equivalent of more than 2.5 years of learning in reading and around two years in writing and numeracy.

These gaps or deficits have significant meaning for the post-secondary sector. From the Go8 perspective, it is critical that the opportunity to successfully participate in a world-leading educational and research opportunity in Australia – at a Go8 university – is felt equitably for every Australian. That opportunity is compromised if our schooling system is not serving young Australians and their families with excellence and delivering that excellence in a manner which affords the maximum possible equity of opportunity for people to engage successfully in post-secondary education.

These issues are highlighted in data that show significant disparities in the proportion of students completing secondary school between our cities, regions and remote areas:

  • 72% of metropolitan students complete secondary school
  • 65% of regional students complete secondary school
  • 36% of remote students complete secondary school.[3]

The gap in completion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students is over 40%.

These very significant differences require attention and policy solutions directed at the schools sector. They are, however, issues that also flow directly to successful participation post-secondary education including university.

The real and significant differences in university participation between metropolitan and regional areas cannot be solved by policy prescriptions that are focused on universities only. By then, to borrow a phrase, the horse has bolted.

There is significant evidence to show that the most effective approach to reducing inequalities in educational outcomes is to reduce social segregation in schools.[4] 

Socially segregated schools occur when socially advantaged students are segregated into some schools and socially disadvantaged are segregated into others, is both inefficient and ineffective. It is associated with lower outcomes for students in disadvantaged schools and it not associated with better outcomes for students in advantaged schools.

  • Additionally, socially segregated schools tend to exacerbate curricular inequalities (access to certain subjects and disciplines such as STEM).
  • These barriers have a circular effect of leading to further educational inequality in later education and present barriers for participation in key education and workforce areas that rely on those subjects (again, STEM fields are a good example).

It has been suggested that the publication of school enrolment profiles on the MySchool website may exacerbate the trend toward more socially segregated schools in Australia. In a recent paper, Dr Christina Ho from the Centre for Policy Development found that over 83% of students in fully selective schools in NSW were from Language Backgrounds other then English (LBOTE) and there are more than 125 schools in Sydney where 90% of students are from a LBOTE; these schools are concentrated in Western and South-Western Sydney, are more likely to be socio-economically disadvantaged and have below average academic performance. On the other hand, more than 50% of the 99 schools that had fewer than 10% LBOTE students were private schools in wealthy suburbs, clustered in the Eastern and North Shore suburbs.[5]

Critically, however, the school populations did not reflect the population of the areas in which they were located so that the school environment did not reflect the diversity of the communities in which they were located.

This can have a substantial effect on a student’s capacity for broader development – such as intercultural competence – development that is increasingly important for post-secondary study as well as for the future workforce. In her Discussion Paper, Dr Ho suggests that “[e]ducation policy must not just cater for the high-achieving migrant students, but also support those who continue to face disadvantage, and ultimately, work towards creating a less divided education system.”[6]

The excellence and equity agenda encapsulated in the Melbourne Declaration is fundamentally important to Go8 universities. As research-intensive universities, the Go8 rely heavily on the school sector to deliver well prepared students from diverse backgrounds to enable an enriched society that is knowledgeable, highly educated, internationally and locally aware and engaged, and equipped for the changing global seas of the future.

To further facilitate this capacity, clear and consistent standards and policies across Australia with respect to literacy and numeracy are areas that could be examined as areas for improvement in the Melbourne Declaration. Such a move would go some way to tackling issues that have been raised by the Chief Scientist and others with regard to the lack of preparation at the senior secondary level for the study of advanced mathematics, which is vital for successful completion of some university course. The same can be said of successful English preparation.

Clarity on the requirements for literacy and numeracy would also lift Australia’s performance in the context f global standards and raise the competitiveness of our students in the global workplace as well as lift their ability to be comprehensive contributors to our broader society.

The Go8 would also suggest that the design of student assessment could be revisited as part of this Review. Two possible aspects to this might be the examination of whether ipsative assessment might have a greater role in assessing student learning in the school years. Assessing progress against previous performance rather than in the context of a competitive model of classmate-versus-classmate against peers can allow for student progress to be more effectively acknowledged. This approach is consistent with that recommended in the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools (Gonski 2.0), released by the Government in March 2018.

  • While more traditional forms of assessment undertaken at the end of schooling – summative assessment – should retain a place in ensuring a way to determine a final and comparative degree of overall progress, this approach is not necessarily appropriate throughout schooling.

Similarly, a revised Declaration might consider placing a greater emphasis or focus on the importance of critical thinking in the curriculum. Critical thinking, the capacity to develop and demonstrate it, is essential for success in post‑secondary education, particularly at university. The development of critical thinking capability is essential to the development of high functioning adults, particularly in a time that is characterised by social media saturation, ‘fake news’ and a declining capacity for analysis of issues.

Excellence and equity in schooling delivers opportunity for young Australians; opportunity that is capitalised on at Go8 universities. It is not good enough for Australia to have a system that effectively overtly preferences already‑advantaged school students in attending the best post-secondary education options; to it put another way, it is no longer acceptable for policies affecting the Australian school system to perpetuate educational, social and economic disadvantage for so many Australians and for our society to expect the post-secondary education system and the workplace to arrest that disadvantage.

Of course, changing these circumstances is very challenging. It requires partnership from all stakeholders – those across the educational sectors from early childhood through post-secondary, business, and all governments in all jurisdictions. Educational disadvantage remains one of the great policy challenges for Australia and without that kind of partnership – a kind of Grand Bargain – it cannot be solved.

The Go8 readily acknowledges the many complexities in undertaking this Review, some of which I have outlined here. I would of course welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues with you directly.

Yours sincerely



[1] How unequal? Insights on inequality; April 2018; Committee for Economic Development of Australia, p19

[2] Ass.Prof. Laura B Perry, Inequality of Opportunity in How unequal? Insights on inequality; April 2018; Committee for Economic Development of Australia

[3] Ibid, from Productivity Commission, 2016, Steering committee for the review of government service provision – report on government services.

[4] Ibid – citing Gorard, S. 2010; Serious doubts about school effectiveness; British Educational Research Journal; 36(5), 745-766

[5] Ho, C; Ethnic Divides in Schooling; Centre for Policy Development; May 2019; https://cpd.org.au/2019/05/ethnic-divides-schooling-discussion-paper-may-2019/

[6] Ibid p17