by Dr Emma Rowe
We like to think we are very egalitarian in Australia, but this isn’t reflected in our education system. I would sum up our education using three Ps: private, pricey and (dis)parity. Unlike other countries, our private schools receive generous government funding but are also permitted to charge fees. And compared to other countries, our schools tend to be far more separated along the lines of family wealth, parent education and parent income.
Why we accept this in Australia, a country that is supposedly committed to egalitarianism and social mobility, is curious. We culturally consent to an incredibly large private school sector that charges exorbitant fees. And the things these schools get away with! Many hold multimillion-dollar investment portfolios, all while accepting very generous government funding. They report annual surpluses (profits) in the millions. Many raise their tuition fees faster than you can blink.
During the pandemic, many of these elite private schools applied for JobKeeper and accepted millions of dollars in hand-outs. They also enjoy lucrative tax exemptions, due to their status as “not for profit” and “charity”. And when the Victorian government last week proposed removing payroll tax exemptions for private schools, there was an uproar by the private school lobby.
This charitable status that private schools enjoy is the result of a historical hangover. If we rewind 60 years, when government funding for private schools was first introduced, private schools were indeed charitable. They were serving disadvantaged communities. They were struggling for basic resources, such as maths blocks, or toilets.
But these days, private schools cater to our most advantaged student cohort. In fact, when researchers drill down into demographics, they see that enrolment is overwhelmingly patterned by a student’s background. Schools that charge higher fees tend to enrol students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. The higher the fees equate to the higher the level of family income, family wealth and education levels. This is what the research shows us, time and time again.
Whenever I talk about these things, someone will typically say to me, “well that can’t be true, because I know my poor mate’s friend’s neighbour’s sister attends an expensive school”, or something along these lines. This all may be well and true, but they are the exception to the rule.
Why does this matter, you might wonder? It matters because enrolment is predicated on family levels of wealth. We are entrenching social immobility within our education system. There is a strong relationship between your family background and whether your school can afford a heated pool. It matters because government funding for private schools has absolutely accelerated in the past 20 years, whereas it has declined for public schools. It matters because our public schools serve the overwhelming majority of students experiencing forms of social disadvantage, and yet it is these schools struggling for basic resources.
Researchers continue to show that private schools are over-funded. That many of our elite private schools have pools with heated floors, or a personal pool for the headmaster, or even that the majority of our AFL players are recruited only from the top elite private schools is culturally accepted. We accept significant differences between our private and public schools. We accept different standards as based on family wealth. We then accept declining social mobility. We know that education has strong ties to social mobility and life opportunities.
This is perhaps due to our politics for the last 20 years. For the past 20 years, particularly during the Howard years but also during Rudd and Gillard, private schools have been protected. There has not been one single measure for the last 20 years that has encroached on the revenue of private schools (with the exception of the more recent change to how we calculate the SES score).
But there have been plenty of measures that have helped private schools increase their revenue. There have been prime ministers who have engaged in plenty of anti-public-school rhetoric. Let’s face it – the government has been helping along private schools for the last 20 years and it is not a surprise that parents have chosen them. Of course, it has come with a significant sting for parents – they are faced with a huge bill that is ever-increasing. Even if you start saving for tuition fees at the time your child is born the amount is statistically likely to have doubled by the time your child gets there.
So, when high-fee private schools in Victoria were told last week that they would lose their tax exemption in 2024, yet another privilege they have enjoyed due to their “charitable” status, I am not surprised there was outrage. I would expect the private school lobby to fight this like it’s the greatest war they have faced – because it is.
They will have to pay a tax that their public counterparts already pay, a payment that for some of these schools is only a very small proportion of their reported annual surplus. Many of these schools that will lose their tax exemption report surpluses that are in the millions.
For example, Scotch College reported a $9 million surplus in 2021. Carey Baptist reported a $10 million surplus. These are schools that can afford to absorb this in their budget. When they say they will be “forced” to increase their fees, or they will be “forced” to cut staff, this simply is not true. The majority can afford to wear it, let me assure you.
Private schools are government funded, just like public schools. In other countries, they would be considered public because they accept public funding. As they’ve chosen to accept government funding, it is fair to expect some kind of return to the public purse.
It is fair for private schools to pay their fair share of taxation. We should also expect outrage from the private school lobby. But perhaps this might spark outrage among the public too, regardless of where you send your child, simply on the basis that a fair and equitable education system benefits all of us.
The above op-ed was originally authored by Dr Emma Rowe, a senior education researcher at Deakin University, and republished with permission.