Why teacher pay has been dwindling for 30 years

Why teacher pay has been dwindling for 30 years

When one considers the gravity that the role of teacher carries with it, the expectation might be that it should be a high-paying job compared to most other professions.

After all, teachers are working tirelessly to teach young people the skills they will need to succeed in life. In many ways, they are crafting our future leaders at a critical ‘fork in the road’ moment in human history.

Yet teachers’ salaries have been dwindling over the past 30 years. Meanwhile, a staggering 71% of Australia’s educators feel underappreciated and struggle with excessive workloads.

The state of play

Part of the problem is that while the starting full-time salary for a classroom teacher in most Australian states is between $65,000 and $70,000, teacher pay doesn’t rise much with age or expertise.

A 2019 analysis of teacher remuneration trends by the Grattan Institute found that the pay scale for a classroom teacher stops rising after about nine years, while the incomes of their university educated peers in other professions keep rising well into their 30s and 40s.

The scale of this issue was further highlighted in a study released last week by Professor John Buchanan from the University of Sydney’s Business School.

Professor Buchanan’s research found that in 1986, female teachers earned 102% of the female professionals’ average, while male teachers earned 99% of the male professionals’ average. By 2018 the position of teachers had worsened, with women teachers earning 93% and male teachers earning 84% of the respective professionals’ average.

In February, the Grattan Institute recommended higher teacher pay as part of a 12-year blueprint to help lift the status of the teaching profession and improve student outcomes across Australia.

If implemented, the plan would see Master Teachers receive salaries of about $180,000 a year ($80,000 more than the highest standard pay rate for teachers), and Instructional Specialists up to $140,000, while the new expert teacher career path would cost about $560 per government school student per year by 2032.

“Our blueprint would cost less than the planned increases to government school funding through the Gonski 2.0 model, and it would be one of the best possible ways to use the extra money,” the report’s authors wrote.

How a wage increase could help turn the tables

The latest report by Professor Buchanan is calling for a minimum of a 10-15 per cent increase in teachers' wages, which he said would enable them to be competitive in the Australian labour market.

"Compared to nearly all other professionals in Australia experienced teachers are paid significantly less than experienced lawyers, doctors, engineers and ICT professionals," Buchanan said.

“Increasing pay is usually regarded as an ‘essential ingredient’ in any serious policy package devised to attract and retain labour”.

Angelo Gavrielatos, President NSW Teachers Federation said this is supported by research released this week by the OECD which found that teachers’ average salaries in Australia are between 88-90% of the earnings of tertiary-educated workers.

“A competitive professional salary takes on even greater significance in the context of a looming teacher shortage,” Gavrielatos said.

According to Infrastructure NSW, student enrolments in NSW schools are projected to increase by approximately 300,000 (or around 20%) by 2036.

‘Sending the right signal’

Professor Buchanan said conventional economic theory says employers should respond to current and emerging teacher shortages with higher wages.

“As NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell has noted, in practice pay alone is never the only solution to staff shortages,” he said.

“Equally it is difficult to overcome such problems without significant adjustments in remuneration. Increasing pay is an ‘essential ingredient’ in any serious policy package devised to attract and retain labour”.

Professor Buchanan said such movements send a signal.

“In this case it would make clear that teaching is as highly valued as many other occupations in society - professional and non-professional,” he said.

Professor Buchanan said an improved price signal – especially for those in the upper reaches of the profession – has the potential to “profoundly” change Australians’ career decisions.

“It would influence those at the beginning of their working lives, retain the best teachers in the system and help those interested in shifting to teaching at later stages in their careers make the move”.