The choices we made but never decided upon, part I.

Let us pretend you are the benevolent elected dictator in Australia. It is 1980 and you have to decide on education and migration policy. Your wily political adviser comes to you with the following plan: he tells you it would be popular and cheap to stop inflicting difficult and painful education on Australia’s kids, instead importing foreigners who have gone through the pain of elite education.

Your adviser points out the many advantages: you can halt pay increases for teachers immediately which, as Andrew Leigh so nicely showed, gradually dumbs down the stock of teachers, particularly at the bottom end of the market. The incoming migrants have to buy a lot of stuff when arriving so you get immediate boosts to the economy, quite apart from the free human capital walking in.  You let those with a chip on their shoulder regarding the philosophy of current education do their thing. It’s the road of least resistance on all sides.

After some reflection you realise it’s a brilliant plan. All your kids are winners, none of them failing a class and each of them frequently getting rewards for breathing quietly, whilst they will end up in admin jobs where they mainly write reports for other admin people. The bright kids can invest in networks and fight it out with the other networkers to become the managers. Meanwhile the ‘tech’ foreigners do the hard yakka in the mines and behind the scenes. What is not to like about this joint proposal on education and visas?

The only thing not to like about the proposal is that it was never proposed. It was never consciously decided upon. But we ‘sort of’ did it this way anyway!

As far as I know hence, this choice was never consciously debated in Australia in the era of the 1980s, the Dawkins reforms. There wasn’t a clear first move towards it, with both Australia’s education and visa policy subject to numerous independent reviews, white papers, and complicated deliberations; all involving many heated debates about lofty goals and utopian visions, but none of which to my knowledge led to a conscious choice for the joint proposal above.

Yet the proposal above does describe how our education and visa policies actually co-evolved in the last 30 years: it is as if we consciously decided upon this path 30 years ago. Worse, it is as if we consciously decided upon it, and then purposely muddied the waters with thousands of pages of text pretending that we were choosing something else.

Whilst dumbing down schools and universities has become an art-form in itself(see, in particular the recent PISA results strongly suggesting that our school system is lagging internationally and this book on university decline), the reason that it has managed to go on without serious national backlash is because of the visa system: Australia’s industry can get the skills elsewhere, whilst most home-grown kids get good jobs anyway(with notable booms in the number of HR positions). In line with the large US-based debate on skill-biased change, one emerging view of the Australian labour market is that it too has a very skilled top end but with lots of workers not using all that many skills at all, stuck in dead-end jobs. Also, the resource boom has reduced the importance of human capital in the Australian economy via a Dutch disease effect.

It is not hard to see in hindsight what the lock-in mechanisms were to cement the choice: with human capital walking in for free, the pressure to improve elite education at university never materialised; with no pressure to improve schooling, the temptation to reduce teacher pay and give in to the hundreds of reform plans that effectively meant more administrators and less teachers was too hard to resist. And once the reliance on overseas skills became ingrained, there was a constituency of employers who became used to attracting foreign workers and thus no longer wanted to revert to domestic ones.

Similarly, the visa policies followed a road of least resistance: industries wanted skills Australian schools and universities were no longer providing, so politicians opened the gates and overseas countries provided the skilled foreigners who came for the great culture and wealth Australia has to offer.

And if you think about it objectively, the choice is not a bad one to make. It has basically allowed a generation of Australian kids to grow up in the happy belief that they are skilled without having to really push themselves, while at the same time allowing foreigners to improve their lot in life by relocating here. Where is the loss, one might ask? Australian culture is still doing fine and our country is still quite empty so the choice can be extended into the future without much trouble. It is certainly much easier politically than tackling the educational institutions, so why bother? As long as the boom lasts, the road-of-least resistance is to maintain the current course.

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31 Responses to The choices we made but never decided upon, part I.

  1. john r walker says:

    Depressing, because it is true. It is definitely true of most of Tertiary Viz art education , except it happened well before 1980

    My wife, Anne E Sanders, has done a lot of work on the history of how it came to pass in tertiary level visual art between about 1965 and 1980. It might be of interest- , it is a well written and strangely tragic story.

  2. john r walker says:

    In the sector that we know best, your “wily political adviser” had already been educated in a favorable disposition towards a painless education system, years before these policies were adopted by government.

  3. Lyn says:

    We’ve also invented qualifications to move our unskilled into the skilled category with certifications like Cert II in Cleaning, in the process supporting a gigantic further education industry. So you can’t even become a cleaner without contributing to this circular system.

  4. conrad says:

    Perhaps a lot of this is just inevitable, as many countries seem to suffer from it now. It seems to me that once countries become rich, people become docile and don’t try as hard, and then think their kids don’t need to either — if life was easy for them, why shouldn’t it be for their kids also? That might be compounded by people having fewer kids who then get spoilt more, and if you’re in a place like Australia, which is exceptionally insular, then the long term possible downsides are far removed and out of sight also. I think the main countries that avoid this are ones that are so close to the rest-of-the-world, they never forget that life is hard (like, for example, Singapore, where they can just look across the border to see real life). Perhaps having a very strong work ethic also helps, although I believe even Germans complain about similar things now.

    • john r walker says:

      Except that the big bang moment in some of the Tertiary painless education sector was in the first half of the 60s, when many parents had memories of the depression poverty and war…… “big bang” because Tertiary painless education in art , went from literally no such thing to something that was ready (by 1974) to exponentially inflate in the space of about 5 or 6 years.

    • derrida derider says:

      … once countries become rich, people become docile and don’t try as hard, and then think their kids don’t need to either

      Gee, you say that like its a bad thing. What on earth is the point of becoming rich unless it makes life easier? You’ve confused means and ends – constant striving is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If the ends no longer require the striving, so much the better.

      Tha main downside of Paul’s putative “let’s take it easy” appraoch is a worry that it’s not sustainable – that the supply of overseas strivers will dry up someday. And so it will – but not in this generation.

      • murph the surf. says:

        Having loads of cashed up people may lead to a preponderance of poorly motivated people and this can, it is possible to imagine result in many missing the opportunities that are available to them.
        In this regard I think it is a pity that as a society we seem to lag other countries in philanthropic activity.
        I do think this may be counterbalanced by state action but striving to help others appears to be considered a less desirable good than say personal european/russian/andean heli-skiing holidays.
        Are there any research papers looking at social tension that arises once the educated migrants take over the upper and upper middle classes in a society? Is Australia leading the way with this style of social re-construction?
        My old school has been forever changed – for the better , by being selective and currently 99% of students have an asian background. This has generated quite a swell of resentment , mostly xenophobic and irrational but once these high achievers fill the professions and they then inculcate more demanding expectations into their children do the remaining skippies risk being economically marginalised in their own society? Should this matter in an everchanging migrant society or is some tension a sign that progress is being made?

      • conrad says:

        Is that what the Greeks/Portuguese/Spanish… thought too?

        I also don’t think there’s an end (that seems like a white-guy philosophy to me), so if it’s not meaningful to conceptualize things as having a start and an end, it makes no sense to think of having a means to an end. That’s not to say that I think we shouldn’t enjoy any of the spoils. We already do. Some of them are even helpful in making us more productive (like healthcare).

  5. hc says:

    Aussies have an unattractive attribute of always wanting everything on the cheap – cheap food, cheap clothes and cheap education. We are creating a society based on a short-sighted cheapness ethic. Migrants have the foresight to see the value of a good school education so overwhelmingly private schools are dominated by them.

    I agree with DD the cost of this is not that the native born are now not pressured to beat the other guys. This competitive North American educational ethic we should discard. Its just that people can only enjoy life with skills and not having skills means you have a less pleasurable existence. But it is the skills to enjoy life that are important in a society with material abundance.

    I disagree with your view that Australia is “still quite empty” and can be filled up with migrants. Given environmental priorities this seems to me this is the flip side of the confused objective as wanting to grow the economy at 2% annually for the next 6 billion years. Australians enjoy a reasonably good uncluttered environment but that is partly because we are soil and water poor and almost everyone lives on a thin coastal strip. Its also because we don’t (or shouldn’t) want European (or worse Chinese, Indian) population densities. It is not necessary to develop every piece of land and to turn every natural attribute into a tourism site.

    Australia should invest intensively and primarily in its own citizenry and seek to make them a happy lot. Skilled migrants and the spouses of Aussies should make up almost all of the migration intake and we should retain a high wage, low density society with a stable population not much above what it is. Australia is not an international common property resource that is “owed” to other nations – in any event the moral argument that we have reasons to assist the rest-of-the-world with their population issues is undermined by arithmetic as well as our own 100% justifiable selfish nationalism.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      I know we wont agree on this and its a bit off topic, but I cant resist:

      Suppose we accept that most Australians (90% ?) live within 100 kilometers off the coast. With a total circumference of around 25,000 kilometers, that is a total of 2.5 million square kilometers on which those Australian live. That is four times the size of France. Holding one-third of the population of France!

      So just catching up to the population density of France in that ‘tiny strip’ would entail over a millennium in current migration streams (150,000 per year or 15 million a century)! If we take ‘just’ the 50 kilometers and discount the rougher edges, it will still take centuries to catch up with France, let alone far more densely populated places…..

  6. hc says:

    No we can agree. You just have to admit your maths is wrong.

    Australia’s surface area is about 7.6 million square kilometres. So you are thinking about an experiment whereby about 1/3 of Australia is settled. That is impossible. People can’t live at urban densities within 100 kilometres of most of WA and SA because there is not enough water. For other reasons much of Qld & NT. Its mainly desert. Comparing settlement patterns in Australia with those of France is ridiculous.

    But I’ve got to give you credit for improving on Joshua Gans’ arithmetic. As I recall he once divided Australia’s total surface area by population and compared that to other settled countries to show our limitless capacity to absorb more people. Ecological consciousness is growing!

    Like many countries we are already experiencing severe water shortages – there are desalination plants servicing every state. We also have urban sprawl covering much of the regions around the state capitals. Our major cities incur $10b in DWLs due to congestion costs annually.

    Its an attractive ideal to keep much of coastal Australia undeveloped and to limit settlement to a few major towns. Better than a McDonald’s store on every sand dune and every area of wilderness converted into a factor of production or consumer good.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      nothing wrong with my maths, you are just saying even 50 kilometers off the coast is already desert in many places and you dont want to get anywhere near the density of France.

      :-) I think we will have to agree to disagree on this on, Harry. You see congestion, I see lots of small coastal villages with the potential to be as large as Adelaide and majors who are welcoming the change. From a world perspective, people have to live somewhere and given the high happiness levels in Australia, why not here?

      Incidentally, you don’t need much education at all to be happy. Quite the opposite in fact. The low happiness levels of the French has been blamed on their excessive training in philosophy and other such subjects!

  7. nottrampis says:

    pedantic point but a dictator is not elected not even even a benevolent one.

    • Paul frijters says:

      Pedantic and wrong! Dictatorships are defined by the degree to which a lot of power is held by few, not by whether or not they are elected. Indeed, in a head count of dictators around 1980 the elected ones might well have been the most frequent one! Caucescu and the other ones in Eastern Europe did like their elections. Of course the choices were limited….

  8. nottrampis says:

    No pedantic but true.

    dic·ta·tor/?d?kte?t?r, d?k?te?t?r/ Show Spelled [dik-tey-ter, dik-tey-ter] noun
    1. strong person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.

    As for your understanding of elections it is truly bizaare.
    History really isn’t your forte is it!

    Show me a dictator that was elected in a fair dinkum election not by a rump of people in some communist party congress!

    • john r walker says:

      i think Adolf got the biggest single slice of votes in 1933?

      • Alan says:

        1933 was held after Hitler had been made chancellor by presidential decree. The Nazis abused every power available to them and still only got 33% of the vote. The last free election was 1928 when, although the largest party, they lost 34 seats in a Reichstag of 584.

        There is a larger weakness in Paul’s claims about elected dictatorships. The electoral processes under regimes like Ceausescu’s were not actually elections. They had the form of elections but were purely window-dressing. No-one participating in those ‘elections’ believed they were choosing a government.

        nottrampis also needs to read a little Roman history. The office of dictator was an longstanding and legitimate feature of the Roman republic. So, alas were the assassination of progressive leaders, murder, disappearances, torture, and massive electoral bribery and corruption. Caesar may have been dictator but that does not make him a dictator.

  9. nottrampis says:

    the Nazi party did get the most votes Their percentage actually went backwards) but only political machinations got him to be chancellor.

  10. Paul Frijters says:


    another discussion that will lead nowhere! I did not say ‘free and fair elections’ did I now? The use of elections to bring a gloss to a dictatorships is ancient. Julius Ceaser, one of the few and the first who was actually officially called a dictator, already did it.

    Lets give the nomenklature a rest though, we have had our fun on this one!

  11. nottrampis says:

    A dictator really doesn’t need to take into account anyone’s opinion if the election is rigged does he?

    Paul it was just a silly comment of yours as is every example you come up with to justify it.

    what is so hard about admitting you were wrong?

  12. nottrampis says:

    Alan, so you think dictators in roman times were elected?

  13. john r walker says:

    its been a bit lost in the conversation….. What happened in the 80s (in my sector) was not reform ,rather it was a wide rapid institutionalisation of a concept of education that was conceived in the command economy days of the 60s and very early 70s- Nugget Combs was the principle designer.

  14. Paul Frijters says:


    yes, of course the changes in the 80s were connected to those preceding! Not being as educated in Australian history as yourself, all I can really say is that what you say sounds very plausible to me! I bet one can find someone though who says the 60s reforms were modeled on someone else’s even earlier….

    • john r walker says:

      All originality is variations on a theme. However the institutionalisation of a command economy – build it and they will come– concept of education, by a nation in exactly the decade (80s) that that nation was reforming into a market economy is a interesting historical variation, no?

  15. Deena Bennett says:

    Australia has “done” eduction on the cheap ever since the last war, and probably before. It was always cheaper to import educated people into the workforce, and in the late ’40’s and 1950’s there was a large group of people willing to make the journey, being tired of European squabbling and worse. The U.S.A. was the prime choice, and Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, (and South Africa) came a long way second. Recently Western Europe has presented a stable and comfortable life style and the search for educated migrants has become very much more difficult. Now Australia has to look at regions outside of the old European centric areas.
    Good luck Australia, always doing things on the cheap. Stingy is not the word.

  16. Henry Sherrell says:

    Thanks for the read Paul – this is a great piece and the first time I think I’ve read about choices and the public debate about immigration policy.

    I’m no expert on education. It is fair to say an improvement in elite education never materialised? I attended ANU (2005-07) and I’ve always assumed I received a fantastic education relative to those who came before me. I’m now doing graduate study at the Crawford school and I’ve been blown away by the quality. Bruce Chapman, an academic who helped transformed the an entire public policy area, sitting there telling us all about it. It was fascinating. I agree that there is a range of lower quality education providers, but it’s not like ANU is exclusive. Hit your ENTER (or equivalent) score and you’ve got a place.

    On immigration, while I agree there wasn’t a ‘conscious choice’ for what ended up happening, there has been some level consensus. Keating and Howard agreed on the 457 program – it was debated publicly via the Roach Report in 1994-5 which generated media and over 70 submissions. Rudd and Gillard have followed Howard by moving more towards a skilled-based program and also an expansionary program (all of which I also support). Perhaps the mid-90s is too late to make a ‘choice’ and it was just following on from before. I’m not sure.

    What I don’t agree with is that Australian industry can solely get the skills elsewhere. Overseas born people make up only about one in four of the labour market. High-skilled migration programs (permanent and temporary) result in only a fraction of those people. What are the skills that Australian schools and universities weren’t providing? Under what visa did these people enter Australia? Forgive me for using recent examples, but even most of the 180(ish) occupations on the current Skills Occupation List have the vast majority of the labour force as Australian-born (there are exceptions, such as some niche construction and engineering occupations at the 6-digit level).

    I agree that a major issue policy-makers have not fully considered is the impact of the next major recession on the Australian labour market. Since the early 1990s, temporary migration has grown from approximately 1-2 per cent to 9-10 per cent of the workforce. What happens when mass layoffs start happening over a period of multiple quarters, instead of unemployment peaking at 5.8% like in the GFC. What does 8% unemployment look like with 1.2m temporary residents in the labour market? The theory says people go home and stop coming to Australia but I’m not too sure.

    Thanks again for such an engaging post.


    • Paul Frijters says:

      elite education in economics is a good example. We now import nearly all new lecturers in the GO8 from outside Australia and most places send their best honours students abroad for a PhD. Not all, but most. I find it a peculiar form of cultural cringe that we dont try to combine resources to set up a world-class PhD education in Australia, but there it is.
      Since half the Crawford school are buddies, I wont say anything unkind about it.
      I agree that Bruce Chapman has made an incredible change to how education is run, not just in Australia but half the world. His basic innovation, which is that the tax authorities should collect student loans after the students start to earn, is being copied in many other countries because it is much cheaper to operate than if banks would do this.

      • Hildy says:

        It’s not just cultural cringe, it’s the lack of critical mass combined with the politics and appearances of favouring one city or university over another. We could have good quality homegrown academics if we had an Oxbridge but where would it (or they) go? Not even Melbourne or Sydney has the pull and population to create that sort of critical mass.

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