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Australian education reform. `Economic competitiveness' a buzzword there, as in US

JUST as Americans are discovering Australia's ``no worries, mate'' spirit of lightheartedness, the Aussies are starting to worry. Their export market of wheat, metals, and other raw materials has been undercut. Their economic future may be locked into that of the lean, manufacturing Pacific Rim nations. Australians have always called theirs ``the lucky country,'' but as just-reelected Prime Minister Bob Hawke sums it up: ``The party's over.''

Talk of ``economic competitiveness'' in Australia is now more intense than in the United States. Investment and sacrifice are discussed as means to a better economy. But so is an institution Australians have never taken too seriously - education.

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In a country that had a high school dropout rate last year of 53 percent (compared with 27 percent in the US), both officials and ordinary folk are looking to the education system to sharpen human capital and establish what is being called ``productive culture.''

A dramatic increase in college applications is one immediate sign. Last year, 120,000 students were turned away from colleges and technical schools. ``Four years ago, finding a place in college was easy,'' says Dean Ashenden, a top Australian education writer. ``Now, the places are scarce.''

Both candidates in the national election two weeks ago offered plans to improve education. The Hawke government is reportedly already regrouping the federal education emphasis around the so-called TAFE vocational colleges (Technical and Further Education) to improve the ratio of skilled workers to unskilled workers.

Yet, as in the US, there's a lack of clear thinking about how to have education boost the economy. ``The debate is very badly confused here,'' says Mr. Ashenden. ``We need to replace muscle power with brain power. We know education and training have something to do with that. But no one knows what, when. There's no strategic thinking.''

Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor who toured Australian schools last year, says change will be ``tough, due to the rigid British school model, and traditional, low cultural expectations of education.''

Knowing this, the Aussies have sought exchanges with a variety of countries. They are curious about US school reform and the management and finance of American higher education in particular. Privately, they admit their system has avoided tough self-examination - little information exists on Australian school and student performance.

``I find the Australians are amazed at the role business leaders have taken in US school reform,'' said Frank Newman, president of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, who was on an Australian exchange program this past spring. ``They say, `Your executives sound like educators!'''

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Unlike the US, there are no local school boards in Australia. Pre-college schools are run by the governments of each of the six Alaska-size states and the two territories - not as difficult logistically as it might seem, since 95 percent of the population lives within 10 miles of the ocean. Students wear uniforms. Women have typically received less academic attention, a condition that is slowly changing. Asians make up an increasing proportion of the top students.

As Australian education begins to crank up, three needs emerge:

The need to build and pay for a larger college student body. About 30 percent of Australia's youth now enroll in some 20 schools of higher education - two-thirds in vocational, one-third in academics. Experts say the figure will be 50 percent by the mid-1990s. Since 1972, the federal government has paid all college tuition. This may quickly change, so that it can pay for expanded facilities.

In April, a $250 student ``administration fee'' was introduced - nearly touching off a riot in Sydney. The government is attracting tuition-paying foreign students from China, Japan, and Taiwan. This fall, the first private college in Australia opens on the Gold Coast, near Brisbane in Queensland.

The need for ``mediating'' schools and courses in high school. As in the British system, Australian youth enter a purely vocational or purely academic track in ninth or 10th grade. ``And ne'er the twain do meet,'' says the Queensland minister of education, Lin Powell. The situation is unacceptable in a post-industrial world, he says. Vocational students need to study higher math, fine arts, and computer science. Hence, Mr. Powell and other state ministers are forming experimental schools to bridge the gap between the two tracks.

The need to address the growing split between public and private schools. Almost 25 percent of Australian students attend private primary and secondary schools, and the numbers are growing. This is because of a perception that private schools offer better college prep (twice as many private school students go to college). Last year, 68,000 more students went to private schools; public school enrollment declined by 127,000, out of a total of 3 million. Many parents devote half their salaries to finance one child in private school. The situation bodes increased tension, since state aid to private schools is generous (unlike the US), and because of a growing belief that business support of education is nil because the children of wealthy and powerful Australians mostly attend the privates.

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