Address at University of Canberra's graduation ceremony for the Faculty of Education, Parliament House

28 March 2012

Opinion piece

By Francesca Beddie

I begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the land we are meeting on. I extend my respect to their elders past and present, and to all Indigenous people here today.

Secondly, I thank Stephen Parker and Geoffrey Riordan for inviting me to be part of this ceremony. It is a great honour to speak to a group of people who have chosen a noble profession, in a building I worked in when it was brand new, and which has stood the test of 20 years so well.

Throughout my childhood, I said I would be a teacher. My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I tried to please him and scraped through first-year Arts/Law at the ANU but never returned to the Law School. Instead I did history and chose diplomacy as my career. A couple of decades later I find myself closer to that childhood aspiration than I had planned, being now involved in tertiary education research and running a small training business.

In between it was a privilege to be a diplomat in Indonesia, Russia and Germany. One of the striking things I observed in those countries in the 1980s and 1990s was the importance people placed on learning. In Indonesia even the poorest children living in shanties emerged each morning with crisply laundered white shirts to go to school. In Russia during perestroika, education was still highly valued as food for the soul, though the materialist orgy of the last decade has diluted the appeal of classical music, theatre and literature.

I came back to Australia in 1995. It was to a different place from the one I had left seven years earlier. The tolerant, global citizen was turning inward. Pauline Hanson came onto the national political scene. Ignorance and fear of difference marred the national debate.

An educated citizenry is the best way to counter such xenophobia. That’s why I am an advocate for education as well as training, and why I put store on learning languages and music as well as English and maths. Realising that a table is also a 'meja' or a 'stol' or a 'tisch' broadens our perspectives; so does reading musical notation.

I was good at languages; poor at playing the piano; and terrified of maths. That I overcame my fear – and got through Year 12 maths – came down to three things:

  • A bet with my father for $100 that I'd do it.
  • Two patient and persistent mathematics teachers.
  • And a school that fostered in its students (all girls) the belief they could strive for anything, including maths and science.

Not much has changed. Engaged parents, inspiring teachers and positive school environments (as well as the occasional bribe) are vital ingredients in student success.

It is how these ingredients are combined in this century's education system that is changing. In this house the talk about education uses the language of government: skills, productivity, transparency. And when it comes to schools, these days it's the name of a businessman that is on everyone's lips: David Gonski. Mr Gonski has proposed some major reform to school funding. His ideas were discussed here by school principals on Monday.

Tonight though it’s the language of a 14-year old called Joey I want to quote to you: 'don't be bored, do something'.

That's the motto Joey had printed on the business cards he distributed when he took part in a science competition at the White House and which President Obama repeated last month during an address to US governors. Much of what Obama had to say was again couched in the language of officials. He urged the states to invest more in education and to increase the number of teachers in order to maintain or regain America's competitive edge. He was talking mainly about schools though he also made the point that these days most people will need more than a high school qualification to get through the employment door.

That observation is true also for Australia and is why our tertiary education landscape is changing, as has been highlighted in Canberra with the discussions about the future of CIT and its relationship with University of Canberra.

This change is not just about institutional arrangements but heralds, I think, a fundamental shift that will affect the way you enter your profession, either as school teachers or adult educators. That shift is away from notions of higher versus vocational education and academic versus applied learning.

Your Vice Chancellor has argued we need to rethink post-secondary education (sometimes referred to as post-compulsory education), given the demise of a hierarchical world in which social structure and educational sector were aligned. He has also observed that learning in a digital age has profound implications for where and how we receive and transmit knowledge.

Such rethinking inevitably leads to talk about dollars, the consideration on the mind of politicians and public servants at the moment as they negotiate what the Commonwealth funds and what money comes from the States; who has entitlements and for what. Lurking in those negotiations is the implication that, in contemporary Australia, our notion of what constitutes compulsory levels of education is changing.

What does all this mean for those of you about to embark on a teaching career? One thing I would urge you to consider is how to grasp opportunities to take part in the reform debate. The best policy is made when it connects to practice. The politicians and public servants need to hear from the educators.

But most importantly, I ask you to remember Joey and to think how you can eliminate boredom from the experience of education. His simple slogan might help you shape the part you are about to play in building young people's (and sometimes adults') aspirations and plans for the future, as well as in encouraging them to learn not only for a job but also as a way to avoid ever being bored again.

Let me finish with a quotation from another American, the educator A. Bartlett Giamatti:

liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching.

Francesca Beddie is the General Manager, Research of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research