Peter Doherty is a Professor at the University of Melbourne, and the 1996 Nobel Laureate for Medicine.
All the indications are that the strong economies of the future will be built on the capacity to exploit novelty, insight, discovery and innovation. Australia has strong fundamentals in agriculture, mining and tourism. However, it is increasingly obvious that the level of prosperity that Australians expect cannot, in the long term, be supplied solely by the exploitation of natural resources. Developing a knowledge-based economy depends substantially on individual creativity and enterprise. The basic problem for us is how, with a population of only 20 million, are we to compete in this new world.
The answer is clearly that we must develop the potential of every citizen to the full. We cannot afford to waste a single human being. The process starts with education. Australia has many excellent private and public schools. We should celebrate diversity and pluralism. No sane person would want to see any good school compromised, though a measure of dieting might not hurt some of the more opulent institutions. The worst problem is at the margins, with under-resourced public schools in, particularly, the outer suburbs and rural areas. This is where we will fail to recognize and to develop talent, particularly in immigrant groups.
It is also the case that our public universities are not adequately funded. Students are being required to assume an increasing financial burden, and are often working at jobs that compromise the quality of their university experience. This is a very disturbing situation. Innovation in many areas now starts from the high-level knowledge base that is provided by a good university education. It is ironic that many parents make enormous sacrifices so that their children can attend extra-ordinarily well-resourced private schools, with the ultimate aim of achieving better entrance scores to an under-resourced public university.
Financial resources are generally limited, whether it be in a family budget or in a national budget. We should ask ourselves, both as individuals and as citizens, whether our education dollars are being spent in the best possible way. High quality education in continental Europe and Japan is exclusively a function of the public sector. Most Americans are educated in public schools: the constitutional separation of Church and State ensures that no tax dollars flow to private schools. The great majority of Nobel Prize winners were educated in public high schools.
We have many first-class public schools in this country, and can easily extend their scope and numbers if more articulate, well-educated parents become committed to this sector. Much more pressure could be brought to bear on our political leaders to ensure a fairer and more rational distribution of federal education dollars. If you do have a reasonable (but limited) level of personal resources, will your child be better served by attending an expensive, private high school, or from having the time and financial security to benefit fully from a university education? This country will not continue to prosper if we fail to provide adequate support for public education, at every level.