Australia Seeks New National Ideal in Education

AUSTRALIA is famed for its bronzed surfers. Now the nation's leaders want the world to identify the country for its intelligence. Afraid that the country will be left behind as other nations make strides in economic competitiveness, Australia's leaders are banking the nation's future on education.

The push dates back two years ago when then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke called on Australians to become the "clever country" in contrast to its past reliance on the export of its natural resources. Today, there is some evidence the country is beginning to heed that call.

Young Australians are staying in high school longer. Seventy percent graduate, compared to 30 percent a few years ago. Five years ago, there were 80,000 university graduates; now there are 120,000. One million people are enrolled in vocational and technical schools, up from 780,000 a decade ago. And employers are emphasizing retraining and new-skills training.

At the same time, Australian business is exporting proportionally more manufactured goods and fewer commodities. Computer, steel, and automobile exports are becoming as important as wheat and wool.

This shift is critical to the country's morale. "Our economic history up until the 1980s was very much a derivative history - not much of it was shaped by our own imagination or zeal," said John Dawkins, now treasurer, in a 1990 speech. "We simply responded to what the world wanted from us and mostly the world wanted our food, our fibers, our fuel, and our raw materials."

In 1964 Donald Horne, now chancellor at the University of Canberra, coined a phrase, calling Australia "the lucky country," reflecting the nation's vast natural resources. In an interview Mr. Horne says, "There are enormous changes since I wrote the book."

Australia, for example, is no longer a white country. "We're now a lot more tolerant," Horne says. Immigration has been liberalized to allow in hundreds of thousands of Asians. And as in America, young Asian immigrants have gained a reputation for success in school and have given Anglo-Australians a competitive spur.

National leaders admit they need to find ways to improve the quality of education for the aboriginal people. The number of aborigines graduating from high school is well below the national average. Additional money has been budgeted for aboriginal communities.

Despite the changes, the country's leaders admit there is much left to do. Education Minister Kim Beazley says the next education goal is to get 90 percent of the population to complete the last year of high school. If this happens, the universities will have to be expanded.

"Currently two times as many contemplate a career path through a university than can actually be sustained," Mr. Beazley told the Monitor in a New York interview.

"It might mean a radical redesigning of the universities," adds Mr. Anderson. Universities now are geared for the intellectual elite. Anderson says it might mean that more students are pushed into vocational or technical education.

Beazley agrees: "I think we need to make vocational education more attractive and worthwhile." Over the next three years, the government plans to add an extra 130,000 places for technical and further education.

Changes will have to continue in the workplace as well. "What's missing in Australia ... is the stream of constant innovation - including science and technology" interacting with industry, says John Stocker, chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization.

Mr. Dawkins says the country also needs to admire intellectual endeavor as much as sporting prowess. To truly become the clever country, he says, "The super heroes of the 1990s must be found in laboratories and the experimental stations as much as on the football field or in the swimming pool."

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