These roles in public, private and academic spheres have been diverse, interesting, challenging and confronting and have provided me the opportunity to gain a deep insight into not just the statistical workings of the Tasmanian economy but also the intertwined social, political and cultural fabric that influences our policy-making in Tasmania.
I have researched, written and presented extensively about Tasmania’s economic, demographic, educational and social performance over the years and the structural impediments underpinning that performance, as have many others. I’ve provided a plethora of science-based evidence to both warrant and inform policy intervention, as have many others, and I have delivered it using different narrative styles, yet, the reality is, little has changed over those two-plus decades and, for a number of indicators, the situation has deteriorated.
I detail Tasmania’s four key structural challenges; industry structure, population change, the workforce and educational outcomes and their relationship in this presentation which is essentially a culmination of my work over the past 15 years or so.
While the government of the day may laud the current successes of our economy, even in a post-COVID environment, the reality is that Tasmanians’ living standards, measured as Gross State Product (GSP) per capita, are the lowest of any state or territory and are lower than in the 1990s, in relative terms, around 20 percent lower than the average Australian.
While successive governments assert that its aim is to improve the living standards of Tasmanians, it’s overarching policy framework does little to improve the productivity of our economy, which is what ultimately leads to sustainable and ongoing improved living standards for all.
Suggestions that ‘demography is destiny’ underplay the import of economic and social policy in shaping our long-term future. Our destiny is not predetermined by our demography. In fact, our (socio-economic) demography today is the outcome of policy decisions made in the past. And our (socio-economic) demography in the future will be shaped by policies of today. So, really, our destiny is ours to shape (including our socio-economic demography destiny).
All commentators, including myself, correlate Tasmania’s economic and social underperformance with our relatively poor educational outcomes, which in turn impact our industry structure, workforce and the potential for improved productivity.
Which then poses the question of why, when there is ample evidence of where our deficiencies are and what to do about it and how, is there a reluctance to improve?
In 2013, Jonathan West asked the question “What’s wrong with Tasmania, really? The Obstacles to Progress” in a special issue of The Griffith Review; Tasmania: the Tipping Point.
In his essay, he asserted that
“Tasmania has developed a way of life, a mode of doing things, a demographic, a culture and associated economy that reproduces underachievement, generation after generation.
The reality is that Tasmania has bred a dominant social coalition that blocks most proposals to improve.
Problems and challenges are debated endlessly, with no resolution. Most discussion avoids mention of the uncomfortable truths at the source of under-performance.
Ultimately, Tasmania doesn’t change because its people actually don’t really want to.”
He went on to say; “I’ve become convinced that the underlying reason for this is that the Tasmanian community actually does not want government to overcome these obstacles – or at least, it does not want it enough to sacrifice existing amenity for those obstacles to be removed.”
He suggested that the dark side of Tasmania’s enviable emphasis on a laid-back lifestyle is a ‘culture of low aspiration’ and that while we have a ‘substantial underclass’, there was no personal incentive for the ‘smaller, comfortable, government-dependent middle class’ to improve the outcomes for the underclass through greater educational attainment. He claimed that this ‘government-dependent middle class’ ‘valued above most other concerns a modest, comfortable lifestyle, the kind that steady government employment guarantees. The ease with which it had become possible in Tasmania to reach this income level and enjoy material security meant that there was little incentive for more education’.
At the time, this accusation from an ‘outsider’ who suggested that only ‘outsiders’ could change the trajectory for Tasmania and Tasmanians, was not well received. I wrote a response to his essay in The Conversation, and in doing so, it made me reflect critically on his observations, which I continue to do so today.
West’s observations were inspired by the need for greater economic development and growth in the form of the traded, market sector to improve the state’s performance, based on the false assumption of the current neo-liberal economics standpoint that a greater proportion of private sector capital and investment in the economy would eventually ‘trickle down’ to improve the socio-economic outcomes for the ‘underclass’. However, he also claimed that Tasmanians placed very little value on education, drawing from a study undertaken by the TCCI in the mid-2000s as part of the Education Transforms project. This study concluded that as working-class Tasmanians placed a higher value on their community and lifestyle than work, they feared that if their children pursued further education, they would have to leave their family, the community or Tasmania and as such, didn’t encourage completion of schooling by their children nor the pursuit of further education.
I discuss the problem of education in Tasmania in more detail in this presentation, particularly from a demand perspective, which is also ultimately impacted by a supply issue.
The uncomfortable reality is that Tasmania persistently underperforms the national average in all economic indicators; GSP, employment engagement and productivity, which can be directly attributable to considerably lower educational attainment.
- Tasmania’s employment participation rate is the lowest in Australia (partly explained by a larger proportion of Tasmania’s population being over the age of 65, considered the end of working life age);
- Tasmanians work fewer hours per week than the national average, reflecting the greater prevalence of part-time work in Tasmania than elsewhere and have the highest level of underemployment (want to work more hours);
- For each hour that they worked, Tasmanians with jobs contribute less to GSP than the average Australian, that is the labour productivity of Tasmanians is considerably lower than the labour productivity of Australians; and
- Tasmania’s workforce is dominated by five low productivity industries (health care and social assistance, retail trade, accommodation and food services, education and training and public administration and safety), making up over half of the total workforce (52%) and contributing to 38 per cent of GSP. Whereas these 5 industries make up around 45 per cent of the Australian workforce and contribute 28 per cent to GSP.
A recent report from the Mitchell Institute, Educational opportunity in Australia 2020: Who succeeds and who misses out found that, nationally, about one-fifth to one-third of young people are behind or missing out in Australia’s education systems. The report’s indicators cover the various stages of learning and development from early childhood through to early adulthood to assess how well Australia’s systems are doing in preparing young people with the lifelong knowledge and skills needed to contribute successfully and meaningfully to social, economic and cultural life. The report found that the ‘results are at odds with our national goals for education’.
The report also found that Tasmanians fare worse than the national average in all but 7 of the 23 indicators for all four stages of learning and development. Of the total 23 indicators, Tasmania ranks 7th or 8th (out of 8) in 12.
The recent Productivity Commission Report on Government Services concluded the same.
While Tasmania’s apparent school retention rate has improved since the extension of high schools to year 11 and 12 (74.3%), successful completion of year 12 has not. Around 58 per cent of Tasmanian school leavers successfully completed year 12, 14 percentage points less than the national rate. The attainment rate gap is much higher for low SES students (16 percentage points) who make up over half of our school leavers, than students from medium (10 percentage points) or high (9 percentage points) socio-economic areas.
Further, students from low SES backgrounds in Vic, SA and WA have higher Y12 attainment rates than students from high SES backgrounds in Tasmania. And, students from “remote” or “very remote” areas of NSW, Victoria, SA and WA have higher Y12 attainment rates than Tasmanian students from inner or outer regional classifications e.g. Greater Hobart and Launceston.
Young people’s successful transition from compulsory schooling to education, training and employment is particularly important for fulfilling life opportunities, with a positive relationship between completion of year 12 and subsequent engagement. Sadly, however, while nationally in 2020, 69.3 per cent of 17 to 24 year old school leavers were fully participating in education, training and/or employment (with proportions higher for those completing year 12 compared to year 11 or below) it was a different story for Tasmanian school leavers. Around 2 in 5 school leavers aged 17 to 24 (60.5%) were engaged fully in education, training and/or employment.
This poor educational attainment and engagement in further education or training and employment can be further linked to poor language and literacy achievement in Tasmania, from as young as early childhood.
Around one in five children in Tasmania start school every year developmentally vulnerable across five indicators: physical, social, emotional, language and communication. An additional one in 10 are at risk of being developmentally vulnerable.
Further to that, around one in five of our grade 7 students start the year at or below the NAPLAN National Minimum Standard (NMS) for reading which represents a very low level of reading skill.
For those grade seven students whose parents’ highest level of completed schooling was year 11 or below, around two in five students (40 per cent) are at or below the NMS for reading.
In terms of comparison by state and territory, the percentage of Tasmanian grade 7 students who are at or above the NMS for reading is lower, and statistically significantly different, than most other states and territories.
Those who are not reading proficiently by grade seven are highly likely to struggle with the demands of the wider curriculum and are more likely to not complete school, leading to poorer health and well-being over their lifetimes.
So, while our lifestyle is the envy of the nation for so many Tasmanians, it’s a point in time perspective. Less understood however, is that while we may be enjoying the lifestyle on offer now, this attitude of undervaluing improving educational outcomes for ALL Tasmanians will have longer term consequences, including for the ‘government-dependent middleclass’.
Why does it matter that Tasmanians have such poor educational outcomes and don’t value pursuing further education? Why does it matter for those who have completed school and been fortunate enough to secure work and a reliable income and currently enjoy the Tasmanian lifestyle?
It matters because it affects what sort of industry and business we can attract to the state. A skilled and educated workforce is critical to attract and retain investment and improve productivity.
It matters because the type of industries and businesses we have in the state affects the types of jobs that Tasmanians can get and what they are paid for their work.
It matters because our young people, our children and grandchildren, have limited career pathways to aspire to.
It matters because for those Tasmanians who do successfully complete year 12 and pursue further education, many are unable to secure meaningful work at their level of qualification and/or field of study and either need to leave the state to find work, or work at a lower level of skill in Tasmania.
It matters it as without the availability of higher skilled jobs it may affect where our children live and work and where our grandchildren are born and grow up.
If our children do stay in Tasmania, it will affect the type of job they can get, the income they can secure and whether or not they can afford to buy their own home.
It matters because it may affect when, and if, our children and grandchildren are able to return to live in Tasmania – the best place to raise a family - and usually depends on whether they are able to gain commensurate work in the State.
It matters because as we age and our independence decreases, and our need for assistance to go to appointments or do the shopping increases, we may not have readily available access to help and support if our children and grandchildren no longer live in the state and we will become dependent on (already stretched) public services to provide that assistance.
It matters because it will affect how long we have to wait to get a shoulder, knee or hip replacement, our glaucoma or cataracts treated, or whether we can get treatment for our illnesses and other medical needs in Tasmania (if they are even available in Tasmania) and how long we wait for a room in an aged care facility.
Growing up my parents would often say to my sister and I, ‘the greatest gift we can give you is a good education’. While my sister and I would tire of hearing this, they were right and we have both benefited from that education, and continue to do so. My work over the decades has shown what is possible for those who receive the gift of a good education, and what the lifelong outcomes are for those who do not. Not all parents can give the gift of a good education, nor should they be the ones who are expected to, particularly if they haven’t received one themselves. A good education is actually a human right to be provided by, at minimum, the public education institutional framework.
We ALL have a vested interested in improving the educational outcomes of ALL Tasmanians, and their subsequent participation in the economy and society.
Tasmania has not yet reached peak population ageing and the point of population (natural) decline, which is projected to occur around 2030 as the last of the baby boomers turn 65 years of age.
From this point, it will be difficult to recover economically and socially, and will impact on our much-valued way of life in Tasmania. We have the opportunity to shape our destiny, starting with a clear, shared vision that includes improving our educational attainment and participation in the economy (supply) which is aligned with strategic industry policy (demand).
Read more at www.lisadenny.com.au