Bursaries to lure top students into teaching degrees

Education will be one of the main battlegrounds at this year’s federal election, to be held before June. If elected, the Labor Party will offer Australia’s top achievers bursaries of up to AU$40,000 (US$28,400) to take up teaching as a career.

Labor has promised to provide up to 1,000 bursaries in 2020 to students with “exceptional marks” in their final year at school, as well as others with outstanding achievement at university “or in the workplace”.

Announcing the plan, Labor’s Deputy Leader Tanya Plibersek said students who were dux of their school, had won a university medal, or were “at the top of their profession” would be asked to consider enrolling in a teaching degree.

Plibersek said the tax-free bursaries of AU$10,000 a year would be paid to students undertaking teaching degrees for the duration of their courses, up to a maximum of four years.

The goal was to present a career in education in the same light as other, more competitive courses, she said.

“We want people competing to get into teaching in the same way they compete to get into a medicine course at university. We want Australians with a track record of achievement, motivation and capability to teach the next generation.”

Plibersek said a career in teaching should be a first choice, “not a fallback” option because a student did not get into a more preferred course.

To retain eligibility for the bursary, students would have to maintain a high level of academic achievement throughout their degree, she said.

They would also have to teach in state schools for between one and four years after graduating, depending on how long they had received a bursary, she said.

More than 83,000 Australians are enrolled in education faculties at the nation’s universities, although only a minority would be intending to teach in schools.

Many school-leavers with low marks who miss out on enrolling in their preferred faculty opt for education just to gain a university place. Once enrolled, they can later transfer to other courses.

An undergraduate usually takes four years to obtain a bachelor of teaching degree, while those who have already graduated in other fields can undertake a further two years to obtain a master of education degree.

Students enrolled in teaching degrees gain classroom experience in schools throughout the four-year programme, with school placements sometimes commencing in the first year.

These begin with student teachers observing and interacting with small groups of primary school children.

Later, the placements expand to include different forms of classroom interaction, with the student teachers developing curriculum materials and whole-school activities.

Those undertaking teaching degrees who showed high achievement in mathematics during their secondary school years, or who have completed a first-year mathematics course at university, may also elect to undertake a specialist study of mathematics to become maths teachers.

Help for talented students

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the Labor Party announcement would help talented students enrolled in teaching degrees to pay their bills while training for a career as classroom teachers.

“We know from our last Student Finances Survey that one in seven university students say they regularly go without food because they just can’t afford it,” she said.

“Today’s announcement is AU$40,000 worth of encouragement and assistance which would help some of the next generation of teaching students to pay the bills and pursue a career in the classroom.”

But Jackson said universities would be keen to see further details, including the selection criteria for choosing bursary holders and how the scheme would function alongside other student payment schemes.

She also referred to the high quality of teaching graduates already coming out of Australia’s “world-class universities”.

“More than nine in 10 teaching graduates are in the top 30% of the Australian population for literacy and numeracy skills,” she said.