SBS World News Radio: A new report from the OECD shows Australians are embracing education, especially at a tertiary level, even though most are not willing to go far from home.
Yet, the report comparing OECD nations on education has early-childhood organisations asking why Australia is lagging so far behind in some segments involving that sector.
The latest snapshot of Australia's education system shows government spending is the seventh-lowest in the 35-nation OECD and highlights the country's reliance on private funds.
Early-learning advocates are particularly unhappy, pointing to a low participation rate for three-year-olds and relatively small share of gross domestic product spent on early-childhood education.
In contrast, five per cent more four-year-olds than a year ago are participating in pre-primary education.
Early Childhood Australia chief executive Sam Page says the fact the government funds pre-school education for four-year-olds but not three-year-olds discourages many families.
She says other barriers to early-childhood education include a lack of affordability, distances involved and a lack of knowledge about the benefits of early learning for children.
Ms Page says many children are starting school when they are not ready, before they have developed adequate social and cognitive skills.
She says one in five children is developmentally vulnerable, with that number jumping to two in five for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
And she says that is where early education is especially important.
"If we can invest more in early learning, we can give children a better beginning to their education, and they're much more likely to make a successful transition into school and do better throughout their education career. Particularly what children benefit from is being with other children, learning together, learning to cooperate, learning to regulate their own emotions, learning to join in group activities and to be curious. That's the most important thing we can do for younger children is to give them confidence and create children that are keen to learn and will learn through their lifespan."
Ms Page says she is particularly concerned about statistics showing 30 per cent of children in early learning are not attending for the whole government-funded 15 hours a week.
She says there is a wealth of evidence proving early education is beneficial for everyone.
"There are three areas where it returns benefits to the economy. One is the taxes paid by working families. The second one is the better education performance, more children staying and finishing school and going on to tertiary study. And the third is, and the major return to the economy is, reducing disadvantage, reducing lifelong problems of disadvantage, by giving children a better start."
Almost half of all Australians between ages 25 and 34 have a tertiary qualification, outstripping the OECD average of 43 per cent.
Australia also has one of the lowest numbers of students choosing to study overseas compared to its intake of international students, at 15 per cent.
In terms of subject choices, the report shows students are shunning science-related fields.
Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek says, overall, the report reveals the importance of the nation's higher-education sector.
She has told the ABC the system must keep up with the needs of Australians.
"We want a quality education for young Australians. This is not just about treating universities as businesses. This is about providing the best possible education for Australian students. And we know that, in coming years, two out of three jobs that are created will need these post-secondary-school qualifications. We also know that universities aren't just teaching factories, they are drivers of research and innovation."
The Federal Government is trying to pass higher-education changes through the Senate which would reduce university funding and raise fees.
People would also be required to repay loans sooner.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics' Bruce Hockman has told the ABC households are already stretched in trying to meet their financial demands.
"The largest chunk of spending is actually going on housing costs and the basics. That's perhaps a little bit unexpected. The education costs have certainly been the fastest-rising components of household expenditure, up 44 per cent over the six years since the previous survey."