Whitlamite nostalgia in higher education

Jenny Macklin may not survive as the ALP Shadow Education Minister, but if recent statements from the Dreaming Team are any guide, her 1970s worldview will continue to drive Labor higher education policy. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard appear to be Whitlamite nostalgists. According to Rudd, he

was inspired to improve the quality of and access to education because he was the first member of his family to attend university, largely because of the Whitlam government’s free tertiary education policies.

And in his weekend broadening of his image, he told ALP supporters that:

“it makes my heart bleed when I have young kids come into my office in Brisbane and say to me ‘I don’t think we can afford to go to uni, the HECS is to much’. I think we’ve got to a stage where that has to be turned around.”

In today’s Australian (can’t find a link, sorry, but the original text is at p.49 of yesterday’s Hansard) Julia Gillard is reported as saying, in the process of lamenting the bad job schools were doing (surely the responsibility of Labor state governments?), that

“…courtesy of the Whitlam government, I then went to university and obtained two degrees. I fear that it is harder today for a girl from a working class background to make that journey than when I was young.”


As always, a reality check is in order. In the late 1970s when Rudd and Gillard were at university, the Year 12 retention rate at government schools was 28.9%. At non-Catholic independent schools, the retention rate was 87%. No prizes for guessing which group was best positioned to take advantage of free education. The old scholarship system was a far more efficient way of scooping up bright kids from working class backgrounds like Rudd and Gillard. Free education was an inhibiting factor in expanding university access, because the money wasted subsidising affluent people was money not spent expanding the number of places. Annual growth rates in the late 1970s and early 1980s were lower than they had been in the 1960s when some students paid modest fees, and in the late 1980s and early 1990s when HECS was introduced.

Whatever kids tell Kevin Rudd, less than two months ago there was more evidence that HECS has no differential effect between socioeconomic backgrounds on the likelihood of attending university – though (consistent with Gillard’s concerns) it does still have a big effect on school results, which helps explain the large SES differences in university attendance rates.

Labor’s current policy on HECS, which Rudd seems to endorse, contemplates spending hundreds of millions of dollars reducing rates, a policy likely to have no effect at all beyond transferring wealth to people who don’t need it. And that’s hundreds of millions of dollars that cannot be spent on higher priorities, such as better schools. It’s another lesson in the dangers on drawing too heavily on personal experience and anecdote in making policy, and paying too little attention to the actual evidence.

21 Responses to “Whitlamite nostalgia in higher education

  • 1
    Russell
    December 6th, 2006 09:12

    Awful lot of anecdotes though …. the only explanation you have for this is ‘nostalgia’, which is inadequate, isn’t it? What might explain this widely held belief (held by people who were there at the time) is, as I suggested, the powerful and important symbolic value of saying that universities are for everyone, the barrier of fees has been removed. A psychological barrier was broken down – if you grew up after 1970 you probably don’t realise what it was like before, for working class people.

    Andrew, are you contradicting yourself when you say “Free education was an inhibiting factor in expanding university access, because the money wasted subsidising affluent people was money not spent expanding the number of places”, because I’m sure you’ve written that hardly anyone was paying fees anyway.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    December 6th, 2006 09:27

    Russell – And as I have pointed out before, there is no value in breaking down ‘psychological’ barriers if there are no places. If people have misconceptions, we should target them directly, rather than spending vast sums on unncessary policy change.

    There is no contradiction. The universities had some revenue from fees, and this could have been increased to widen access.

  • 3
    Russell
    December 6th, 2006 10:08

    Andrew – I think you’re being churlish: obviously we needed to break down the perceived barriers AND increase places.

    I’d be surprised if places hadn’t increased under Whitlam because I was working in the UWA library and money just poured into that university. Still Saint Gough was only there for 3 years and it takes a while for plans to get put into action. I’m not surprised if places didn’t expand much under Fraser because that Liberal government is remembered as just a period of stagnation.

    It still seems to me that you’re contradicting yourself because you say that “The universities had some revenue from fees” but that Whitlam’s initiative on fees was “spending vast sums on unncessary policy change.” Which is it: some money or a vast amount of money ?

  • 4
    David Rubie
    December 6th, 2006 10:11

    Andrew Norton wrote:
    “The old scholarship system was a far more efficient way of scooping up bright kids from working class backgrounds like Rudd and Gillard.”

    Rubbish. That’s just as much misty eyed nostalgia as your critique of Rudd and Gillard. You are directly defending the nastiest of social caste systems that existed before the Whitlam era.

    You’ve more or less accepted in your other posts that HECS worked to expand places (and full fees have done little under the current government to do any better). The obvious conclusion is to expand university funding to create more places based on demand (where HECS introduces a nice market type mechanism while tending to minimise the demographic effects of wealth).

    My wife was the first one of her entire family to get a tertiary degree, to say that the psychological effect of free places counted for nothing is cleary incorrect. My father (who was a printer) would not have gone on to study economics without free university education. The effects you are deriding were very real to a lot of us and clearly broadened the perception of availability of university education to at least two generations.

    Russell is dead right – as a powerful symbolic gesture the Whitlam government remade Australians perceptions of what they could be. Whatever other failings that government might have had, it remains a driving principle in a society that pays lip service to “a fair go” but rarely backs it up with actions.

  • 5
    Rajat Sood
    December 6th, 2006 10:24
  • 6
    derrida derider
    December 6th, 2006 10:39

    I, too, was the first one in my extended family to get a uni degree, via St Gough’s reforms, and can testify that opening up the unis had powerful effects on attitudes to higher education. I generally agree with your point about “the plural of anecdote is not data”, but I don’t think the data here has picked up that removal of an attitudinal barrier was indeed important.

    But I think in general we are now making too much fuss about tertiary education and nowehere near enough fuss about making sure kids don’t suffer educational disadvantage at earlier ages. The transfer of Commonwealth funds to private schooling is creating a “residual” State system, like the “residual” public housing system, that undermines long run political support for state-funded provision for working class kids.

  • 7
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 6th, 2006 11:08

    Not only was I the first in my family to go to uni, I was the first to finish high school.

    The fact that Rudd can argue such nonsense is a poor reflection on the man. Anybody who is too stupid to work out that HECS is a good scheme for individual students is too stupid to be at university. HECS represents an incredible subsidy to students (I agree not as good as ‘free’ education, but still good), and repayment is semi-voluntary.

  • 8
    Jimmythespiv
    December 6th, 2006 11:24

    These days, aspiration, familial expectations and the valuing of tertiary education are the key drivers of whether someone wants to go on to tertiary education. HECs (a large, deferred financial obligation) disappears relatively quickly once people begin working. If the onus to repay HECs were reduced or removed enirely, the money previously devoted to paying a small portion of one’s education would just be spent in the bar on thursday, friday and saturday nights during those first 2-3 years of first real job (or other lifestyle choice).

  • 9
    conrad
    December 6th, 2006 12:47

    I can add the opposite anecdote. All of my family are at least middle class and all have degrees (all 2 degrees in fact, excluding one), and I don’t differ in this respect. Furthermore my degree/PhD/Post-doc were all payed for in their entirety (minus a few thousand dollars) by the Australian public, even though I probably would have payed for at least the degree if push came to shove myself. In addition, the majority of my working life I haven’t worked in Australia, so I haven’t even contributed that many tax dollars back. The only thing that differers from the compeltely non-equitable model was that I happened to go to a public high school (like about 5% of people in my course), so the Australian tax-payer even got to pay for that. So all of this free-education has helped the middle-class stay middle class (thanks). Where’s the equity here?

  • 10
    Russell
    December 6th, 2006 13:09

    This is strange – when the ALP proposed limiting the money it might give to the richest and most elite schools in Australia, there were howls of protest: of course the richest people in Australia were entitled to have their children’s education subsidised. But here we have right-wingers suggesting that even the middle-class shouldn’t have their tertiary education subsidised by the hoi polloi.

  • 11
    Andrew Leigh
    December 6th, 2006 13:19

    “Whatever kids tell Kevin Rudd, less than two months ago there was more evidence that HECS has no differential effect between socioeconomic backgrounds on the likelihood of attending university – though (consistent with Gillard

  • 12
    Andrew Elder
    December 6th, 2006 13:23

    It

  • 13
    Jimmythespiv
    December 6th, 2006 13:31

    Andrew Leigh

    Not suggesting that subsidised education shouldn’t be subsidised via HECs for the midle class, the wealthy, or the working poor. I am just suggesting that HECs is not oerly onerous, and that those who enjoy ssubsidised education via HECs, and thereby go on to earn more than the average, should contribute modestly to the cost of it.

  • 14
    Andrew Norton
    December 6th, 2006 13:32

    Andrew L – I have added more text to that para to try to clarify my meaning.

  • 15
    Don Arthur
    December 6th, 2006 17:30

    I agree with DD’s comment that “we are now making too much fuss about tertiary education and nowehere near enough fuss about making sure kids don

  • 16
    Bannerman
    December 6th, 2006 22:13

    I fail to see the point in your rant, Andrew. If the current government had properly funded university placements over the last ten years, you’d not have had anything to critique Rudd on, would you? So he got a cheap education. Big deal. Pity there wasn’t more of it, or alternatively, at least some assurance that once the children are finished racking up enormous HECS debts, they’ve at least a fighting chance at a job which will pay enough to allow the debt to be repaid. Intervention? Better at the front end, young fella. Bit late for society in Oz now though, eh?

  • 17
    Boris
    December 6th, 2006 23:31

    “If the current government had properly funded university placements over the last ten years, …”

    You mean from higher taxes, right?

  • 18
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 7th, 2006 06:15

    Actually, ‘properly funded’ could mean less federal money.

  • 19
    conrad
    December 7th, 2006 07:09

    I’m with DD and DA on funding for early(ier) education also. I think its almost pointless worrying about equity at university until this is fixed, otherwise things like scholarship schemes simply mean that you go from 5% to 10% of people from poorer backgrounds (or whatever the real numbers are). I also doubt that Australian universities are going to come up with them, since they won’t be able to afford them as easily as the big US universities that have much more money.

    In addition, I’d also agree that it is more worthwhile even if the educational returns are not more than at young adulthood, since large equity divisions still occur thanks to further education. Thus whilst you might not learn as much later on (which is debateable), it still changes your likely long-term outcomes.

  • 20
    David Rubie
    December 7th, 2006 09:04

    Boris wrote:

  • 21
    Club Troppo » Friday’s Missing Link
    December 8th, 2006 17:53

    […] Whitlamite nostalgia in higher education – Andrew Norton Jenny Macklin may not survive as the ALP Shadow Education Minister, but if recent statements from the Dreaming Team are any guide, her 1970s worldview will continue to drive Labor higher education policy. Both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard appear to be Whitlamite nostalgists. Andrew also debunks some on the left who seem to have