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.