The next issue of Policy is going to run a series of short articles by CIS researchers on social policy myths. I’m writing about the myth that university charges deter students from low-income backgrounds, one which our new leader believes. There is the associated belief that Whitlam’s free education opened the university system. In December 2006 I reported on our now PM and Deputy PM on this subject:
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.”
Julia Gillard was reported as saying, “…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.”
In a book chapter published last year, ACER researchers Gary Marks and Julie McMillan analysed data from a dozen social surveys conducted between 1984 and 2001 with questions about both the respondent’s education level and his or her parents’ occupational group. Consistent with previous research, they found that working class people in the ‘free education’ cohort born between 1960 and 1969 had much lower rates of university qualification than the HECS cohort born after 1970 (though the oldest in that group would have had at least some free university education).
Though that was unsurprising, something else did seem odd: the 1960-69 free education group had lower overall rates of degree achievement (9.1%) than people born between 1950 and 1959 (11.4%), even though only those born in 1957 or later could have enrolled as school leavers in the Whitlam free education period from 1974 onwards. Surely a sampling error? I looked at ABS Transition from Education to Work 1994, which finds higher numbers and a narrowing gap but the same pattern: the older group on 16.3% attainment and the younger on 14.7%.
There are always mature-age students at universities, and so all-other-things being equal we’d expect older generations to be slightly more educated at any given time than younger generations, but with catch-up going on as they age. And indeed that does seem to have been the case. I collated data from the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2003 and 2005 and the Australian Election Survey 2004 and found that the free-education generation had indeed edged slightly ahead: 28.3% to 27.1%. ABS Education and Work 2004 finds the same pattern but with lower overall numbers: 22% to 21.6%.
But surely the Whitlam years weren’t all-other-things equal, even allowing for the mythology surrounding that time? Whitlam was expanding higher education funding, but it seems that the initial period of free education probably left the 1960-69 cohort less university-educated than people ten years older.
What explains this puzzle? Unfortunately enrolment numbers from the 1960s and 1970s aren’t great, due to the on-going adding in of students in colleges to the longer-term university statistics. But what I think probably happened was that, for the 1950s generation, higher education places grew more quickly relative to population than the 1960s generation, meaning that they had more opportunities as young people to acquire a degree. As places became more readily available in the HECS era the 1960s generation have caught up with the 1950s generation, and the two cohorts will finish with similar degree-holding rates. Both are well-behind the 1970-79 generation, and will end up even further behind as the mature-age students of that cohort acquire their qualifications.
It’s a reminder of the trade-offs to be made when financing higher education. At any given time, the government funds available to higher education are limited, and the more that is spent on tuition subsidy the less there is available to expand the number of places. With Wayne Swan now telling universities that there won’t be any new money, Labor’s proposal to cut HECS for maths and science will burn money that could have been spent expanding access.
In most respects, thankfully, Kevin Rudd is no Gough Whitlam. But in higher education he looks like repeating, on a smaller scale, the mistakes of his predecessor.