Higher education policy 1979

As reported in the SMH, the National Archives today released two 1979 Cabinet papers on higher education.

One Cabinet submission was a proposal to re-introduce university fees, perhaps at about $1,000 a year. The arguments in favour were ‘equity’, noting the generally regressive nature of higher education subsidy; some microeconomic benefit in encouraging students to think more carefully about whether they should pursue higher education, and if so in which discipline; and budgetary savings.

The arguments against were essentially political – a 1977 election promise not to reintroduce fees, public criticism, and complications in Commonwealth-State relations (at the time, universities were funded via tied grants to the states, rather than directly). These arguments won.

This result seems to capture the long-term culture of higher education policy on the Coalition side – some broadly sound but half-hearted and quarter-way policy suggestions, trumped by political nervousness. There has never been a critical mass of Coalition MPs who care enough and know enough about the issue to take some political risks to achieve something really worthwhile.

Foreigners who don’t vote have been easier to deal with politically, and a Cabinet submission that recommended imposing charges on international students was accepted. I’m not sure that as the SMH suggests this was the start of the international student industry, since foreign students were still subsidised and limited in number. But it perhaps was an incremental measure that showed fees did not diminish demand.

But some things are the same then as now: “in 1978, an estimated 73% of private overseas students ceasing studies obtained permanent residence in Australia”. Education has never been the only thing on overseas students’ minds.

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