A generation of Australians will forever remember Gough Whitlam as the man who gave them a free university education. Whitlam’s abolition of university fees cemented him as a Labor folk hero yet his higher education legacy remains contested and contradictory.
In a pre-election speech in Bankstown in 1972, Whitlam said: “We believe that a student’s merit, rather than a parent’s wealth, should decide who should benefit from the community’s vast financial commitment to tertiary education.”
Surprisingly, the Australian Union of Students lobbied for fees to be retained – reportedly because the students believed making higher education free would redistribute resources to those who did not need them.
Nevertheless, the Whitlam government abolished university fees in 1974. The policy would remain in place for 14 years, including the entire life of the Fraser government.
Whitlam also gave the Commonwealth full control over university funding and introduced a system of student income support that survives today through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy.
While more working-class students and women attended university, the introduction of free higher education did not lead to a dramatic change in the composition of university enrolments. That’s because most working-class Australians did not complete high school, meaning university was not an option for them. And about 80 per cent of students had not paid fees anyway because they were covered by Commonwealth scholarships and other subsidies.
While free higher education remained popular, by the late 1980s senior members of the Hawke government were determined to unwind it. More students were finishing year 12, leading to a growing queue of prospective students. Funding the entire cost of their education would place a significant burden on the budget. It would also be regressive, higher education minister John Dawkins concluded, because most university students came from well-off backgrounds and would earn more over a lifetime because of their degree.
In 1989, Labor established HECS, meaning students would pay tuition fees but only when earning a decent wage.
The Abbott government is now proposing allowing universities to charge students as much as they want for a degree.
While Australia is moving ever further away from the era of no university fees, Bruce Chapman, the architect of the HECS scheme, says Whitlam’s impact should not be underestimated.
“Whitlam’s higher education agenda and Dawkins’ had one thing in common: to take away any need for people to find money to enrol in university,” Chapman says. “Gough Whitlam left a legacy of a system without upfront fees that has lasted for 40 years.”
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.