Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Is it true Whitlam's free education mainly helped the middle class?

I have no wish to go into competition against the ABC's excellent fact checking habits, but I thought I'd share the answer to a question I was posed on Facebook this morning. 

"Christopher Pyne claimed on ABC RN this morning that when Whitlam abolished university fees, it did not change the demographic composition of the student body, ie "all the middle class people planning on going to university anyway now simply went for free", and it did not lead to greater participation by lower ses groups. Opinions? Data?"

Here's what I said:
Pyne is using the same data and argument that was used in establishing HECS. Yes, for the most part demographics did not shift with the - relatively small - expansion at the Whitlam reforms. But we should remember there were only a few years of expansion really - by the end of the 70s unemployment among university graduates was growing so that growth stagnated.

In the 1980s when they wanted to know what the effect of free education was, found that the new group was mature-age women. In a period where women's participation was still lower than it needed to be introducing HECS and impacting that was a big loss. But women now exceed men in numbers (though not benefits of higher ed of course).

The expansion that Pyne won't discuss is post-Dawkins. HECS was a really excellent system that addressed the equity concern with free education (working class taxes paying for the perpetuation of elite advantage), funded the only REALLY significant expansion universities have seen and included attention to equity. There were and remain problems with equity, but they were not caused by the HECS system.

Deregulation is absolutely not the same thing as this and I am angry about using the pro-HECS arguments for deregulation. Deregulation will be disastrous, not only for equity (despite scholarships…) but for the labour market in general. Not straight away…give us a decade. I am furious with the VCs for supporting this, though it shows that are beyond hope as the ones who will reform the system (I admit I did have some hope, for a while…). This is very bad policy, in fact, for everyone. It will help the Go8 bottom line, but not for long. In a decade we will have raised fees as high as the middle class can bear, low-SES families will have to be advised to stay out of higher education because the cost benefit doesn't add up and we will be heading towards an under-skilled and under-competitive labour market...

I was then asked: So how do we explain the huge expansion of staffing in universities in the 70s - if it was not in response to increasing student numbers - where did those rivers of gold come from?

Oh it did grow - figures are [in the book...out soon!]- and quite a lot, it just did not make the mass system that we see today. But growth slowed really dramatically c.1978. The system was confused. They were still benefiting from the Murray review all through the 1960s, the baby boom helped late 60s to mid-70s. Universities believed they would continue to grow. They were crowded and the government funded new universities…some of which opened at exactly the wrong time. The oil shocks had that unexpected effect on the economy and stagnation in growth in student numbers hit universities in the late 70s. Universities had NO experience with responding to that. By 1981 they were in trouble…

I wrote a bit about this with Tim Pitman earlier in the year, see