Maybe free university didn’t improve access for all, but neither will fee deregulation

Gough Whitlam’s free university didn’t greatly improve access for students from low socio-economic backgrounds, but if Pyne thinks his reforms will, he’s badly mistaken. Flickr/Gostalgia, CC BY-SA

Education Minister Christopher Pyne defied historical orthodoxy last week by declaring Gough Whitlam’s free tertiary education a failure. Free education only helped reinforce the place of the rich, Pyne argued.

Pyne is right. And yet this is also a spectacular misuse of history. As a historian, I hate bad history. But in this case the stakes are much higher than my discipline’s lofty principles. Pyne’s proposals for higher education bode ill for equity and Australia’s economic competitiveness.

History can help us with policy, but only if we properly understand it. True, Whitlam did little to shift higher education’s socio-economic statistics in the 1970s. This historical fact was a surprise. People were popping up all over the place to point to someone who would never have gone to uni if it were not for Whitlam.

Stories, however, are not statistics. Under Whitlam, higher education did not get a lot fairer, but it did get bigger, expanding by 25% to 276,559 enrolments by 1975, just three years after Labor’s election. Still, that is not a lot of students, not compared to the mass system we see today, with more than one million enrolments. Nor was it very diverse.

Why didn’t free education make universities more inclusive? Firstly, it did not have enough time. Free education was not dismantled until the Dawkins reforms in 1988, but shifts in the global economy and the local labour market hindered expansion well before that.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne introduces the Higher Education Bill to parliament. AAP

In 1973, the world faced an oil crisis, which led to growing unemployment. By the late 1970s, this affected young peoples’ decision to go to uni.

It was a different time. A couple of decades earlier, hardly anyone went to university. You didn’t need to: good jobs were available without a degree. So after the oil shocks, when going to uni did not guarantee employment, students stopped going, even though it was free.

Enrolment growth stagnated. In 1975 growth in student numbers was 8.6%, but by 1981 it was just 1.3%. It stayed very low until the Dawkins reforms.

Under these economic conditions Australia never really had time to see whether free education would have the desired effect. So, on the facts, free education did not make university more inclusive; but that is only part of the story.

Pyne, oddly enough, is using the same data and argument Labor used in 1987 to introduce HECS. While enrolment was still so elite, it was not fair to use working-class taxes to perpetuate privilege.

Under HECS, students share the cost of their education. This made it fairer. It also injected some much-needed cash into universities, allowing the system to expand and become more inclusive, which it did.

This understanding of history ought to lead us to consider what a fair share of the cost of going to uni might be. This might lead us to review HECS. Deregulation, however, is completely different.

Let’s think about the structure of Australian higher education and what, as a result, is at stake. In the global economy, competitiveness is connected to the number of educated people in the workforce. Since the Second World War, every nation expanded university participation for this reason. We had to educate more people if we were to compete internationally.

In Australia, people with a degree get better jobs. If we are a fair country, we want to give everyone the best chance of success, regardless of background. We also want the best people selected for our jobs.

No one believes talent is distributed according to birth and wealth, so we need universities to admit students based on merit. This is what Australians expect, but what university leaders want is different. Universities Australia this week encouraged the government to deregulate fees.

To understand why, we should consider the way vice-chancellors are constantly worried about their bottom line. Charging fees that match their costs is seductive. Being a pragmatic bunch, vice-chancellors (and thus Universities Australia) are also thinking deregulation is the best deal they are likely to get from this government.

Australians should be worried, even though deregulation will take some time to affect us. At first, fees will not increase by much. Equity, for a year or two, might even improve under a scholarship system, at least in some universities with current poor equity enrolments.

Things will change, however. Universities, like the businesses they have become, will want to grow and competition will compel them to raise fees.

Imagine: Monash increases its fees, so Melbourne does too. In fact, to keep up with Monash’s world-class research program Melbourne will have to – and Sydney will need to follow suit. Eventually universities will charge fees as high as the middle class can bear, but higher than low-socioeconomic families can pay.

Australian society will be less equal. Our workforce and therefore our economy will also be less competitive internationally.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.