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John Passant

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October 2014



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



The rise and fall of free education

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

Free education was won through consistent protest in the 1970s and can be won back now through consistent protest writes John Rainford in Green Left Weekly.

By the mid-1880s, all of the Australian colonies had passed education Acts based on the principal of “free, compulsory and secular” education. This mirrored similar legislation in Britain where the Factory Act of 1833 had made it unlawful for children under nine years of age to be employed in textile factories.

In 1878, the Factory and Workshops Act extended this to all factories and limited the working hours of children under 14 years of age.

The welfare of children in Britain was further provided for by the Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that made school attendance compulsory until the age of 10. Across the whole of Europe, between 1840 and the 1880s, while the population increased by a third, the number of children attending school increased by 145%.

Publicly funded elementary education in Australia and elsewhere was linked to the extension of suffrage. This was the “civilising” function that Thomas Paine had argued in the late 18th century had to be exercised by government in the transmission from despotism to civilised society.

An emerging Labour Party was onto it from the start. The first platform of the Labour Electoral League in NSW, which saw 35 Labour men elected to parliament in 1891, called for “free, compulsory and technical education, higher as well as elementary”.

Education for the common good would enable the universal citizenship that was the promise of universal political suffrage.

In Victoria in 1948 almost 75% of students in the final year of secondary school were enrolled in private schools. But in the decades after this, the rapid expansion of Australia’s education systems saw universal secondary education, upper-secondary and tertiary education become increasingly important factors in the life of a growing number of citizens.

The high-water mark was reached in 1975-76. In 1948-49, the proportion of education spending provided by private sources was 20.3%; in 1975-76 this had fallen to just 5.6% – 0.35% of GDP.

It was, of course, the Whitlam Labor government that introduced free tertiary education in 1974. It was a policy Whitlam spelled out at the ALP campaign launch at Blacktown in 1972: “Education is the key to equality of opportunity … we believe that a student’s merit rather than a parent’s wealth should decide who should benefit.”

Even though student fees in 1973 were less than 5% of higher education income and were paid by only 20% of full-time students, the abolition of fees initiated a public policy shift by establishing a universal rights-based approach to educational programs.

For the ALP and its rank and file members it became a point of differentiation with the Liberal Party that they were proud to proclaim. Its public popularity was shown in opinion polls where 75% of respondents were opposed to tertiary education fees when the Fraser Liberal government attempted to reintroduce them for second and higher degrees in 1976 and 1981. On both occasions, this public support bolstered student protests that defeated the proposals.

But what the Liberal Party couldn’t do the ALP could, with the turn to neoliberalism of the Bob Hawke government. In 1986, the Labor government announced that a Higher Education Administration Charge (HEAC) of $250 per student would be introduced the following year.

The rationale for tertiary education fees was provided by a committee set up by the education minister John Dawkins and chaired by the former NSW Premier Neville Wran.

It established as fact the fiction that fee abolition was unable to broaden participation. The inconvenient truth that between 1974 and 1987 the proportion of women students had risen from 38.5% to 50.1% was explained away in class terms, that “participation by women in low socioeconomic groups has not improved”.

The report went on to establish a myth that has been perpetuated since by both major parties: “The fundamental inequity in our present system of financing higher education is that small and privileged sections of the community who benefit directly from access to higher education make no direct contribution to the costs.”

Free tertiary education was abolished by 56 votes to 41 at the ALP conference in Hobart in June 1988. Among the opposition was the then Victorian Premier John Cain, who argued that the cost of free tertiary education could be easily funded from budget surpluses at a time when the company tax rate had just been reduced from 49% to 39%.

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced in 1989 as a deferred fee of $1800 per full-time student, repayable through the taxation system. Once introduced with bi-partisan support, the only trajectory for the fee was upwards.

As to the spurious rationale of private rather than public benefit from higher education, as far back as 1964 the report of the Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia (known as the Martin report after the chairperson Sir Leslie Martin) commissioned by the Menzies government, had reported that the benefits of higher education to individual students were but “a fraction” of the benefits accruing to society as a whole.

In 2001 an OECD report found that an additional year of education raised output per capita by between 4% and 7%.

A more recent OECD study reports that it is the Australian public that profits most from higher education while students bear the majority of the costs. Students now contribute 55% of their tertiary education costs compared with an average of 30% in OECD countries. Male students repay $6 for every public dollar of higher education funding and females $4.40.

The economics of higher tertiary education fees don’t make any sense. But to the major parties the politics of privilege do. Which is why we will see a return to what Whitlam abolished in 1974 — parent’s wealth and not student merit will determine access to universities.



Comment from Kay
Time October 20, 2014 at 6:21 am

Actually, what existed before Whitlam WAS merit-based! I and my 8 close school friends all received tertiary education scholarships based on our results in the 1963 NSW Leaving certificate exam. And we were all dirt poor! We all knew we had to perform well at the Leaving Certificate to be able to go to uni. Our fallback plan? TAFE. Several of us received both Commonwealth Scholarships (for uni) and Teachers College Scholarships. You chose which one you wanted to accept, and the one you knocked back was offered to the next in line on a merit-based list. A Commonwealth Scholarship paid all uni fees, college fees (if you had to live away from home) and a small living allowance. Ditto the TC Scholarship. Most of us picked up part-time jobs to help us through our studies. I worked in a local shop on weekends, and during uni holidays.

Before Whitlam, poor kids COULD go to uni, but only if they performed well in their final exam. So – it WAS merit-based.

Kids with rich parents who did not make the merit-based cut, could get their parents to pay for their education and living costs. They only had to matriculate, and meet the requirements for their chosen field of study.

Whitlam’s scheme was very generous, hence the difficulty in funding it long term. It also removed much of the merit-based approach to uni entry. The sole entry requirement was your ability to meet the requirements of your chosen course of study. Entry requirements subsequently started to be eroded. Now, many of those starting uni really shouldn’t be there – and a large number quit early.

I would like to see better funding given to TAFE colleges, and to apprentices. I also prefer the pre-Dawkins set-up – unis that basically only produced graduates for specific professional occupations, and other unis (the top ones) that concentrated on more academically aligned courses, producing graduates who went on to higher degrees and research. There are definitely 2 separate roles for unis. But undergraduates and graduates should be able to move between the two types of unis without too much difficulty.

Comment from Hasbeen
Time October 20, 2014 at 12:33 pm

Great post Kay, & you got the real facts, except that many companies offered scholarships as well. Again you had to have top results, & the right subjects to get one of those.

At my country NSW high, they could not offer separate physics & chemistry courses. Our science master ran science honours classes, [equivalent to the separate subjects], 2 lunch times, & 3 afternoons for the 4 of us to qualify for those scholarships.

In 1957 I was offered a Commonwealth Scholarships, & a cadetship with General Motors, that included a B Sc. engineering, & a reasonable pay cheque, just a little more than the government subsidy. Of course I had to work those ridiculously long uni holidays at the Pagewood factory. A bit like work experience today.

I agree also with your suggestion of more support for TAFE. We need more competent tradesmen than we do arts graduates or graduates of environmental science.

The truth is today, 70% of university graduates don’t have the ability to handle a TAFE electricians course.

I have a mate, ex school teacher who runs remedial math courses at a couple of TAFEs. They were loosing too many students who had VHA in math A & B in year 12 high school, but could not handle arithmetic when it mattered. The formula involved in an electricians course had them running away screaming.

He has found his niche, & loves teaching people who really want to learn, & at least those 2 TAFE have reduced their drop out rate to below 50%

As for anyone claiming anything back, I reckon that is a damn good idea. However it should be us claiming our universities back from the academics, & expecting them to actually join us in the real world.

Comment from Margaret Jean ELy
Time October 20, 2014 at 1:22 pm

The DOGS predicted what is now happening in the 1960s.

Once Menzies – and Whitlam gave State Aid to fee paying schools, they undermined the concept of free public education. The collaboration of religious schools and free market ideologues has reached its zenith.

Let’s follow the students of Chile, and reclaim our children’s inheritance

Comment from Hasbeen
Time October 20, 2014 at 3:55 pm

So true Kay, but you have missed a couple of things.

Companies also sponsored scholarships. I was offered a commonwealth one, but I won a General Motors cadetship. This paid for a BSc engineering course, & an income a little larger than a government scholarship, but of course I worked the university holidays at the Pagewood plant. The work was more work experience & gave access to people who were very helpful in my studies.

I also agree with your TAFE suggestion. Unfortunately today with our dumbed down curriculum, even kids coming out of high school with very high achievement rating in math A & B need remedial math classes to be able to handle the electricians course at TAfe. In fact 80% of university graduates don’t have enough math to do one. Hell most of our environmental science graduates would have trouble making change at McDonalds, if the cash register did not do it for them.

Yes we need to back our education system, from the academics that have made it a feather bed mess.

Comment from Kay
Time October 21, 2014 at 7:03 am


Yes, now that you remind me, I can recall the cadetships offered by many of the big companies – especially BHP – and they were better remunerated than the government ones – but, as you say, you had to work in your spare time, but it served as good work experience. These cadetships were also highly competitive – and a great way for poorer kids to get a degree.

I seem to recall business/management degree cadetships offered by companies such as Grace Bros (now Myer). And cadetships were also offered (I think) by some newspapers and the ABC. My eldest grandson currently has an accounting cadetship with an accounting firm – works part time, getting experience, plus doing an accountancy/business degree.

Another cadetship that many of the boys in my class applied for was an ADF/Duntroon one. A close friend of mine won one – very competitive – and did his engineering degree through UNSW.

Re maths: we were not allowed to use slide rulers (only log tables), let alone calculators – which only became available later on. So all our calculations had to be done manually – hence the need to know your maths very well! We were also required to be very good at mental arithmetic – a skill that really dates you these days, as the younger generations know how to use a calculator, but are otherwise clueless!

I certainly applaud the proposed ‘back to basics’ national curriculum – hopefully kids will at least learn basic maths and how to write a simple letter/memo! Problem is, the teachers today have themselves not been taught properly – many have little knowledge of proper English grammar. And great to have a return to phonics – it guides you re how to pronounce any new word. Mind you, English is probably the least phonetic language on earth, a real potpourri of words and pronounciations, mainly due to the wide range of origins of the language – Anglo-Saxon, Latin/Greek, German/Nordic, French, and many other foreign-sourced words picked during the conquest of the former British Empire.

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