Which Labor education minister made the most difference for working class people?

In education, nostalgia for the era of Gough goes on and on. This piece of it in The Age yesterday prompted several supportive letters today.

Access to higher education did expand under Gough, but his reforms was not as significant as many people imagine they were. Through a patchwork of scholarships and subsidies from both levels of government and from universities themselves, only a minority of students paid fees in the early 1970s. The average fee for those who did pay was $480, or $3,000-$4,000 in current dollars. Many also received financial assistance; Gough replaced this with a means-tested income support scheme TEAS, the predecessor of today’s Youth Allowance.

The clarity of what Whitlam did probably accounts in part for what people believe today. Though most bright school leavers who wanted to go to university would already have done so pre-Whitlam, the financial pathways were made much clearer by Whitlam’s reforms.

Overall, higher education enrolments expanded from 206,500 in 1972 to 287,700 in 1976 (first year of the Fraser government, but it came to power too late in 1975 to affect enrolments). Less than a third of the increase was in universities, with most new students going to the colleges of advanced education. Numbers had been growing steadily since the 1950s, so some of this growth would probably have occurred anyway.

A lack of consistent data makes it hard to tell exactly what opportunities Whitlam created for working class people. My reading of various sources is that the absolute number of working class students probably went up in the following years. But their proportion of total enrolments went down. The reason for this was simple. University entry usually requires school completion, and very few working class people did that. Therefore it was middle class people who were best placed to take advantage of expanded places in higher education.

The late 1980s and early 1990s were the turning point for improving working class higher education participation. School completion rates had increased dramatically during the 1980s, and the big HECS-financed John Dawkins led expansion in university places gave them somewhere to go. Dawkins and the most Labor state education ministers of the 1980s were more important than Whitlam in opening up education for people of all classes. Gillard is responsible for another wave of expansion since 2009, which also seems to be bringing in low SES students in large numbers.

Yet there is almost no nostalgia for Dawkins, and the state ministers are largely forgotten. Gillard’s time as PM will obscure her successful period as education minister. They all lack Gough’s charisma, and his simple message eloquently put.