What is Whitlam’s higher education legacy?

Gough Whitlam, who died today, is one of the big four of Australian higher education policy: Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard are the other three.

Whitlam is most famous for abolishing tuition fees in Australia’s universities and state-funded colleges from 1974 (here is the original legislation for universities.)

I’ve argued before that free education was a major symbolic success, but in practice not as significant as many people in hindsight believe. Through scholarships, state subsidies and federal subsidies higher education was already free or cheap for most people. A chart I included on university funding sources in the latest edition of Mapping Australian higher education (p. 53) shows that students were only a minor source of university income in the early 1970s.

Nor was Whitlam very successful in lifting higher education attainment rates. While the number of higher education places did grow, the baby boom generation was so large that there was little growth in attainment for them. On this measure, Menzies, Dawkins and Gillard were all much more significant.

What Whitlam did succeed in doing was take over funding responsiblity for higher education from the states, making conditional grants the basis of Commonwealth power over higher education. Technically, the Commonwealth’s power was quite limited. Universities could have refused Commonwealth grants and returned to fee charging if they wanted to. But never stand between a vice-chancellor and money. If there was anything the universities would not do for the Commonwealth’s cash we never found out what that was. As John Dawkins discovered, they were even willing to merge with colleges of advanced education, which were well down the system hierarchy.

Two particular Whitlam-era policies are still in place, although substantially modified. He created a general student income support system, TEAS, to replace various scholarship schemes. This survives through Youth Allowance, Austudy and Abstudy. A needs-based income support system is a more efficient way of funding higher education students than merit-based scholarships, which often go to people from affluent families.

Although completely free higher education lasted less than 15 years, Whitlam’s price control on undergraduate higher education has lasted the full 40 years since 1974. Universities were given back their power to set charges in 2005, but only up to limits determined by the federal government. Christopher Pyne is now trying to abolish these controls, supported for the first time in the post-Whitlam era by a majority of vice-chancellors.

The fact that until recently most vice-chancellors supported undergraduate price control shows Whitlam’s on-going influence. Despite being dissatisfied with their funding rates for all but a handful of those 40 years, many vice-chancellors still maintained the faith that government would give them what they believed they needed. Public funding was the norm when most of them went to university and started their academic careers. Even now, vice-chancellors generally see private funding as a regrettable but necessary departure from this ideal state. Staff and student groups ofen condemn university leaders for this concession. Creating such a powerful default belief about how the world should be shows that Whitlam’s cultural legacy will survive the man’s passing.

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