The three politicians with the greatest impact on higher education participation were Robert Menzies, John Dawkins and Julia Gillard. Yet I never hear anyone say, depending on their age, that “I only went to university because of Menzies/Dawkins/Gillard”.
Yet for Gough Whitlam the story is different. Last week USQ VC Geraldine Mackenzie was reported in the Australian saying “I was very fortunate to go to university after the Whitlam years when it was all free. Otherwise I may not have had that same opportunity.” And in February shadow education minister Tanya Plibersek told the Universities Australia conference that “it feels like every week, I meet someone in their 60s or 70s who reminds me about how Gough Whitlam was responsible for them going to university.”
I have argued before that Whitlam, Prime Minister 1972-1975, was very significant in the history of Australian higher education and has some lasting legacies. But I think the lesson from Whitlam’s time for now is that the biggest drivers of participation are supply-side policies on student places, and in particular how they interact with demography and fiscal policy. Because both these factors were significant in the free education era, the long-term trend towards increased higher education participation was interrupted.
Free education lasted from 1974 to 1986 (there were small charges in 1987 and 1988, before HECS started in 1989). The chart below shows that 19-year-old participation rates went up in 1976 but then fell and did not return to the previous peak until 1986. At the low point in 1982, the 19-year old higher education participation rate was 2 percentage points lower than it had been in 1975 (unfortunately, my data source starts in 1975).