The social and political causes of increasing educational participation from the 1980s

In my previous blog post, a discussion of Australian educational trends inspired by Peter Mandler’s post-WW2 history of education in Britain, I finished in the 1970s, a rare period of decline in school completion and university participation rates.

School completion increases again

Whatever the reasons for 1970s educational trends, in the 1980s rates of school completion rapidly increased, as the chart below shows. According to Simon Marginson’s book Educating Australia, increasing the proportion of students completing Year 12 was a deliberate policy goal, supported by state governments and the Commonwealth.

With these older teenagers, in the 1980s compulsion was not a politically acceptable policy tool for increasing school retention. As recently as 2007 in Victoria and 2009 in NSW the school leaving age was still only fifteen. Incentives were needed. According to Marginson, the Commonwealth significantly extended income support for secondary school students, with recipient numbers increasing six-fold between 1982 and 1990.

The then peak Year 12 completion rate of 1992 was not yet the new long-term norm. It was students sheltering at school from the recession. Mandler mentions the ‘hitherto unknown’ practice of ‘parking’, of staying in education to avoid unemployment. This now seems like an obvious phenomenon; an easy prediction about what will happen during the COVID-19 recession. But it did not happen during the 1970s economic stagnation.

In Britain increased retention to the final year of school occurred a bit later than in Australia. But by the early 1990s each country had the same consequence: a much larger proportion of young people holding the basic qualification needed to go to university.

Interest in higher education and the policy response

By the late 1980s significant numbers of young Australians were interested in higher education. In 1989, of 16-18 year old respondents to the Australian Youth Survey 44 per cent said that their highest desired qualification was a university degree, with the figure at 58 per cent for those still at school. Five years later, a 1994 survey found that 53 per cent of Year 10 students aspired to a degree, rising to 68 per cent of those in Year 12.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Australia was governed by Labor and Britain by the Conservatives. In the mid-1980s the then education minister Keith Joseph, often regarded as a significant intellectual influence on Margaret Thatcher, sought to limit student numbers and align enrolments with government views of national needs. But Mandler explains that Joseph’s technocratic view was replaced with a more populist version of Thatcherism as sharing people’s aspirations for a better life. In Australia, Labor was all along more ideologically sympathetic to educational expansion.

Despite differences of ideological detail, the path forward was similar in each country. Each government faced the political reality that once young people are qualified for entry to university and want to go those aspirations need a political solution.

In each country, expansion was partly financed by reducing public spending per student place and involved turning non-university colleges into universities. In Australia, HECS was introduced in 1989 to help finance expansion. Fees did not arrive in England until 1998, and have been resisted in other parts of Britain, making this a notable difference between the countries.

Demography as a force

One important point that Mandler makes is that demography is an important force of its own in education policy. Demand for education is a product of both the total size of the potential pool of students and all the factors that influence whether individuals will want to become students.

As the chart below shows, four of the big higher education reforms of the last 50 years – Whitlam’s expansion in the 1970s which built on the earlier growth under Liberal governments, the Dawkins expansion of the late 1980s, the Gillard demand driven enrolment boom of the 2010s and the Tehan reforms of the 2020s – occur in periods when demographic factors are affecting, or are expected to affect, demand. Dawkins faced the biggest problem, with big spikes in both the school leaver age cohort and Year 12 completion rates. The main exception to the pattern is Brendan Nelson’s reforms, which were legislated in 2003, although his policy included new places to meet population growth from 2007.

For the long-term dynamics of expectations, participation and attainment the demographic dips can also be interesting. Less typically happens in policy, but in higher education the supply of student places is never cut back to match falls in age cohort numbers. That means participation rates can increase despite stable or falling funding, as they did in the early 1980s and the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Another technocratic phase

Parallels between higher education in Britain and Australia continue to this day. Both are now governed by centre-right parties, and both governments express a recurring centre-right view that higher education should focus more on employment outcomes.

In Britain, the government, echoing the concerns of Keith Joseph in the 1980s, is trying to reduce the number of students in ‘low-value’ degrees, as defined by by low financial returns. In Australia, Job-ready Graduates tries to do something similar, although without any consistent or empirically-based definition of which courses should be favoured. Recently released graduate employment data again shows that some of the fields favoured by Job-ready Graduates have poor short-term outcomes.

On Mandler’s view and mine, these technocratic policies to manipulate enrolment patterns probably won’t be very successful. Student interests are not easily redirected, putting market pressure on universities and political pressure on governments to maintain a wide range of courses.

Mandler also observes, citing a UK data source that unfortunately I do not have access to, that most graduate jobs do not require a particular degree subject. I am not sure whether the UK claim would hold here. According to the ABS Qualifications and Work survey, more than 60 per of graduates say they work in the same field as their qualification. But I agree with Mandler in the broader sense that our thinking about graduate outcomes has a bias towards employment in regulated occupations. There is much less analysis of the various other ways graduates might find that their degree opens doors, proves useful, or is valuable in other ways.

I have focused on the many Britain-Australia parallels, but there are important differences between the systems in the nature of their higher education market that I discuss in a later post.

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