In this first of a series of intergenerational exchanges and reflections on the links to and legacies of the Whitlam era in the run up to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1972 election, a former New South Wales ALP Minister for Education talks with a current tertiary student activist about the changing landscape of education – and advocacy – past, present and future.
This conversation is supported through a partnership with the Whitlam Institute.
VERITY FIRTH: I clearly remember my first day at school. I remember my brown suitcase and I remember walking into the classroom and running over to another little girl who I knew from preschool. My first experience of education was probably overwhelmingly positive coming from a family that highly valued education – the excitement about starting school was built into the culture of the family from very early on. It was seen as a fantastic rite of passage, something to embrace and behold. That was 1979.
MADDIE CLARK: My education story started more at home, too. My parents were very good at introducing me to books and that helped me love education before I came into a classroom. It set me up well for having a more positive experience in the school system – and I acknowledge a lot of people don’t have that. In terms of how education has worked for me as a citizen, as someone finding their space in the professional world, I was lucky to go to more of a progressive-leaning school. That helped me have more of a framework for looking at issues like social justice and the environment – and that has helped my university experience. The connections I’ve made at university – the social clubs; the activist clubs – have also been incredible spaces of learning. I’ve probably learnt more through those networks than in the more formal spheres.
VF: For me too, the greatest role that my university education played in terms of citizenship was in fact the extracurricular activities and their formation of friendships. A lot of my political activity started in student politics. What education brings in terms of citizenship – and this was delivered both informally and formally to me – is to help you understand how the world actually works. Where does power reside within the world and what can we do to change it? Both the curriculum and the extracurricular activity taught me that: I studied government; I studied history. And history’s incredibly important in terms of citizenry as well, to understand the big shifts in power that have occurred over time and how social movements have responded to that. The levers of change – how it is that you participate as a citizen and have voice as a citizen – I learnt that through extracurricular activity at uni – joining clubs, debates, late-night drinking sessions…
That’s a different kind of intersection with education to becoming Minister for Education, as I was from 2008 until 2011. I loved that – it is the greatest portfolio and there are two reasons for that. The first is your connection to your constituents, which can be a two-edged sword. Pretty much everyone feels very, very passionately about education, and that opinion is shaped by a deep nostalgia if they had a good education experience... If they had a bad education experience, they think everything should be done in the opposite way. It’s all emotionally driven. And it’s about kids – I remember someone saying that the greatest act of trust for a parent is leaving their child at the school gate the first day in kindergarten. So yes, it’s a connector; yes, it’s wonderful because you feel you’re doing good things, but it’s an emotional space to be working. There are very few portfolios today where you actually feel you still have your hands on the levers of change – education’s one of them. You can shift people’s demographic destinies. If you do better in delivering education in disadvantaged communities then that can genuinely help those communities. In health, in community services, you’re often coming in after the fact and trying to respond to things; education is still a place that can change someone’s life experience.
That said I suspect conversations about education are often more highly politicised now – when I was running the Public Education Foundation I was really concerned about the lack of bipartisanship on the fundamental things. A good example of that of course is the Gonski funding model. David Gonski and his team did a very good job at trying to pull some of the politics out of Australia’s school-funding model. They were saying, let’s not talk about public or private anymore, let’s not talk about government or non-government, let’s actually just talk about need and fund on the basis of need. Gonski was very deliberately trying to stop that government/non-government divide which has really poisoned Australian education-funding politics in this country for decades. I thought that was very clever, and the fact that even that didn’t succeed is pretty damning. The problem we have in Australian education – especially funding for primary and secondary schools – is that one government does one thing, the next government does something completely different, and next government does something completely different again. And that happens across all the different states. It’s unsustainable for the sector to have such huge swings in policy. Somewhere like Finland, where they talk about the great success of the education system, they had twenty years of education policy that was bipartisan. As one senior bureaucrat there told me, that meant they were able to shift funding models, increase teacher learning and capability – and all those things – in a bipartisan way. It’s a big problem that we don’t have this in Australia.
MC: As a student I see change occurring through activism: it’s powerful when you see you can make change. One of the first campaigns I was involved in was stopping the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation coming to Sydney Uni. There is a lot of power in protesting, in student activism, in getting students engaged. When you can see these concrete wins it gives you a lot of hope; it validates putting time into this.
The famous example of the Whitlam government’s abolition of tertiary fees in 1973 is a thing of hope too – it still resonates with my generation and it’s a good reminder of what’s possible. We’ve seen a massive shift in education where the rhetoric has gone from education as a fundamental human right to a privilege, to something you need to pay for in order to get a job. The significance of Australia having had free education is to say that it’s something we should still fight for, something we should be talking about and aspiring to. But there’s so much pessimism about it being possible again – and much emphasis on education purely being about getting a job. That’s much more dominant at the moment.
VF: There’s no doubt that the ’70s generation who were educated for free under Whitlam absolutely to this day revere him for it. Everywhere I went as a politician, this was routinely mentioned as one of the great achievements of Labor and Whitlam – particularly for first-generation Australians. A whole stream of first-generation migrant kids – many of whom are now at the top of the New South Wales Department of Education – were all educated in Gough’s years. When I was a politician the Whitlam baby-boomer generation who were educated under him were the most solid Labor voters you could find. They were ridiculously loyal to Labor – no matter what Labor did – and that was partly because they saw that education as life-changing. A lot of those kids probably would have gone to university anyway on Commonwealth scholarships and so on. But for them, their entry to university was delivered by Gough through free education. We know it impacts family trajectories and opportunities in life to this day.
MC: Things changed so quickly – the abolition of fees and the introduction of needs-based funding saw an increase in the education budget of 92 per cent between 1972 and 1973. Then there were the Dawkins reforms, the surge in enrolments through the Hawke-Keating years. Free education only lasted fourteen years; everything changes so fast. Now, it feels like there’s a fight between seeing higher education as more aligned to profit making, something that’s for sale, a business, as opposed to the idea that higher education is a public good.
Australia needs university graduates; we need people to be highly skilled. So we should be demanding higher education be seen as a right, as something that’s universally available. But it’s such a debate and a battle – and universities are constantly talking about being in crisis. Through Covid, we’ve all been talking about losing international students, losing that income – at the University of Sydney, they’re trying to cut the Faculty of Arts, but they’ve actually made a surplus of $135 million this year. The institution’s own numbers say that they have this money – yet they’re pushing through cuts. I think it’s to make the university more corporate and profitable.
VF: I think you’re right about the dominant narrative. The idea universities exist for public purpose and public good beyond just the education of individuals – I don’t think governments embrace that as much as they used to. Look back at some of Whitlam’s campaign speeches from 1969, 1972, the idea of education for nation-building, for the common good.
Having said that I do think universities themselves embrace those ideas. It’s very rare for a university not to argue that it has a broader social purpose beyond educating individual students. Yes, educating individual students is an important part of it – but they all see a broader social impact through research, through teaching. The university sector is still strong on that but government doesn’t have that approach anymore. The proportion of government funding is down to between 20–30 per cent for a lot of universities now. They are no longer 80 per cent funded by government; that changes the business model and the way that universities can survive. One of the advantages that isn’t talked about enough – of the Dawkins era and definitely of the Gillard era – is the massification of higher education. We talk about HECS, about that reintroduction of fees – I protested it as a student. But it allowed us to fund the massification of Australian higher education. Then Gillard’s demand-funding model put funds explicitly into higher education participation. The positive shift we’ve seen in terms of Indigenous participation, participation by people with a disability, participation of students from low socio-economic backgrounds over ten to fifteen years is a good thing. The current federal government disrespected the higher education sector during Covid; it appeared not to care about the very real challenges the sector was facing. But the achievements of a sector that is now a lot more diverse – particularly in its student cohort – I think that’s enormous.
MC: There are big ideas about universities being a cornerstone for the social and the culture and the legal institutions of a nation – I’m not sure that’s where we are anymore. My parents look very fondly on their years at university, but it’s different to how my peers and I look at university; the experience has changed so much. When they were at university, you know, just the social life, the clubs were so much more abundant; people didn’t have to work. I’m in a position where I can be involved in activism, but so many of my classmates have to work part-time and study full-time as well. They don’t get to engage with, or enjoy, the other aspects of university that make it so important. Maybe there’s a dissonance between how the wider community views university life versus what it is for the majority of students now.
VF: It’s interesting to think about what it does for the national narrative and the national imagination if people engage with education just to get a job. Again, I’d argue that there aren’t many universities that just see themselves as vocational institutions. But if the government has a national priorities- industry linkage fund that is all about work-ready graduates, of course universities will respond to that – we all do. Universities fundamentally understand that they’re also there to teach a whole range of more holistic skills, including those trendy twenty-first-century skills that everyone always talks about…which are essentially the skills you used to learn in an arts degree: creative thinking, critical thinking, the capacity to think for yourself, to do a deep discipline dive and make connections, to collaborate. All these concepts are now seen as key employment drivers and, really, they’re the same skills and capabilities that universities have been teaching for centuries – the art of how to think. The employment rate of arts graduates is so good because they’ve learnt flexibility and thinking capacity. Yes, the government’s agenda is somewhat limited at this point but universities do still absolutely embrace a much more holistic vision of what it is to be a capable citizen with the skills you need in the world.
I want to come back to Whitlam’s legacy again, though, and talk about the impact of the Australian Schools Commission that was established in 1972 – going back to the idea that different states and different governments take such different approaches. During the Whitlam government, there was a 677 per cent increase to funding for state schools and 117 per cent increase of funding for non-government schools. The Australian Schools Commission was the vehicle for that.
By the time I was involved in education policy, one of the big critiques was that the majority of state schools were funded by state government while non-government schools were funded by the federal government. Our critique was always that the federal government is much richer; it has income-taxing potential, growth potential, where state budgets are much more constrained. Yet states fund the majority of state schools. When I was a minister, 80 per cent of state school funding came from the states – a lot of what Whitlam achieved through the Schools Commission was wound back, and that’s why we are still to this day having to get greater federal government contributions to government schooling. That was partly what the Gonski reforms were trying to address.
It’s difficult because we’re talking about federation, and the tension is the same in everything where states are undertaking service delivery, providing the schools themselves, providing the infrastructure around them. The question in my day was how the federal government influenced how schools were run – in a lot of the culture wars that we often talk about, the stick the federal government could wield was money. These big national partnerships, they were what state governments just longed for – billions of dollars of additional investment for government schooling. But they’d come with caveats. With John Howard, you had to fly the Australian flag. With Julia Gillard, you had to make your data freely available as part of the My School website. Every federal government brought their own carrots and sticks to the relationship.
Could we do it better? Absolutely. My position – which is not one that would necessarily work electorally – is to start bringing down the amount of money given to non-government schools, to ask why some of these non- government schools are funded at all by the public purse when access to them is not free? It’s a very unusual way to provide public money to schools that don’t have free access to all in their local area, a school that can put up the drawbridge about who comes to their school yet still receive public funds. It makes us an outlier in the OECD. And of course then there are huge discrepancies – particularly in facilities funding. From a whole lot of research that’s been undertaken, it’s these things parents value when choosing which school to send their child to. This is a very difficult problem in Australia because in some areas we have half of the local students going to non-government schools. That makes the capacity for any real reform electorally difficult. I’d love a new iteration of Whitlam’s Schools Commission if it could break that impasse.
MC: Whitlam is still a touchstone in terms of looking at how to make change, at how quickly things can be reformed. Looking at the movements we’ve had recently – the climate strikes; the Black Lives Matter movement – that made students more aware and more interested in the period of the late 1960s/early 1970s. I’m taking a class about 1968 in the US at the moment: it was such a revolutionary time around the world. That definitely does resonate for people my age – in terms of the Whitlam government, but also that time period more broadly. People are very nostalgic for it.
VF: I think so too. I’m an outlier because I was two years old and living in Canberra when Gough Whitlam was sacked in 1975. My mum was listening to the radio and she heard Whitlam had been sacked; she drove me and my three-month-old brother down to stand in front of the steps of Parliament House when Gough said ‘well may you say God save the Queen’. My parents immediately joined the Labor Party and throughout my childhood we drove a brown Torana with a ‘Shame Fraser Shame’ sticker on the back of it… even when Fraser was no longer the Prime Minister. I was very aware of Whitlam’s legacy and he was a hero in our house for similar reasons that he’s a hero in other houses. Whitlam drove my parents’ activism because it was through him that they joined the Labor Party; through the Labor Party, they joined the peace movement, then the anti-nuclear movement. So much can be traced back to Whitlam and to the flowering of that generation. It gave that generation a real hope in government, in the idea that getting into government mattered.
Going back to the idea of free education, I think we can absolutely do it again – it’s about getting priorities right, where you put your money and how you do it. A lot of things have shifted for the public sector in terms of the way we fund it – I could talk for twenty years about the sort of neoliberal shift in the way the governments are run. Where I am sad – and where I think Whitlam left an amazing legacy – is in confidence in government. My parents followed Gough because governments got things done. Where there has been a genuine cultural shift – even among politicians and those who serve within government – is a loss of faith in the role of government. We’ve turned away from the role of the state and what I see as sad is not people like you, Maddie, but young people who don’t see the capacity for government to do good, who turn to follow the corporate sector in its social-impact journey and see that as the real engine for change.
We still need to engage with the levers of power – and you don’t have to be in government to do that. You can be an activist, like you, Maddie. You can be part of the social movement. But government still matters – especially for those most in need. The withering away of the public sector has been the biggest heartbreak since Whitlam, because that withering away also leads to distrust in the capacity of a government to serve.
MC: It will be interesting to see New Zealand reintroduce free tertiary education in 2023 – you know, looking to real-life examples of free education in other countries is incredibly important. It’s about saying, this is possible; this is something we should demand, something we should take up. We’re more on the defensive these days because we’re just trying to keep what we have in a lot of ways. But looking at those more positive examples can be really important in fighting these fights.