Raising the BARR – Week ending 21 August 2020

Who Out There Got a Whitlam Education?

They say the music of The Beatles changed music for the decades that came after. I suspect that right here in Australia the Gough Whitlam decision to make university education available to all has completely changed our country ever since.

In 1974, Gough Whitlam made university free. University remained free of charge for the next 14 years. Tens of thousands of families and students considered university for the first time. Hundreds of thousands of young people became “first in family” to get a university education during this time, and since.

The HECS debt model was introduced in 1989 but was still based on the principle that no money was needed upfront. Further to this, the HECS debt would not be paid back until the student was working and earning a decent wage.

For more than 40 years, Australians can be very proud that its people have had access to public universities that are funded by taxpayers.

A university education is not for everyone. Some of our best, most creative and most successful citizens have forged their careers without a university education. But by the same token, our Universities do churn out millions of people with qualifications, research skills and the trained ability to think critically which has unquestionably helped to advance our society.

There is so much that happens in Australia that is “world-class” and can be linked to our well-educated population. This is also reflected in our increasing energy to get young people hooked into education and learning earlier in life and in getting our teenagers to stay on at school for their HSC, unless they otherwise get a job, and use the HSC as the springboard into life. And historically there has been our incredible TAFE system to specifically educate and upskill our practical hands-on workforce.

Given all of this, it hard to believe that the current State and Federal Governments are standing idly by while our university sector falls off a cliff. The sudden plummet of our Universities are linked to COVID-19 and the loss of international students who now pay big dollars, upfront, for their Australian based university qualification. Our universities have long had a dependency on international students, but when the Federal Government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbot and Treasurer Joe Hockey placed funding caps on courses back in 2014, the international students became a necessary addiction, not just an option.

So our current university crisis, brought on by COVID-19, needs a solid financial solution that is in keeping with our modern, well-educated, lucky country. Yep, we need to spend money to save the universities. We need to spend money to keep people employed in our universities. We need to spend money to keep the university option open to all of our citizens. And we desperately need to spend money on our universities to prevent a brain-drain.

A government that doesn’t want to save our universities is a government better placed in the 1960s. I urge every person out there, who has realised a university education since 1974, or is linked to someone that has, or is a family member in a situation where somebody became the first in the family to do a university course, to reflect on whether or not this State and/or Federal Governments attitude is in keeping with the Australia that you know and love.