The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS), introduced in 1989 by the Hawke Labor Government on the basis that those receiving a university education should repay the community. A university education was understood to be a privilege or special bounty which advantaged those receiving it. The assumption was that those gaining this advantage should pay directly for it, through what were, effectively, fees. Fees could be paid 'up-front' or, having completed the degree, when the now former student gained a job providing an income above a stipulated amount.
The proposition that if financial advantage accrued to those with university degrees, then this would be recognised – and effectively repaid - by income tax in higher brackets was not recognised, or at least not deemed sufficient to rule out the introduction of HECS. Paying directly through HECS became the rule, on top of income tax.
The change did not come about without dissent. That at least some in government and in Parliament at the time had benefited from the 'no fees' period in Australia's history (whether directly or as parents) received some comment, but did not stop the policy from being legislated and implemented.
Critics saw it as ironic that the 'no fees' era was a consequence of the Whitlam Labor Government's abolition of fees, yet reinstitution of fees came through a Labor Government. Under Whitlam, the aim was to broaden university access: effectively to 'democratise' university education by ensuring that clever, bright, energetic and committed working-class students, in particular, would fill Australia's universities. Where universities had been, generally, the preserve of those with families equipped to pay, the abolition of fees was designed to entice students with different family backgrounds.
HECS advocates asserted that the 'no fees' policy had not brought about the intended education revolution. Rather, they said, well-off middleclass students continued to dominate, taking full advantage of not having to pay for a university education. The working-class, it was said, had not benefited.
Yet how HECS would enable the working-class to have access to university was unclear. HECS is, in the end, far less a deterrent to the well-off middleclass – and if they are so well-off, the middleclass can pay up-front, ultimately receiving a university education at a lower rate of (re)payment than those unable to pay before graduating.
The group that may be particularly disadvantaged, if 'middleclass' is the focus of fees, is women from 'well-off' families – or families seen, at least, as 'advantaged'. For this was precisely one of the groups specifically assisted by 'no fees'. The idea that boys need careers and good jobs (requiring skilled training, higher education and the connections a university place can provide) was not replicated for many girls. If it was, then beyond marriage and family life (if any 'beyond' was envisaged for them), 'career' for a girl or young woman was teaching or, perhaps, nursing. Otherwise, it was secretarial school.
Pre-abolition of fees, girls who took the teachers college route were precluded from applying for, or receiving, Commonwealth Scholarships which funded high achievers' university education: Commonwealth Scholarships were awarded on the basis of examination scores at Matriculation or Leaving – now HSC - levels. Teachers college students were, however, seen as having received government largesse already, and thus not entitled to a 'double dose'. A teachers college 'scholarship' ruled out any receipt of a university scholarship. Hence, once they completed teachers college, young women teachers' lot was to pursue teaching, not get ideas 'above themselves' by believing that university might be for them. In any event, once bonded to the Department of Education through having gone to teachers college, young women were obliged to teach: a teaching bond locked them in. If they married, they had to return the bond in full and lost their career as a teacher, as well.
Some HECS advocates did not see this use of 'no fees' as anything positive. Rather, they saw middle-class women's advance through university as just another benefit to 'well-off women'.
Yet in the 1960s and 70s, as in the decades before, if the family could pay for one university student only, it was not the daughter of the family who profited. After all, she was expected to marry, the notion of 'career' so often carrying a masculine configuration. In the Whitlam 'no fees' era, these women, and others whose brothers were sent off to university whilst they, the sisters, were sent into banks or the public service as clerks, or to complete typing and shorthand courses, gained the opportunity to have their minds and career possibilities opened precisely through the 'no fees' prospect. The Whitlam government is recalled with gratitude by so many women – middle-aged, now, and beyond – who despite their apparently affluent family circumstances gained a university education solely because of fees abolition.
The betrayal of Whitlam's 'no fees' has led to students who are not in the 'well-off' family category being burdened by having to pay off HECS as well as (rightly) paying income tax based on income levels, if they advance to university at all. Even the argument that unless they earn above a certain sum they will not have to repay HECS doesn't make much difference. Students still have to bear the prospect of repayment and until they pay off HECS the burden remains. Who wants to live with a money-sum continually owing to the government? Is it really an 'advantage' to earn so little that HECS remains permanently outstanding?
Why did the Hawke Government not attempt ways of attracting a broader-base of students to university? Surprising though it may be to those coming from families where a university education is expected, some Australians do not know what a university is. If they do, many see it as way out of their league.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.