Pre-Whitlam educational policy was overlooked and indicative a preoccupied government prior to the 1970s. The progressive and ambitious nature of the Whitlam administration allowed for educational reform which remains crucial to contemporary education. But what was all the fuss about? Did Whitlam really change the way we are educated now? Or was it short lived?
The Whitlam government’s changes to primary, secondary and tertiary education were some of the most powerful and notable changes to the Australian constitution since federation. The changes made to education policy during the Whitlam term were poignant, specific and effective. The formation of the Australian Schools Commission in 1972, the Schools Commission Act and the Students Assistance Act of 1973, and, perhaps most importantly, the abolition of tertiary education fees in 1974 were revolutionary alterations in the Australian education sector. The effects of these changes are still very much relevant in contemporary education. So how do they affect us?
After the Whitlam government came into office in 1972 it swiftly moved to make changes to Australia’s educational system. First and foremost, the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission was chaired by Professor Peter Karmel and appointed in December, 1972. This Committee was set up to investigate the needs of government and non-government schools and assess their individual requirements to ensure longevity. The setting up of the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission was one of the most significant efforts to changing the educational system in Australia during the Whitlam term.
The Karmel Report was the lovechild of the Australian Schools Commission and the Australian school system. It was a needs-based assessment of Australian schools. The Report found inequalities in resource distribution, a lack of human and material resources and a lack of quality of teaching and school organisation. It suggested that there should be set standards of achievement for all students through curricula and adequate resourcing. The Report was important for other reasons. In particular, it highlighted the disparity between male and female school completion which, naturally, drew attention to gender inequality. Whitlam himself acknowledged this in his 1974 Election Policy Speech, stating that “the greatest inequality in the system is its bias against girls: the fact that so few girls compared to boys sit for their final school exams or contribute to technical trades or enter the professions.” He went on to infer that, “this is why women are concentrated in the less well paid jobs in our society.”
Following the guidelines of the Karmel Report, one of the most important Acts introduced by the Whitlam government was the Schools Commission Act (1973). At the midpoint of the Whitlam administration this Act formed the basis for real change in government and non-government schools throughout Australia. The Schools Commission Act represented the ALP’s push into the educational world in an authentic and tangible way. The Act itself declared that “in the exercise of its functions, the Commission shall have regard to such matters as are relevant, including the need for improving primary and secondary educational facilities in Australia and of providing increased and equal opportunities for education in government and non-government schools in Australia and the need for ensuring that the facilities provided in all schools in Australia, whether government or non-government, are of the highest standard.”
This led directly to the Students Assistance Act of November 1973 which was a significant piece of legislation during the Whitlam administration. The Act was designed to cater to those whose financial limitations would have otherwise rendered them unable to attend university. Its intention was “to make provision for and in relation to benefits to students by way of assistance in the form of Senior Secondary Scholarships… Tertiary Education Assistance… and Post-graduate Awards.” A key piece of legislation the Whitlam government introduced was the abolition of tertiary education fees from January 1, 1974. This landmark moment was met with great excitement yet also great criticism. The abolition of fees extended to all universities and technical colleges. It set the bar for universal education standards and put Australia on the global educational map. Further, it immediately enhanced not only a student’s ability to be educated, and thus have higher chances of later employment, but it aimed to ensure future economic stability within the country. How would you have responded to the newfound ability to attend university?
During Whitlam’s 1972 Election Policy Speech, he stressed the urgency to have quality education in Australia, outlining his expectation that “under a Labor government, Commonwealth spending on schools and teacher training will be the fastest expanding sector of budget expenditure. This must be done, not just because the basic resource of this nation is the skills of its people, but because education is the key to equality of opportunity. We can have education on the cheap… but our children will be paying for it for the rest of their lives.”
There was a sense of immediacy and social justice instilled in the Australian public during this time which was powerful in the sense that it mobilised thought, if not action.
Gough Whitlam’s legacy rests on an array of innovative yet precarious changes to Australian policy. It is both reinforced and contested in contemporary society and, in particular, in the realm of education. Education is a broad, complex and demanding sector of Australian society which deserves functional support on every level. I believe that even though direct correlation between Whiltam’s reforms and our current education system isn’t often explicitly seen, he changed Australia’s core values in education.
So, how do you think Whitlam’s reform has affected your own education?
Would you have had the same opportunities to learn had it not been for the efficiency and dexterity of him and his government?
Australian Schools Commission. Schools in Australia: Report for the Interim Committee for The Australian Schools Commission. Canberra, 1973.
McLaren, John. ‘Karmel Report: Schools in Australia’. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand. Victoria, 2014.
Commonwealth of Australia. Schools Commission Act. Canberra, 1973, Section 13.
Commonwealth of Australia. Students Assistance Act. Canberra, 1973, Section 1.
Whitlam, Gough. “Election Policy Speech.” Speech given at Blacktown Civic Centre, NSW, November 13, 1972.