July 18, 2003
Destroying Menzies' noble revolution
by Lachlan Brown
"I think of the Menzies period as a golden age in terms of people," said John Howard in 1989, "Australia had a sense of family, social stability and optimism during that period". Fourteen years later many argue that Howard's adulation has become emulation. In everything from the enduring length of their reigns to their decisions to commit troops to controversial wars, it seems that the two leaders are linked by much more than just party affiliation.
However, whilst hopeful large 'l' Liberals eye a delicious fourth term in government and small 'l' liberals ponder a neo-Menzian suppression of dissenting voices, there is one striking aspect of the Menzies government which Howard has failed to reproduce.
Menzies is often remembered as the 'saviour' of higher education. After World War II universities found themselves in an alarming state, with swelling numbers of students and decreasing levels of funding from the cash-strapped state governments. As class sizes ballooned and education standards dropped, things looked desperate.
After intense lobbying from university vice-chancellors Menzies set up the Murray committee in 1957 Three months later the committee recommended sweeping changes to higher education.
Most important was the continued injection of funds from the federal government, - as a result, 13.5 million pounds of federal money flowed into the system on top of the 15 million it had already allocated. Money was spent on new buildings, staff salaries and commonwealth scholarships that paid the course fees of twenty percent of the student population.
As a result of these changes, one academic wrote to the prime minister thanking him for starting a "noble revolution" in Australia's universities.
Fast forward to the present and Howard faces many of the same challenges as his Liberal party role model. Student numbers are swelling. After subsequent budget cuts universities desperately need further funds. The education minister Dr. Brendan Nelson has labelled the Australian higher education system as 'mediocre' in an international context.
Menzies' response was to shift the burden of funding from the states onto the commonwealth. Howard's response, however, has been to restore some of money his government cut from university budgets supplemented by with increased payments from students and their families. So if universities need more funds they can charge more HECs. If an individual wishes to pay for the entire cost of their education they have a better chance of obtaining a place at university.
However, the difference between the two leaders isn't just about how they pay for things. Budgets are based on priorities and philosophies. Education budgets reflect philosophies of education. And it is in these philosophies and foundations that Menzies and Howard are diametrically opposed.
At the heart of Menzies' higher education program was the notion that society would benefit from robust universities, a notion of great significance in the nation building period following the second world war. In his speech to parliament in 1957 he explained his vision in very Menzian terms:
We must, on a broad basis become a more and more educated democracy if we are to raise our spiritual, intellectual and material living standards.
There is a collective sense of education at the heart of Menzies' vision, education which benefits the entire country and not just isolated individuals. In another part of his speech he advised students to use their university education to advance Australian society:
[Students] will, I am sure, not forget that, under all the circumstances I have described, the community is accepting heavy burdens in order that, through the training of university graduates the community may be served.
In the current climate of economic rationalism Menzies' ideas seem oddly out of place. Indeed in education, where Sir Robert envisaged 'community sacrifices for community benefit', the Howard government speaks more along the lines of 'individual sacrifices for individual benefit'.
So when Brendan Nelson is questioned about HECs increases, loans and full fee paying positions his responses invariably highlight the benefit of university degrees for individuals. When asked about $100,000 degrees for example, he is quick to inform us that the expected lifetime earnings of a medical or dental graduate run into the millions.
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