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Photo: AAP/Megan Slade

Bob Hawke: the great education reformer

This year’s federal election was overshadowed by an event many thought might push the Opposition over the line: the passing of Labor Party “son” and charismatic reformer Bob Hawke.

Hawke, who was Prime Minister between 1983 and 1991, helped to democratise education like Gough Whitlam before him, ensuring hundreds of thousands of Australians could access the life-changing experience of a university education. Unlike Whitlam, however, Hawke viewed free university education as unsustainable and introduced a deferred payment scheme that is now widely used across the world.

Indeed, his government’s decision to expand the university sector and introduce the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) are a defining legacy, according to Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson.

“Those changes opened the doors of opportunity to hundreds of thousands more Australians of modest means who would not otherwise have had the chance to go to university,” she said.

“It took what was an exclusive higher education system and democratised it – making it accessible for everyday Australians in vastly larger numbers.”

The Hawke Government, buttressed by the pugnacious and incisive treasurer Paul Keating, was responsible for some of the most dramatic economic reforms of the post-war period: the floating of the dollar and the deregulation of the financial system, both of which opened Australia up to the global financial market.

In the words of political commentator Paul Kelly, these were “the most influential economic decisions of the 1980s”.

What made Hawke different from most economic reformers, however, was that he didn’t see economics as an end in itself. As Tim Harcourt wrote in The Conversation, “there had to be a social benefit”. He also disliked the kind of “crash through or crash out” reform model practised by Keating, instead preferring change through consensus.

The prevalence of opinion polls in today’s political climate, and the importance politicians place on them, means it is unlikely there will be another reformer like Hawke. Politics has perhaps changed too much, for better or for worse.

Campus Review spoke to Dr John Tate from the University of Newcastle about the Hawke Government’s education legacy, its economic reforms and the leadership style of the man himself.

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One comment

  1. Trinity Spirkmungle

    Now look at the state we are int where locals cant afford to go to university, pay much more than hawke ever did and post graduates are all international…student unions fees were “voluntirised”, destroying university culture and rebellion… how much more imp[impoverished are we as a nation of low educated gradautes with no concept to ethics but simply making money and throwing principles out to the highest bidder…

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