Hawke: Rhodes scholar, trade union leader and prime minister

Australian actor Russell Crowe tweeted: “Bob Hawke has died. A great man who made this country confident.

“A great man who never lost his humility. Guinness book of records 1954: 2.5 pints of beer in 11 seconds.

“Rhodes Scholar. Trade union leader. Prime Minister. Statesman. Thanks for everything Mr Hawke.”

Few Australian politicians can claim to have had such a profound effect on the nation, and on higher education, as Robert James Lee Hawke, Australia’s 23rd prime minister and the Labor Party’s longest-serving head of government.

‘Bob’ Hawke, as he became universally known, has died in Sydney on 16 May at the age of 89.

Elected to the federal parliament in 1980, Hawke became prime minister in 1983 and began introducing a wide series of reforms that were to transform the country.

In 1989, his government re-imposed university fees on all students although they had been scrapped by a previous Labor government under prime minister Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.

At the same time, however, the Hawke government introduced the world’s first higher education contributions scheme that became known as HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme).

Although all university students were charged an initial AU$1,800 fee to enrol, the federal government paid the balance.

Even then, students could defer payment of the total amount they owed until they graduated or had left university.

The debt they owed was then cleverly recovered through the tax system but, again, only if former students were earning an income that exceeded a threshold level.

What became known as the ‘HECS system’ was accepted by both federal political parties and has become part of enrolling at university in Australia.

Because it was an effective and relatively painless means of encouraging more students to undertake university studies without being deterred by having to pay large upfront fees, the scheme has been adopted by many other countries.

These include England and Wales, Hungary, Malaysia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea.

The cost to the Australian government of HECS, however, continues to climb alarmingly.

A report by the Parliamentary Budget Office in 2016 estimated the total amount owed by students and graduates would grow threefold over the next decade – from AU$60 billion (US$41 billion) to AU$180 billion by 2026.

At the same time, the office said AU$4 billion worth of new loans to students would probably never be repaid and would have to be written off each year, up from AU$1.9 billion at that time.

More reforms

Along with the HECS scheme, other significant higher education reforms were also adopted during the Hawke government’s time in office.

Colleges of advanced education, for example, were transformed into universities either by simply renaming them as ‘universities’ or via mergers with or take-overs by existing universities.

The effect was to slash the number of higher education institutions from 87 universities and advanced education colleges in 1982, with an average size of 3,900 students each, to only 39 universities in 1992 with an average size of 14,300.

In addition to these reforms, the Hawke government created a new health system called Medicare that applied to every citizen, reducing or eliminating charges for visiting a doctor or spending time in hospital.

It also launched a national conservation project known as Landcare, brought unions and employer organisations together to create a Prices and Incomes Accord, floated the Australian dollar, deregulated the financial sector, and introduced a Family Assistance Scheme to overcome impoverishment of families.

‘Advance Australia Fair’ became the official national anthem, a superannuation pension scheme for all workers was adopted, while the passage of the Australia Act removed all remaining jurisdiction by the United Kingdom from Australia.

A defining legacy

Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the Hawke government’s decisions to expand universities and enact the Higher Education Contribution Scheme were “a defining legacy”.

“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,” Jackson said.

The Australian scheme has since been adopted by many other countries as a vehicle to expand education opportunity and avoid the deterrent effect of upfront student fees, she said.

“The number of Australian undergraduate students rose from 355,674 in 1989 to 805,344 in 2017.

“Australian universities are thankful for Mr Hawke’s profound legacy for our students and extend our deepest condolences to Mr Hawke’s family as they mourn,” Jackson said.