Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia


Public Education: Time for a change, but what change?

by Erna Bennett

’Tis education forms the common mind, Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.

Alexander Pope, Moral Essays, 1735

... And your education! Is not that also social, and determined by the social conditions under which you educate, by the intervention, direct or indirect, of society, by means of schools and the like? Communists have not invented the intervention of society in education; they seek only to alter the character of that intervention, and to rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.

Communist Manifesto, 1848

... Almost two centuries later — notwithstanding developments in educational practice and theories — universal compulsory schooling continues to function much as it did in the beginning, as the intermediary institution between the family and the labour market (a point not unnoticed by economic rationalists)

Harris, Teachers: Constructing the Future, 1994

Public education under attack

The murals of the Mexican artist Siqueros are world-renowned. One of his best-known dominates the campus of the University of Mexico City, and depicts students donating the fruits of their studies to the nation. It is a public declaration that students and young people are among a nation’s most valuable resources, and that society is enriched by their learning; in short, that schools and universities are an investment in a country’s future.

The mural in Mexico City, capital city of a country which is far from a particularly shining model of an enlightened state, nevertheless expresses a concept which seems far beyond the grasp of the stunted minds that at present rule Australia.

They proclaim loudly Australia’s foremost position among the nations of the world. In reality they are the representatives of the most backward forces that exist in the country, and are dragging it into a new dark age. Inheritors of discriminatory and backward-looking traditions, they promote the notion that education is a marketable commodity, accessible by right only to those who can afford to buy it.

Both Federal and State governments are currently engaged in a feverish campaign of decimating the public services, closing public schools, subsidising private schools at public expense, privatising universities, merchandising learning, and cutting funding to those disciplines and faculties that cannot provide an immediate return in cash terms — converting them, in other words, to commercial enterprises, and marketing educational qualifications to those whose social position guarantees that their acquisition of a little knowledge will not be dangerous to the undisturbed survival of the political status quo.

On 19 November 1992, a matter of a few weeks after the victory of the Liberal-National Party Coalition in state elections in Victoria, 55 public schools were closed. One who was directly involved in the struggle over one such closure, said of them that they were a first step in the “greatest counter-revolution in social policy in recent Australian history”1

This first onslaught was followed by the closure of a further 230 government schools, the cancellation of more than 8,000 teaching posts, or 20 per cent of the state’s total teaching staff, and more than 2,000 cleaning staff, over the following months. Spending on public schools was cut by $300 million, and class sizes rose by between 20 and 30 per cent. Teaching posts for English as a second language were slashed by 50 per cent. More than 500 posts serving socially and economically disadvantaged students were abolished.

School closures were accompanied by formidable cuts to other public services, with the loss of 45,000 jobs. Anti-union legislation aimed at disarming effective popular resistance to this and future attacks on the jobs and living conditions of working people in Victoria was introduced. State wage awards were revoked. Health services were cut by $500 million with a loss of 750 hospital places.

Since then, other state elections have seen the victory of right-wing coalitions, which have replaced Labor governments in several states. These, too, mounted similar all-out attacks on public services, among them public education. The scale and the pace of this assault have intensified. With the victory of the Liberal-National Coalition in the Federal elections the attacks have assumed nationwide proportions.

Prime Minister Howard and the mean-spirited men around him have worked systematically and with haste to consummate their plans to destroy the public sector of the Australian economy. They have legislated a significant transfer of public funding to the private sector, including private schools.

The privatisation of public services — health, pension funds, communications, security, prisons and electricity, water and gas services — has been carried out at breakneck pace, and on a vast scale. The systematic dismemberment of public education is, therefore, only too clearly part of a wider plan in which the beneficiaries of social services will no longer be the country’s citizens. Benefits of the “education industry”, the “health industry” and a host of other new “industries” will now be reaped, instead, by the businessmen and speculators of the burgeoning private sector.

The transfer of public services into private hands has been effected by Federal and State governments at give-away prices. Public funding for the remains of such public services as may have survived the general slaughter has been maintained only to provide essential infrastructure for the new private sector — the funds derived, need it be said, from public taxation, paid by workers, the poor, the unemployed, the disadvantaged, the weak, the vulnerable and the aged.

In education, too, just as in other areas, some non-profitable services and administrative infrastructures have been retained under public control, still funded by the state, here, too, to provide private sector operators with access to essential but costly basic research and administration services.

Those who govern Australia — for now, but for how long? — have set out coldly and deliberately to cripple the public services of which they, as an elected government, are custodians; among these is public education, recognised by all — except Howard and company — as guarantor of the nation’s future, endorsed by the UN as a human right in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights Article 26, and until now taken for granted as such. But not so in Australia. Here, education has become a lucrative milch cow for greedy private entrepreneurs and petty speculators.

All this, according to a representative of the NSW National Union of Students, reflects “a set of beliefs professing that education can be bought or sold and need not serve any other social role than to benefit the individual. They reflect complete neglect of the value of an education system based on social goals that are broader than ensuring that individuals are marketable after graduation.”2

Thousands of university places in every state and territory of the country have been eliminated, or opened to wealthy, fee-paying students. Steeply rising fees and increased “up-front” charges dash any hopes non-privileged students might have of a university education or any career dependent on it. Tertiary enrolments have dropped, and are expected to fall by as much as 15 per cent in the poor areas of west and southwest Sydney in the next year.

In the University of the Northern Territory 21 courses have been cut, 19 of them in the arts, and university staff cut by 50. In Adelaide, eleven faculties have been reduced to six, and teaching staff cut by 130. In the University of Tasmania three major arts faculties and one library have been closed. The University of Western Australia has been forced to cancel its subscriptions to many essential journals. A $14 million cut in the budget of the University of Newcastle has led to a ten per cent reduction in all its academic programmes. Mature student enrolments are down in all states, by from 4 per cent in the ACT and Western Australia, to 12 per cent in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania and 28 per cent in South Australia.

Even in Labor-governed New South Wales, student numbers in universities will fall by 9,000 by 1999, following a 14 per cent budget cut on top of an earlier refusal to meet rising university costs. This has already had serious consequences, with the loss of hundreds of academic jobs, over-crowded lectures, reduced study and library facilities and heavily increased work loads for university staff.

This is only a beginning. It has just been announced by the Federal government that it plans for 45,000 additional fee-paying students in the next three years. Revenue from these is planned to rise by $480 million, or 76 per cent, by 2000, though already there are signs that fee-paying student intakes are falling short of target.

As privatisation spreads like an epidemic, fees soar. Poorer students have been driven from the universities by high fees amounting to as much as $100,000 or more, and are trying to find places in the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) vocation-oriented system. Here too, however, 45 per cent of all students are expected to be fee-paying in the next five years. Here, too, fee increases will exclude students from poorer families. Nationwide, university enrolments are down by 10,000 on 1997, with science and technology courses the hardest hit, and the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, describing it as an unprecedented crisis in the university system, has warned of the erosion of Australia’s knowledge base.

The already underfunded $184 million Abstudy programme which was set up to confront and partially resolve the problem of gross educational disparities between Aborigines and whites, has been cut by $39 million. At least 1,000 students from a total of 10,000 will be excluded this year by cuts to travel allowances to the cities, and therefore the universities; this against a background of extreme disparities where 30 per cent of Aboriginal children complete their schooling compared with more than 70 per cent of white children, and in which 2.2 per cent of Aborigines complete tertiary education compared with 12.8 per cent of whites.

The attack on education comes as no surprise to anyone, but its scale is frightening. It has been evident for some time that the notion that equal education for all should be a public service is far beyond the grasp of any of the mean and meagre minds in the Liberal government. In place of the principle of public service, they hope to install greed as a social model to which future generations are expected to conform.

Well, it must be said that for all their well-laid plans that people should grub, as they do, in the greasy tills of private gain at public expense, Australian working people do not, and do not intend to share such values. As the students and young people take to the streets, and occupy universities, colleges and schools, it is becoming clearer by the day that there are hundreds of thousands in this country who do not, and will not accept so wretchedly palsied a world view as that peddled by the New Liberal Order in Australia.

So utterly offensive is the all-out attack on public education by Howard’s grubby gauleiters that The Australian — and what Australian daily is more conservative than that? — last August described the Howard Liberal-National administration as the worst government for education that Australia has ever had.

Symptomatic as criticism from such a source may be, equally symptomatic and more encouraging is the new mood sweeping the country in response to the government’s attempts to curb the educational future of Australia’s next generation. This has stimulated a nationwide wave of protests at every level, with the prospect of many more, as long as governments persist in such destructive policies — whether they be Liberal or Labor.

The role of the Labor Party

For in the smoke of battle it is only too easy to forget how the battle began. Those involved in today’s widening struggles to defend public services and public education may need to be reminded that Labor governments were the first to embark on the privatisation of public resources and, with their first steps in this direction, paved the way for the Howard counter-revolution.

Privatisation in Australia began with the Hawke and Keating Labor governments between 1983 and 1995. Under Labor, funding cuts saw teachers numbers fall from 149,000 in 1987 to 144,000 in 1995. The number of primary school classes larger than 25 pupils rose from 60 per cent in 1988 to 72 per cent in 1994. In junior secondary schools over the same period classes with more than 25 students increased from 40 per cent to 47 per cent.

In the 1980s the Federal Labor government enthusiastically welcomed the then evident trend towards economic globalisation and fell for the notion peddled by transnational corporations of a world market freed of frontiers. One writer discerningly notes that the Liberal-National coalition, when in power, saw such a policy as a green light to intensify attacks on unions and reduce real wages, while Labor governments in power after 1983 saw it, instead, as an opportunity to use “the unions as tools for governing wage costs ... and industrial militancy ... Bipartisan similarities were more important than partisan differences.”3 This not so subtle, but revealing piece of double-think from a government of social democrats reflects its dedication to the idea of compromise and class collaboration — even at the cost of “buying” the union movement and stifling its independence.

In education, the thin end of the wedge of Labor’s betrayal of its own official policy of support for public education came with the re-introduction of university fees in 1987. This was legitimised by the euphemistically-labelled Higher Education Administration Charge (HEAC).

The following year saw the country’s 19 universities and 46 Colleges of Advanced Education amalgamated into a tertiary system of 36 universities and four colleges, as part of a policy of “micro-economic reforms” and commercialisation of the entire public sector. The shift to market-oriented studies saw classics faculties facing crisis as student numbers fell. Faculties and courses unable to show short-term bottom-line returns were slashed; for example, while 50 per cent of HSC students enrolled in history in 1980, by 1996 this had fallen to 30 per cent.

The Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC) and the Commonwealth Schools Commission (CSC), set up by the Whitlam government, both of them potential sources of resistance to the proposed policy shift in favour of fees, were abolished. Their place was assumed directly by the government Department of Employment, Education and Training under John Dawkins, so successfully neutralising sources of existing and possible future official opposition to economic rationalisation in education.

In May, 1988, a Labor-appointed Committee on the Funding of Higher Education under the chairmanship of Neville Wran issued its recommendations. On extremely questionable grounds, it and the Federal government argued that the abolition of fees by the Whitlam administration had failed in its aim to broaden the participation in higher education that had been hoped for. On these and similar grounds, it therefore proposed a system of deferred fees (HECS) which — it was claimed — “would create access and equity” by financing growth.

But as has been pointed out, the Wran Committee’s real brief “was not to universalise education or re-distribute its benefits; it was to craft a fees system that was supportable inside the Labor Party”. The introduction of fees was finally put to the ALP Conference in June 1988 and was accepted by the far from impressive majority of 56 votes to 41.4

In embracing these measures, it has been very pertinently noted that “by dividing the population between beneficiaries and payers, Labor fractured the social solidarity necessary to a system of universal financing and provision. In the place of equity ... it substituted the public choice theory notion of individualised benefits in exchange for individualised taxes, in place of the notion of social programmes of common benefit.”5

Between 1993 and 1995, before the Liberal-National Coalition came to power and proceeded to cut higher education funding by $600 million, spending by Labor dropped steadily from 80 per cent of government education spending to 57 per cent, while student fees increased from 10 per cent to 42 per cent.

The Labor Party’s significant role in the erosion of public education thus raises serious questions that require to be confronted and answered. Without doubt attempts will be made to cover up and explain away Labor’s role in dismantling the public services. This will certainly be so during 1998, an election year in which the two major parties (the Labor Party and the Liberal Party) will contend for the favours of the Australian electorate and the opportunity of governing it.

There can be little doubt that the change in Labor’s party line had its origins in a series of OECD reports published in 1986, 1987 and in subsequent years, on the “need” to extend micro-economic “reforms”, reports which were warmly embraced by the Labor government. Among other observations — with the force of recommendations — the OECD stated that universities “can operate as service enterprises, and under some conditions can cover much of their expenditure from the sale of their services”. In such a scheme of things, neither education nor research saw any valid option before them but to submit to industry’s needs. As part of their response to this policy, Australian universities created commercial companies to market their services. These have shown an increase of 50 per cent since 1991, and earn well in excess of $300 million a year.

Labor’s Education Minister Dawkins, in a report on higher education published in 1987, spoke of the role of education in terms of the need of the “national economy” for a “greater premium on technical knowledge and labour force skills [which] will also be a vital factor in our productivity performance”. But the hypocrisy and class bias of such public statements is exposed by a 13 per cent fall in the rate of school completion among the sons [sic] of manual workers, compared with a 3 per cent decline for the sons [sic] of managerial families.

Even during the “legendary” Whitlam years, the relationships “between state and the large firms has generally been to serve the interests of the firms”, and “leading companies retained a privileged position since vital decisions on the size, nature, direction and location of investment ... remained in business hands.”6

In spite of its close involvement with the corporate sector, however, the Whitlam government did introduce some noteworthy improvements in social services and education. It abolished fees for higher education. It introduced the TAFE (Technical and Further Education) system, and, following the 1975 Karmel report, Federal spending on schools rose from $364 million in 1973 to $1091 million by 1975.

The same cannot be said of either the Hawke or Keating Labor administrations which came to power in 1983 and remained in government until 1996. Submission to corporate interests had by then become complete.

The Whitlam government was dissolved in 1975 after a cynical and arrogant display of political power-play and covert — but transparent — manoeuvering by Liberal and corporate interests in which every pretence at democratic process was discarded. The Liberal-National government that assumed power after this coup d’etat took less than a decade to reduce education spending by almost 20 per cent. At the same time, the share of the education budget going to private schools rose from 25.7 per cent to 46.4 per cent.

Labor took power again in the 1983 federal elections, but the attack on schools and higher education continued. The Hawke government continued the same policies of “down-sizing” and “out-sourcing” the public services, cutting back on health and education, and striking at the whole public sector. Its close dependence on corporate Australia intensified, and ignited the fuse to an unprecedented privatisation explosion which was to affect every branch of the public service in the next decade.

When the Liberal-National Coalition came to power in the 1992 state elections in Victoria and took immediate and determined action to dismember the public services, at the cost of 45,000 redundancies, it was the Federal Labor government in Canberra which provided the conservative government in Victoria with a $2 billion loan to finance its redundancy pay-outs.

Labor’s ardent espousal of the privatisation process was accompanied by the formal abandonment of the policies of full employment, social welfare and the free, universal education that, traditionally, had been identified with the Labor Party. In place of these, market criteria, class collaboration and labour discipline were elevated to the status of a new creed, with all the dedication of a John the Baptist preparing the road and making smooth the path for the Liberal and National coalitions which, as a result of widespread disillusionment with Labor, inevitably won a series of state elections in the early 1990s and the Federal elections of 1996.

Labor’s privatisation programme was pushed forward in the face of strong internal opposition from many Labor Party members who, as dedicated supporters of public ownership, were deeply dismayed by the shift in the Labor Party line. Their opposition was energetic, but completely without effect, and we must ask why.

The answers — for there is not a single answer — are to be found in several distinct directions.

In the first place, the Labor Party does not consider class divisions within society as a cause of, or a reason for, a conflict between classes for control of the state; in the words of the Communist Manifesto of 1848, “socialists of this kind consider themselves above class antagonisms. They want to improve the conditions of every member of society, even that of the most favoured. Hence they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class.”7

The Labor Party, like all social-democratic parties, stands for collaboration between the social classes, between employed and employers, between the oppressed and their oppressors, between the disadvantaged and the privileged. It believes, or would have workers believe that debate, persuasion, conviction and negotiation can overcome differences in class interests, and that, as a consequence, the privileged will renounce their privileges. The harmony thus established will, in their view, eventually bring benefits to all.

But many decades of class collaboration led by labour and social-democratic governments in every part of the world have not led to the elimination of poverty or class exploitation. Under such governments both have intensified.

Under the Hawke government, the rich-poor gap doubled between 1983 and 1991. Out of 19 OECD countries, Australia under Labor ranked 17th in “generosity” to the poor, spending 12.8 per cent of its GDP on welfare against an OECD average of 18.8 per cent and 29.1 per cent in the Netherlands. Even Ireland spent more, at 16.7 per cent of GDP.

One must be wary about over-simplifying the analysis of social trends, but it is perfectly clear that one cannot speak of the “economic health of a nation” in a nation which is divided into classes with contradictory interests. Nor can one claim that the health of a nation can be served by investment flows where these are driven — as they are — by motives of self interest and maximum return for the benefit of corporations and wealthy investors. To achieve these aims, corporations demand minimum costs, including minimum wages, and reduction of “costly waste” of public funds on education, welfare and other public services.

Because social-democratic parties, among them the Australian Labor Party, have ignored the importance of contrasting class interests in society, they, too, argue that “for the economic health of the nation” they have no option but to “govern wage costs” and, as they have done consistently, will use the unions to help them do so. In the Hawke and Keating years they have done so using a policy of class collaboration, with productivity agreements (which is a modern euphemism for wage reductions) and systems of Wage Accords. They speak of a “partnership” between workers and employers, between exploited and exploiters.

One may quote, once again, from the 150-year old but still pertinent Communist Manifesto, which has this to say of the social-democratic parties and their lack of any historical understanding of social and class evolution:

...the economic situation, as such socialists see it, does not as yet offer them the material conditions for emancipation of the proletariat. They search therefore after a new social science, after new social laws, that are to create these conditions.

Historical action yields to personal inventive action; historically created conditions to imaginary ones; and the gradual, class organisation of the proletariat to forms of social organisation specially dreamed up by these inventors. Future history will resolve itself, in their eyes, into ... the practical resolution of their dreamed-up plans.8

Without an analytical discipline, without scientific rigour, in short, without historical method, without Marxism, social-democratic parties lay themselves wide open not only to the dangers of political and historical fantasies, but also to betrayal of the interests of the working class of which they claim to be spokesmen and representatives, and who elect them to power.

Thus, while Victoria, following Kennett’s right-wing victory in the 1992 state elections, was the first state to see a highly organised and rapid reversal of the notion that social welfare, whether in the health, education, housing, transport or other services, is the responsibility of government, it is also evident that for more than a decade the Hawke and Keating Labor governments unhesitatingly adopted the principle of “user pays”, with all its harsh and self-righteous, as well as grossly and brutally primitive connotations of “every man for himself” and “the devil take the hindmost”.

This has been as much the credo of Labor governments since 1983 as it is of Liberal Party and its National Party allies since 1996. That the weakest go to the wall is approved as an acceptable social norm, clothed when necessary, in the social pseudo-science of “natural selection” and the “survival of the fittest”, shielded by the excuse of a “cash-strapped” state economy, by both major parties.

With youth unemployment oscillating at around 30 per cent, Liberal schemes up to 1982 to “train” and “educate” the young and often long-term unemployed by offering “an appropriate education program ... to assist young unemployed, whose low or inadequate educational qualifications inhibit them from obtaining stable employment” served, in reality, to introduce certain basic skills to “the reserve army of the unemployed” that could then be used to undermine working-class solidarity and threaten the security of still-employed workers. They also served to dump the responsibility for unemployment onto the shoulders of its victims and were “seen as a cynical political move to recycle youth unemployment and to artificially reduce the teenage unemployment rate.”9

These programmes were followed in 1983 and the following years by Labor schemes which differed little if at all save in their attempt to present a human face, from those of the Liberals, with the same effect.

The erosion of education and social services under Liberal and Labor governments in Australia is but part of a wider and now dominant world-view disseminated in the recommendations of IMF and OECD reports, and shared by Liberals and Labor alike. Now that global victory over the socialist economies seems to these people to be more and more firmly secured, education and social services are but a few of the many chosen testing grounds for the battle to re-establish the old order of things — an order well illustrated Tawney in his essay, published in 1918 (which readers will have seen in the pages preceding this article), and an order which drags social values to depths not seen for a century.

Objectives of education

The Labor Party’s approach to public education differs so little from the Liberal Party’s for another reason, and has to do with what might be considered as education’s principle role within the capitalist system. It is a role that calls for historical assessment.

Free and universal public education in Australia dates from 1848 — the year in which the Communist Manifesto was first published — when a National Education Board was created along with a separate Denominational School Board. Their purpose was to respond to the colony’s growing needs for a literate and numerate work force. The two boards were amalgamated in 1866 into a single Council of Education.

Though to different degrees and with divergent motivations, both conservative and liberal opinions were agreed on the need to educate the colony’s labour force. “In the outback of New South Wales” ... labourers’ children were growing up like savages, “idle, ignorant and demoralised,” said Thomas Holt in 1856 in a speech to the Legislative Assembly, and he argued that it was the government’s duty to “prevent crime and promote virtue by means of a universal system of education.”10

More to the point, the reality of the colonial situation “led both conservatives and the upwardly mobile to agree ... that something had to be done about the education of the future generation in both town and country if the transplanted British civilisation was to be saved from retrogression into barbarism ... ”11

Moreover, a society increasingly dependent on its industrial activity faced a growing need for a literate workforce. By the mid-1800s, it was clear that both mass elementary and higher education were indispensable elements without which a modern economy could not be created. Universal education for the masses, however rudimentary it might be, was necessary, both conservative and liberal-minded progressives nervously agreed, but while the liberals were concerned about wasting public funds, conservatives were obsessed by quite other dangers.

The Queensland Under-Secretary of Education, after reviewing the New South Wales school system in 1896, thought “it would be lamentable if the New South Wales system of public and university education, admirable as it is, led to the formation of a class mentally disqualified to earn a living under the conditions of the time, and it brought with it the danger of an educated proletariat.”12

His views were neither merely personal nor unusual; they were generally held. At the turn of the century in both the United States and Europe, debate raged on the dangers inherent in universal public education in spite of the general recognition that it was necessary.

W.T. Harris, a prominent conservative educationalist in the United States, supported universal education on the grounds that if “property was to be safe from confiscation by a majority composed of communists, [we] must see to it that the people are educated so that each see the sacredness of property.”

“His major goal,” says Feinberg who quoted this remark, “was to find a way in which America could adjust to the emerging technology [of the day] without a political revolution, and without a drastic alternation in the distribution of wealth. Marx had already served notice on the defenders of capitalism that within its own technology were the seeds of its own destruction, and Harris believed that the school was the instrument to ensure that such seeds never blossomed.”13

In Europe, the same fears assailed governments caught between industrial capitalism’s need for a workforce with a degree of literacy, and realisation that knowledge, however rudimentary it might be, could have serious and unpredictable political consequences.

From its beginnings, universal elementary education provided by the state has been dominated by this contradiction between necessity and fear. As a consequence, education was dominated by the principle of inequality; it was, in Tawney’s view, “a discipline, half-redemptive, half repressive ... It had been designed for those for whom it was expedient to provide the rudiments of instruction since, if wholly untaught, they were a danger to society, but expedient to provide more, since they were equally a danger if taught too much.”14

A spectre was, indeed, haunting not Europe, as the Communist Manifesto modestly stated, but the entire world!

Social conditioning

“The demand for popular education,” says Bernal, “first arose with the insurgent bourgeoisie of the sixteenth century,” and the demand for its recognition remained a battleground in the 17th and 18th Centuries. In the course of the struggles which marked this period, the early educators played a significant part in overthrowing the ideology of the feudal order.

However, once industrial capitalists were in power their enthusiasm for the extension of education soon evaporated. True, the new working class needed enough acquaintance with the three Rs to do their jobs properly, and provision for teaching them was only reluctantly provided on the cheapest possible basis. But that was all the more reason for seeing that education of the masses did not go too far, and that it introduced no unsettling ideas.15

The problem of the contradiction between the system’s need for a literate proletariat and the political dangers inherent in such a situation was soon resolved. Teaching was assigned an ideological dimension. It acquired the responsibility of integrating “working-class children into the given society; those who are ‘bright’ are helped to prepare their escape from the working-class condition and the rest are helped to accept their subordination; as far as the vast majority of working-class children are concerned,” universal education “performs an important class-confirming role.”16

It became an important part of education “to instil in those who are subjected to it a submissive acceptance of the social order of which they are intended, no doubt with exceptions, to form the base.”

In the Australian colonies, administrators all recognised that the colonial end of the imperial economic system could only work effectively is specific, teachable and acceptable modes of social behaviour were spread more widely in the population; “what was called for was diligence, self-reliance, self-improvement, interdependence, and respect for social rules and traditional institutions.”17

“Mass elementary education,” we may read in a recent textbook, “must havea curriculum sufficient to ensure a meagre literacy, and be suited solely to the lower classes.”18

For those who are given such an education, however, “the fundamental principle of upper-class assimilation remains.”19

“Compromise rather than confrontation with the upper classes of Australian society has marked the extension of educational facilities to the ambitious, the industrious, and the lucky among the ‘humbler’ classes,” says Ely. Educational facilities offered the upwardly mobile have generally guaranteed their co-operation rather than confrontation with their superiors. Stress on upward mobility continued into the 1960s and 1970s with both the Murray report (1957) and the Martin Report (1964).

Kevin Harris (not the W.T. Harris already cited) has recently summed up the situation in an Australian context:

First, schooling provides certain skills and knowledge required by most, if not all, future workers ... as well as socially-specific highly-valued esoteric skills and knowledge for a small proportion of pupils headed for specialised regions in the labour market. Secondly, it transmits to all future adults, albeit with a varying degree of proficiency and success, the values, norms and attitudes required by people occupying different positions within the existing relations of production. And thirdly, it diverts part of the cost of producing trained and pre-sorted workers for the labour market from the employers to the state, or more specifically, to the taxpayer.20

In short, in the 80 years since Tawney’s 1918 essay, it is still the function of education to keep the workers’ children in their place — and to do so at public, not private expense.

If anything has changed in education, Harris notes, it is “that developments in macro-and micro-economic policies have tended to promote moves that divert a larger share of the cost ... of producing employees away from the employers, and more directly to the taxpayer and the taxpayer’s progeny, who are now represented as consumers as well as beneficiaries of schooling.”21

So when Howard like his Labor predecessors, differing from them only in his unconcealed zeal for the task — continues to vandalise and dismantle public education, this can be seen only as a return to historically established priorities that have been hallowed by generations of capitalist legislation and practice. Even the Martin Report on Tertiary Education in Australia, published in 1964, noted that a sound education was “the best guarantee of a flexible workforce whose members are capable of turning to new tasks.”22 Education (or schooling, as some have taken good care to distinguish it) was, and still remains vocation-oriented.

The aspirations of the working class in Australian society have been partially gratified by educational opportunities which, sometimes readily, and often grudgingly, have been made available to their children, Ely remarks. Among the have-nots, turbulence was weakened by the limited but real opportunities offered to their natural leaders [and] “thereby Australia entered without stress what Manning Clark has called the age of the bourgeoisie. Consensus rather than confrontation [has] transmuted marxist class struggle into acquiescence.”23

What, then of the free and universal character of the public and socially-oriented education that has been, and continues to be dismembered at the hands of recent Labor and Liberal governments?

We must note that universal and free popular education is a recent inheritance dating from a relatively short period following World War II. An economic boom driven by heavy demands for post-war reconstruction, an awakening of humanistic values in the wake of a war that had profound and widespread ideological significance leading to the resurgence of popular forces and of values that stirred wide political support for the idea of the “welfare state” — even among relatively conservative circles — the emergence of labour and socialist governments in Europe and elsewhere, and the disintegration of old Europe’s former empires all served to stimulate a renaissance that lasted until the 1970s. The renaissance was also felt in Australia, in an attenuated form, only with the advent of the Whitlam government which held office for less than three years from 1973 to 1975.

Viewed from longer historical perspectives, other periods of revolutionary or exceptional social change have been marked by a similar flowering of new attitudes and ideas. These have left their impact on educational principles and the liberalisation of education itself. Among these, one can count the Florentine Renaissance of the 1400s and 1500s, the English Civil War, the 18th Century Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and the 1917 October Revolution in Russia. Each of these, with the exception — at least until recently — of the October Revolution, was succeeded by a retreat into the formalistic and obscurantist application of some but not all of the ideas which had been awakened, or by their abandonment, with a subsequent collapse into reaction.

So the post-war ferment was an interlude only, soon eclipsed by the increasing power and domination of global transnational capitalism, hastened by the Cold War defeat of much of the socialist world. The dismantling of the public services that began in the 1970s and has lasted until the present, under the influence of an economic “rationalism” which dominates the political philosophy of the developed capitalist countries,24 is not a new development, therefore, but a return to the past, though at a qualitatively new level determined by the present transnational stage of capitalism.

Speaking of an earlier period, the historian Christopher Hill, said that “as revolutionary tides have subsided, again and again the idea that re-asserted itself was that education for the lower orders is socially destabilising and politically dangerous”25 — and the ruling class reacted accordingly. Our present age is no exception.

And the future?

The current, narrow, task-oriented and role-confirming model of education has not gone unquestioned. The Murray Report of 1957 remarked on how little attention was paid to “a full and true education befitting a free man and citizen of a free country” and deplored the fact that “we have ... been falling behind in our understanding and appreciation of human values.”26 In 1974, the TAFE Committee Report proposed a shift of education away from “merely serving industry’s needs” towards “meeting the needs of persons who wish to develop their abilities to the best advantage of themselves and the community.”27

Since 1974, however, political and ideological priorities have shifted, and educational policies with them, as governments of developed countries, conservative and social-democratic alike, have moved to the right in response to the growing ideological pressures of globalised TNC capitalism.

Government committees no longer care nor dare to state their attitudes to such notions as community needs or human values, if not in explicit cash terms — though Keating, while still prime minister and in command of a policy of education cuts, allowed himself occasional flights into rhetoric, as when he said, “education is a foundation of the nation’s culture and strength. It is where the knowledge and appreciation of our heritage and institutions is passed on”. He even “suspected”, he said, that “these things are not the priority they once were.”28 He should know. The proof of his educational pudding, as of offerings from any other Australian government since the mid-1970s, whether Liberal or Labor, was in the eating of its perpetually diminishing fare.

It would be inappropriate, therefore, to limit our discussion on education to idealistic and abstract levels, given the new harsh reality of education policies in the developed countries of the OECD. Reality, and experience, tell us that education, wherever we find it, and whether it be elementary or higher, or technical, scientific or in the humanities, aims to serve a specific and immediate purpose, which is now usually valued in terms of its bottom-line returns, rather than in intellectual aims or content.

It is not intended either to enlarge or enrich the mind. It is intended to enrich the pockets of those who sell it and those who buy it. It serves as “a preparation for life” — but what life? Its objective is either to train people to perform more effectively the tasks destined to them by their class position or to serve as a boost to the upward mobility that will permit some to escape from subordinate class-determined roles.

In short, in spite of all the rhetoric, in any class-divided society, there are different educations for different classes. This message is fully confirmed by innumerable statistical indications.

For example, in post-war Europe the upper and middle classes have rarely, if ever, contributed less than a large minority of students to universities. In the Netherlands this has been about 45 per cent, but in other countries, Sweden among them, it exceeds 50 per cent, while in the Mediterranean countries it is often as high as 80 per cent.

Most of the rest are the children of salaried employees, small businessmen and farmers. Working class children are invariably poorly represented, rarely exceeding 10 to 15 per cent, though often considerably less.29 These data refer to the 1970s, but they have not since substantially changed.

The situation in Australia is not significantly different. The 1978 Williams Report noted that only 15 per cent of university students came from working-class families, while more than 50 per cent come from professional, executive and administrative classes, who constitute less than a fifth of the population.30

Recent Australian studies have shown that boys from low socio-economic backgrounds are only half as likely to gain admission to universities as others, while those from professional and administrative families have a 15 per cent better chance of entry. The trend in favour of increased representation of the wealthy and privileged has accelerated rapidly in the past year.

All these trends reveal a state of education that is a long way from the humanistic notion that education should aim at the intellectual enrichment of the individual and of society. However much we might hanker after the renaissance ideal that exalts the unrelenting search for truth and humanist values that can liberate the fullest potential of the human mind, the stark reality of the human condition under capitalism dictates quite other imperatives.

Education, say our rulers and their various commissions and committees, serves the needs of society. In a class-divided society such claims are meaningless. Education does not serve the interests of society or even of a majority within it, as is claimed, but those of its privileged minorities. It serves the ruling class, which has power to dictate the character of education and educational policy. This favours, and is meant to favour ruling class interests, and the interests of those of other classes who choose to conform to capitalist society’s social and cultural prescripts in the hope of escaping their subordinate and class-determined condition.

As for the future, when working class forces take power and choose a socialist path, the same rules will continue to hold true. Class divisions will continue to exist, for they cannot be banished overnight, by decree. Power has shifted from the old ruling class to a new one. The regime is transitional and education will continue, as before, to serve the specific and immediate objectives of the new ruling class, that is, the working class. This class will determine the characteristics of the new education, and will assign its priorities for as long as class divisions persist, in the interests of the new ruling class.

With the important difference, as the Communist Manifesto took care to underline in 1848, that ruling classes until now only represented a privileged minority, while the working class who are the new ruling class, represent “the immense majority of the people”. As a result, education under post-revolutionary governments will serve the interests of “the immense majority of the people”, though society may retain its class character for many decades until, with time, a new, classless society evolves.

Yet, even in its very earliest days and in its most imperfect and least developed form, in the presence of persisting class divisions, and often in the face of hostile encirclement and military intervention, socialist societies have allowed us to see and evaluate the germ of a new, classless, truly universal communist education.

The experience of socialist education to date, with whatever defects, has not only confirmed the validity of this vision. It has also provided valid guiding principles for the first outlines of a genuinely universal educational system. It has provided the opportunity to rid today’s educational policies from the numerous illusions of idealism and egalitarianism that clothe them.

In even the most disadvantaged post-revolutionary societies, former colonies, under-developed, starved of every resource, including even paper and pencils, it is possible to see the emergence of an educational system that is unmistakably and uncompromisingly socially and community-oriented.

The principle of usefulness to the community still dominates. But this time, references to the needs of the community have a real meaning which they did not have before; reference to the community now means the immense majority of the people, not a privileged minority that seeks private gain at public expense. The new priority is public service. Literacy is prized, not as a key to social success, but because it opens new worlds to a population previously denied them. Social responsibility assumes outstanding importance.

As for literacy, where can any capitalist society point to the literacy campaigns which in Cuba, Nicaragua and former African Portuguese colonies, saw tens of thousands of young volunteers mobilised to bring the skills and advantages of literacy to an entire population of labourers and peasants, of young and old, throughout entire countries, regardless of the future demands of this or that industry?

Where, outside the socialist system, can school games be found with rules that depend on cooperation rather than competition? Or play activities designed so that they require the combined and reasoned efforts of more than one child? Or find problems that require for their solution the joint knowledge of several children?

Between the system which Howard and his gang are ravaging in the name of privilege and that which socialism ushers in and which already, many years ago, emerged from realms of theory and conjecture into demonstrable reality, only to be crushed again for the umpteenth time, there is one great difference.

We are looking at two worlds, and two ways of looking at the future. One of these worlds, conceived and regulated by the Liberal-Nationals — the mean Howard, the ludicrous Fischer and the evil Reith — and slavishly accepted by ALP leaders and their faceless but wealthy friends, is a world of greed. The other, a world founded on social responsibility and human values, is one which neither Liberals or their National Party allies will ever understand and which social-democratic labour parties will continue to betray.

As the popularity of both of these groups wanes, so will their grip on power. With their passing, the road will be clear once more for the reconstruction of the kind of society that for so long has endured their hatred and so often been dismantled and destroyed by them. It will be a socialist society dedicated to nurturing all its children equally, encouraging the diversity of their gifts, and opening an era in which all humans can flourish to their fullest potential.

This remains the socialist objective, only temporarily stalled by the combined efforts of a world of Howards and his kind, who look backwards with nostalgia, but have never — because of their entrenched class position — learned the art nor found the courage of looking forward.

  1. Jolly, S. (1996) “Behind the Lines”, Richmond Secondary College: a school that dared to fight. Melbourne. Global Books.
  2. Mitchel, T. “User pays”, Sydney Morning Herald, 02-06-1997.
  3. Marginson, S. Educating Australia: Government, Economy and Citizen since 1960, p.82. Cambridge University Press.
  4. loc. cit. p.227 et seq.
  5. loc. cit. p.227.
  6. loc. cit. p.81.
  7. Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1848) Manifesto of the Communist Party, “Part III, 3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism”.
  8. loc. cit.
  9. Freeland, J. (1986) in Sharp, R (ed) Capitalist Crisis and Schooling, p.230 et seq. Melbourne, Macmillan.
  10. quoted by Ely, J. (1978) Reality and Rhetoric: an Alternative History of Australian Education, pp.24,25.
  11. Ely, J. loc.cit. p.22.
  12. quoted by Mendelsohn, R. (1979) The Condition of the People: Social Welfare in Australia 1900-1975, p.293. Sydney, Allen and Unwin.
  13. Feinberg, W. (1975) Reason and Rhetoric: the intellectual foundations of 20th century liberal education policy, pp. 35,36. New York, Wiley.
  14. Tawney, R.H. (1931) Equality, p.129. London, Allen and Unwin.
  15. Bernal, J.D. (1954) “Science in History”, Vol.4. The Social Sciences, p.1149. London, Penguin.
  16. Milliband, R. (1974) The State in Capitalist Society: The Analysis of the Western System of Power, p.217 et passim. London, Quartet Books.
  17. Ely, J. loc. cit. p.10.
  18. Musgrace, P.W. (1968) Society and Education in England since 1800, p.61. London, Methuen.
  19. Bernal, J.D. loc. cit. p.1150.
  20. Harris, K. (1994) Teachers: Constructing the Future, p.35. Melbourne, Nelson.
  21. loc. cit. p.36.
  22. Martin, L. (1964) Tertiary Education in Australia, Melbourne, Australian Universities Commission.
  23. Ely, J. loc. cit. p.5.
  24. The terminology that described countries as “developed” and “developing” needs critical scrutiny. It is obvious that the real problem of the so-called developing countries is that they are NOT developing, and it is more correct to call them under-developed countries. Similarly, the developed countries which, for centuries, extracted wealth in vast quantities from their colonies, under-developing them and jeopardising the future of the planet, should more accurately be described as over-developed countries.
  25. Hill, C. (1967) Reformation to Industrial Revolution, pp.195-196 et passim. London. Penguin.
  26. quoted by Ely, J. loc. cit. p.112.
  27. loc. cit. p.115.
  28. Keating, P. (1995) Advancing Australia, p.89.
  29. Milliband, R. loc. cit. p.38.
  30. Williams, B. (1979) Education, Training and Employment, Report of a Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training. Canberra, AGPS.

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