John Howard's School Days


Next week my twins sit for the HSC, the latest variation of the examination I sat for in 1967. My choices for a life after school were shaped by the enlightened policies of the Menzies Government which spent the post war creating a university and school system to educate a country where the people had no tradition of valuing learning. My university degree was fully funded by a Commonwealth Scholarship, a scheme created by Robert Menzies in 1950. Approximately 20 per cent of my fellow students were similarly funded.

Many other arts and science students were supported by bonded State Government Teachers College Scholarships, granted to ensure that future generations would be well-taught. Students who matriculated, but did not win scholarships, could enter university by paying fees for one year, and be awarded a scholarship at the end of first year, if they did more than scrape a pass. These fees were approximately the same as private school fees, which meant that they were an impossibility for those who were poor, but many students who missed out on a scholarship took the gamble. By the time I enrolled at Sydney University in 1968, the pressure on student places meant that all faculties had quotas, especially medicine, but they were not too restrictive.

Today, the UAI (University Admission Index) needed for anything but the most basic degrees, is so high that today’s students face pressure to achieve that is almost beyond comprehension. The degrees demanding the highest UAI are not always the most intellectually rigorous, nor indeed do they lead to the most satisfying careers. Rather, they are degrees with well-mapped career paths: Veterinary Science, Medicine, and Law. Last year, the cut-off for a funded (HECS) place in a Combined Law degree at the University of Sydney was 99.6.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

It was all very different when John Winston Howard enrolled as a student at the University of Sydney. In 1956 he was one of a grand total of 9,044 students to sit for the Leaving Certificate Post war aspirations meant that an increasing number of parents were prepared to encourage their children to complete high school education. 5,600 of Howard’s cohort were boys and 3,444 were girls. In the 1950s there was some resistance towards educating women. It could be argued that one of the reasons for today’s pressure on the professional degrees is they are targeted by talented young women who will one day force some kind of gender equity on the legal and medical systems. In the 1950s, Law had not obtained the glamour given to it by television in the 1980s, and it was possible to matriculate with 5Bs. An equivalent grade in today’s UAI would be 65.

According to Robert Wainwright and Tony Stephens writing in the Sydney Morning Herald last year, John Howard matriculated with the kind of Leaving Certificate pass that would not get him into any faculty of the University of Sydney today. He managed As (good passes) in English and Modern History; Bs (mediocre passes) in Latin, Chemistry, and Economics. The future Treasurer failed general mathematics. He was nowhere near obtaining a Commonwealth Scholarship but his family was able to pay his fees for that vital first year, and John Howard enrolled as a straight Law student, rather than into the more intellectually stimulating Arts/Law degree.

From a purely utilitarian perspective this was a logical step. Without Arts, the Law degree would not take so long. If he failed to obtain that vital scholarship at the end of first year, then the financial burden would be less. In any case, Sydney University Law School was in downtown Sydney, miles away from the main campus at Camperdown but close to the Liberal Party headquarters in Ash Street. Even as a schoolboy he had been a party operative in training. After he obtained the essential scholarship, Howard could hardly be described as a model student. Wainwright and Stephens quote Murray Tobias, a fellow student who remembered classmates covering for Howard’s frequent absences from class: ‘I’d also make a carbon copy of my notes for John. I reckon my notes got him through law school’.

In this, as with so much, John Howard was fortunate in his times. In the 1950s and 1960s university assessments were restricted to end of year examinations which tended to favour regurgitated answers. It was possible for a student with a good memory for facts to cram a year’s worth of lecture notes into a few short weeks of study. No one has ever faulted Howard’s memory. By way of contrast, most university programs now have at least three assessable tasks per course per semester (ie at least six in a year long course). Even in the most exam-intensive course there is no escape from the class paper, essay or workshop presentation. Online teaching aids, like WebCt, include Orwellian monitoring systems so that lecturers know the date each student first accesses the course, the number of times it is accessed, and indeed what is accessed. Far more is expected of modern university students than in John Howard’s day.

One consequence of Howard enrolling in the utilitarian pure Law degree was that he had no real engagement with student life. Fellow Law students tended to use their two years of arts to both broaden their intellectual life and to experience the on-campus activities that are the essence of student life at Sydney. Law students, especially those with political ambitions, tend to gravitate to the debates committee. Given Howard’s school debating experience, this could have been his destination, if he had been less concerned with party politics.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

As the Union is where all faculties and inclinations mix, Howard could have engaged with Jim Carlton, Peter Baume, and Peter Wilenski, as well as the legendary VJA Flynn and others destined for more than fame. This experience would have tempered his suburban energy and given him both an introduction to the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate. It may have even given him tolerance. A couple of years spent on campus, eating student food, surrounded by student life, might have introduced him to the theatrical stimulus of SUDS (Sydney University Drama Society) which was at that time enlivened by the activities of one Leo Schofield.

Because he was simultaneously enrolled in Law, working part-time in a hardware shop, machinating for the Liberal Party in the city and organising the numbers in Earlwood, John Howard had no time to be a real university student, and so he devalued the experience. As the times and the poor administration of the degree allowed non-participating students to graduate, Howard is but one of many who have the paper qualification without a proper education. I would suggest that this, as much as the residual battles of Abbott and Costello, is what lies behind the Howard Government’s approach to student life, which in Australian universities is run by student unions.

In Howard’s world what he did not himself experience is not necessary.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.