Top of the Class


At the risk of being branded un-Australian, I want to talk about class.

It’s not a word, or a concept, we’ve ever been terribly comfortable with in this wide brown land, and yet it’s had a huge impact on the development of Australian culture and society since European settlement, and continues to stir passions and raise hackles today.


It’s never far from the surface of Australian political life, but it seems to burst through most often in relation to education and opportunity. Study after study proves that ‘ if there is a key variable in the occupational attainment of men and women, it is educational attainment.’ So, equal access to education has always been a key tenet of social justice movements, including the labour movement.

Issue 98 of New Matilda carried a piece by Guy Rundle that dealt with this problem in the UK, and provoked a lively debate on the online forum. Rundle is right when he says that the kind of entrenched class division and social disadvantage that exists in the UK is ‘ a hard nut to crack.’ A recent report by the London School of Economics compared surveys of children born into the 1950s and the 1970s, and found a significant decline in social mobility, ‘in part due to the strong and increasing relationship between family income and educational attainment.’

The report contains clear evidence that the destruction of the meritocratic grammar school system, introduced after World War II, and the increase in private education in the UK are leaving today’s young Britons significantly worse off than children of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Such regression in equality does indeed demonstrate a failure of the social justice agenda in the UK.

Why Australia should suffer similarly, however, is unclear. We revel in the belief that we have none of the entrenched class distinctions of the UK. Our nation is only just over a century old, and was once regarded as a ‘working man’s paradise.’ But to pretend that we have no class system in Australia, or that we are not currently led by people who wish to see a class system entrenched here, is a dangerous delusion.

By questioning the ‘values’ of public schools and drastically cutting funding to education at all levels, the Howard Government has created an ‘us-and-them’ Australia, in which ‘good parents’ buy a private education for their children, and those who remain in the public system are left with fewer and fewer resources.

The more people buy into this myth, the less value society will place on a public education, which in turn will force more parents to conclude that a private education is necessary if their child is to have opportunities in later life. It’s a vicious circle.

The result is that more and more families on modest incomes make sacrifices to purchase a precious private education, often at the expense of other enriching experiences, such as family holidays, trips to the theatre and museums, and subscriptions to magazines.

The longer Australian education policy is informed by market-driven ideology, the more equality of opportunity will suffer. By reducing education to just another commodity which can be traded in the economy that has apparently replaced our society neo-liberal forces have managed to replace national pride in an egalitarian system that afforded every Australian child an equal start on a level playing field, with a culture of selfishness and envy that pits one family against the next.

In April this year, in a research paper entitled Equality of Opportunity in Australia: Myth and Reality, Fred Argy, visiting fellow at the Australia Institute, warned that, while ‘Australia remains among the more socially mobile societies in the world things are changing, and without a policy rethink will continue to change, for the worse.’

Thanks to Bill Leak.

If we can agree that equal access to education, regardless of the ability to pay, is a fundamental principle of a democratic and meritocratic society, we should welcome last weekend’s release of the ALP’s White Paper on Higher Education, ‘Research and Innovation.’

Following its strong stand on Industrial Relations, the ALP seems determined to carry its new-found resolve through to other key policy areas, starting with education. In a move almost as bold as its pledge to tear up Howard’s radical IR legislation, Labor is now looking to abolish full-fee places for Australian undergraduate students, and to establish a national body to ‘safeguard’ the standards of university degrees in the face of relentless pressure for our tertiary institutions to operate along rationalist business models.

Of course, Government spin doctors are using the tried-and-true ‘class warfare’ line that worked to such great effect against Labor’s ‘schools hit list’ at the 2004 election. Education Minister Julie Bishop was singing a well-worn tune from the Libs’ hymn sheet in her first response to the White Paper, while a letter-writer to Monday’s Age used the old ‘politics of envy’ accusation.

But the fact is that allowing students to buy a place at university is unfair. Whether that place is being taken from another student or not, it is not just, nor equitable, to allow one young person an opportunity to study that is denied to another young person of equal or greater ability solely because the first young person was fortunate enough to have been born to parents with more money. Even if we allow that those parents have worked hard and earned their money due to their own merit, the privilege they can give to their children quickly becomes hereditary, passed down through generations thus, meritocratic success can lead to entrenched class advantage.

The answer to this is not to further perpetuate the cycle by rewarding, or even glorifying, parents who opt out of the public system. The only proven remedy is for government to ensure equality of opportunity and access to education for every generation of Australians through a fully funded and respected public education system.

We must never assume that the playing field has been levelled for all time. We must constantly pursue policies that will provide the greatest opportunities for all Australians, regardless of their (or their parents’) ability to pay.

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.