Education policy

Compared to the other aspects of Malcolm Fraser’s political career his two terms as Minister for Education and Science are less well-known, but his impact on Australia’s education system was dramatic.

Students at Warrnambool Technical College, February 1967. Photographer: Standard Photo Service. 2007.0028.00053
Students at Warrnambool Technical College, February 1967. Photographer: Standard Photo Service. 2007.0028.00053

Fraser’s attitude to education was firmly rooted in his liberal philosophy. Education was seen as a cornerstone in the advancement of civilisation and in the upholding the ideal of equality of opportunity. The role of government in education was also to ensure that the system responded to the needs of industry and society. He lauded the achievements of his political idol Sir Robert Menzies, particularly in increasing funding for tertiary education and bringing the system largely under the control of the Commonwealth.

Malcolm Fraser’s appointment as Minister for Education and Science on 28 February 1968 was his first Cabinet post. It was a reward for his achievements as Minister for the Army in the era of national service and the Vietnam War, and for his support of John Gorton’s run for Prime Minister following Harold Holt’s drowning. Whilst it seems that Fraser’s main interest was in foreign policy and international affairs, he made his mark as Education Minister.

Fraser radically re-shaped the Commonwealth government’s role in funding for independent schools, redrawing the political lines in ways that are still being reflected in debates today. Before 1969 the Commonwealth government provided little funding to independent schools and that was distributed on the basis of need. The Labor Party had been the main proponent of government funding for independent schools because of its large Catholic constituency, but the 1955 split which led to the creation of the Democratic Labor Party split much of that constituency away. The DLP’s alliance with the Liberal Party in the 1960s saw the Liberal’s take up the policy, although government funding remained on the basis of need.

In August 1969 Fraser announced a major and controversial change in government policy, shifting the basis for funding of independent schools to one based on the number of students, rather than need. His argument for doing so is an argument that can still be heard today:

“We believe it is the democratic right of persons to be allowed to establish independent schools such as we have in Australia. We do not believe in government monopoly… We categorically reject the argument that because of a significant number of citizens choose to seek a form of education for their children which they preferred to the state system and are prepared to make financial sacrifices, those citizens cannot expect any help from the state even though they are easing its financial and physical burden.” Cited in Political Memoirs p.175

In his memoirs, Fraser also claimed that the shift was to prevent anti-Catholic sectarianism in the face of increased funding to independent schools, noting that “If distribution on the basis of need, Catholic schools would be the overwhelming beneficiaries.” Political Memoirs, p.176

The debate over this question is found throughout the Malcolm Fraser collection and shows that it was just as complicated an issue as it remains today. Some interesting material relates to the activist group Defence of Government Schools (DOGS), which ran 17 candidates in the 1969 federal election as well staging provocative stunts such as occupying swimming pools in independent schools.

His second term as Minister for Education and Science (1971-1972) saw further increases in funding for independent schools.

There were other important issues that arose during Fraser’s ministerial terms. One was the huge expansion of the tertiary education sector through massive increases in government spending. It was no accident that his 1971 Deakin lecture Towards 2000, in which he uttered the immortal line “life wasn’t meant to be easy”, is largely about the importance of education. He stated:

“Thus education is not an exercise in altruism. Tomorrow's tasks, unless we are to be the servants of another, will require greater training, higher skills and better management. Education needs to be available to those with talent and the will to work. It needs to be of high quality. It must be diverse in its opportunity. Investment in education is investment in adaptability and in the capacity to survive.” Towards 2000

Throughout the Malcolm Fraser Collection there is a running debate about the relationship between universities and colleges of advanced education (vocational training).

Another issue that arose was censorship and indecency, with the publication of The little Red Schoolbook and its initial circulation amongst Australian schoolchildren in 1971-2. Then-Minister for Customs Don Chipp refused to ban the importation of the book, so Cabinet asked Fraser as Minister for Education to try to prevent its distribution. Fraser argued that the book would “undermine family and society”.

Finally, two decades before the Hawke Labor government’s support for the teaching of Asian languages, particularly Japanese, in schools, Fraser established an advisory committee on the teaching of Asian languages. His justification for the push to learn Asian languages was based on his belief that Australia should embrace the identity of a “multi-racial society”. It was also closely tied to Australia’s foreign policy needs, in particular the threat of communism in the Asia Pacific region and the Vietnam War. He argued at the time:

“When we are making judgements about Asia we need to make quite sure that they are not prejudiced by our own background and origins. If more of us had a wider understanding of Asian history and Asian customs we would be in a better position to form opinions that would have some validity.” Cited in Political Memoirs, p.165

In his two relatively brief terms as Minister for Education, Malcolm Fraser left an indelible mark, which is still being seen today. The Malcolm Fraser Collection is an invaluable source in understanding the public and political debates that occurred and Fraser’s justification for his policies. They compliment Cabinet discussions and official records held at the National Archives of Australia, which can be found using the Commonwealth Persons code CP51.


Biography of Malcolm Fraser, written by Margaret Simons, in Elizabeth Masters and Katie Wood, Malcolm Fraser: Guide to archives of Australia's prime ministers, National Archives of Australia, 2010.

Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons, Malcolm Fraser: The political memoirs, The Miegunyah Press, 2010.

Patrick Mullins, “Beyond Belief”, State Library of New South Wales

General Correspondence

Correspondence maintained as Leader of the Opposition, 2006.0015

This series of correspondence is organised and described by correspondent and is not limited to electorate organisations and individuals. A keyword search for ‘education’ brings up a number of files including file 9, unit 2 which contains the NSW Liberal Party Education Report, among others.

Correspondence maintained as Leader of the Opposition, second series, 2006.0018

This series of correspondence is organised and described by correspondent and follows chronologically from 2006.0015. A keyword search on ‘education’ brings up correspondence relating to the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations and a number of others.

Correspondence with members of the Whitlam government, 2006.0019

File 2, unit 1. Correspondence with Kim Beazley, Minister for Education, relating to the proposed Northern Territory Education Advisory Committee.

Correspondence and papers relating to the Opposition Shadow Ministry, 2006.0022

This series includes correspondence between members of Fraser’s Shadow Ministry, Shadow Cabinet minutes (digitised) and minutes of the Joint Party room. The series includes working papers and policy documents relating to education policy. It also includes correspondence with AA Street (Labor) on the proposed Trade Union College in Albury-Wodonga, and with Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, the Opposition Spokesperson on Education.

Electorate Correspondence

Electorate correspondence from Wannon organisations and individuals, 2005.0073

This series consists of correspondence files from organisations and individuals in Fraser’s electorate of Wannon. In particular there are 8 files (items 38-45, units 5 and 6) that span the years 1958 through to 1966 on a range of topics related to education.

Electorate correspondence from Wannon organisations and individuals, 2005.0107

Another series of electorate correspondence from organisations and individuals. This series contains files relating to specific schools and colleges in Wannon, including a number of colleges of advanced education, reflecting the debate during Fraser’s ministerial years over the role of such colleges. There are also circulars that Fraser’s electorate office sent to all educational institutions in Wannon during his time as minister. Search on the online finding aid on keywords such as ‘education’, ‘college’ and so on.

Electorate correspondence, 2007.0012

This series of correspondence is organised and listed by subject title and whilst predominantly electorate in origin, it is not entirely so. There are numerous files of specific schools and colleges in Wannon which sometimes include discussion of broader education issues.

Electorate correspondence, 2011.0068

This series of electorate correspondence dates from 1953-1983 and is organised and described by name of correspondent. Much of the correspondence here is from constituents voicing their opinion about Liberal Party and government education policy. It also includes personal representations.

Subject files and policy documents

Subject files maintained as Leader of the Opposition, 2006.0024

One file (item 13 unit 1) in this series relates to possible expenditure cuts to education, the other (item 22 unit 2) is related to difficulties in rural education.

Subject files maintained as Minister for Education and Science, 2007.0001

Ministerial files are held at the National Archives of Australia, under the Archives Act. The subject files in this series relate to the NAA series M442, but have been transferred to the University of Melbourne Archives because they are primarily Liberal Party documents. Item 4 unit 1 includes education policy briefing notes.

Speech notes and related papers, 2007.0008

This series contains speech notes, which includes some subject information, on a broad range of topics from 1965 through to 1975. The numerous files cover a broad range of issues relating to education, including individual schools, state funding for independent schools, union education and Liberal Party’s philosophical commitment to education.

Senior Advisor’s research material, 2007.0013

This series consists of research material compiled by Fraser’s advisors during 1975-1976. There are numerous files on education policy and issues, including state funding of independent schools, technical apprenticeships, tertiary education and more.

Subject files, 2007.0019

This is a further series of research material compiled by Fraser’s staff, this one covering 1973-1975. The subject files are a good source of information on the development of liberal Party policies in the 1970s. This series includes topic such as pre-school and day care as well as the other important education-related issues of the time.

Subject files, 2007.0023

This series of subject files precedes the other series, dating from 1954 through to 1972. Again, they contain many files on a range of topics, including Labor Party education policies, tertiary education and more. There are also files that contain congratulatory letters on Fraser’s two appointments as Minister for Education.

Little Red Schoolbook

Radio talk transcript, 2005.0072.00044 (digitised).

Correspondence file, 2005.0107.01574 - Liberal Party Warrnambool Women’s Section of the Liberal Party, 1972. Regarding Little Red Schoolbook. Includes letter from Don Chipp, Minister for Customs and Excise outlining examination of the book by the Department.

Miscellaneous correspondence file, 2006.0017.00019. J Coulter regarding the Little Red Schoolbook .

Margaret Simon’s interviews (online)

In preparation for the co-authored Political Memoirs Margaret Simons' undertook extensive interviews with Fraser. The recordings of these interviews are now available online and are a fascinating insight into Fraser. The interviews do not touch on Fraser’s time as minister for Education, but in one he discusses his opinion on self-management of education for Aboriginal people.

28 September 2007, 2019.0109.00118

Radio Talk Transcripts (online)

Education for prosperity, c1954, 2007.0023.0310

Education, 18 November 1963, 2007.0023.0135

Commonwealth grants for science facilities in both state and independent secondary schools, 22 March 1964, 2007.0023.0148

Higher education, 16 May 1965, 2007.0023.0204

Trade with under-developed countries, Commonwealth assistance - education, Australian development, 6 June 1965, 2007.0023.0208

Commonwealth assistance in the provision of science facilities in Victorian Government Secondary schools, 26 March 1968, 2007.0023.0293

Commonwealth's role in education, 11 April 1969, 2007.0023.0557

Parliamentary matters, wool sales, Portland trade, Education and Science ministry, 5 September 1971, 2005.0072.0008

Russian spy ring, education, strikes, 3 October 1971, 2005.0072.0011

Wool sales, education, 17 October 1971, 2005.0072.0013

Commonwealth education funding for independent schools, parliamentary matters, 19 December 1971, 2005.0072.0023

Industrial situation, Warrnambool Institute of Advanced Education and Portland Technical School, 30 April 1972, 2005.0072.0034

Wool marketing, education, 7 May 1972, 2005.0072.0035

Commonwealth education assistance, 14 May 1972, 2005.0072.0036

Budget - education policy, 10 September 1972, 2005.0072.0053

Unemployment, education, 22 October 1972, 2005.0072.0059

Humbug and deception – education, 31 May 1973, 2005.0072.0090

Karmel Committee, education, 29 June 1975, 2007.0003.0021

Commonwealth education funding, 4 July 1982, 2005.0072.0177