I was raised in Altona North, a working class suburb in the west of Melbourne. My parents were hard working, but we were not ‘well off’. They both came from poor families – there was nothing to inherit. Dad started work as an apprentice moulder and rose to become Victorian branch manager of a SMB. Mum had been a secretary, but had to leave work to have me. Married women didn’t have jobs in the early 1960’s.
Despite sometimes working two jobs, and often putting enough hours into one job for two jobs, Dad was not well paid. Being ‘on staff’ there were no penalty rates or shift allowances, so often the factory workers that reported to him earned more than he did. He often envied that they had a strong union to represent them.
There was never enough money. Dad gave up smoking, not for any health reason, but because he couldn’t afford it. He liked a beer after work (perhaps even liked it too much). He and a mate would make their own home brew, mainly to save money, but also because it had an alcohol content close to rocket fuel (so I’m told). Mum cooked, sewed, mended, shopped at the market, only brought what was ‘on special’, made do – anything to save money. When the clothes washer broke down, Mum washed by hand for six months to save money to buy me my first (and only) bike for my tenth birthday.
I was a bright kid and always had my head in a book. I was doing science experiments with household items before I was ten. We won’t mention the time I ‘blew up’ the garage when the concoction I had made exploded as I had not realised just how much carbon dioxide fermentation can produce.
At high school I took all of the advanced maths and science subjects and was often top of my class. By Year 8 neither of my parents could understand my homework (except for English where Mum could help with spelling).
At the end of Year 9 most of my peers either dropped out of school or left to take apprenticeships. Many of them had no choice. They needed to be out earning as soon as possible. Education was not a question of ability but one of strict economics.
I was one of the lucky ones because in 1972 Gough Whitlam led the ALP to victory – the first Labor government in 23 years. One of their many reforms was to abolish university fees so that everyone with the ability could get an education, something that was previously only available to the rich, or the very lucky few who received scholarships. Without this reform there was no question of me going to university – it would not have been an option. I would have had no choice but to become an apprentice.
Instead, with the support of my parents, I did a degree course in electrical engineering. Even without university fees it was a struggle. Often I would only be able to buy some of the required text books and had to get by borrowing other students copies. My parents went without for years to support me.
I did well at university, often getting honour grades. I even built a microcomputer of my own design in the garage. Note that this was about the same time that Steve Wosniak was building the first Apple computer in Steve Jobs’ dad’s garage. With just a bit of venture capital I could have had geeks coming from all over the world to join Shipley Computers in the heart of Melboune’s world famous ‘Silicon Plains’. Microstuff would have been down the street and Gaggle around the corner. If only.
In the final year of my degree I accepted a job with Telecom as an Engineer (Electrical). There were plenty of jobs for new graduates back then and competition among employers was keen. All of my year either went to Telecom or the SEC; everyone had a job lined up before graduation. My starting salary was more than the highest salary my father had ever had. After a year as an engineer, I transferred to the IT Department as a Computer Systems Officer. Both of these jobs had a university degree as a prerequisite. Without a degree those jobs would not have been available to me.
I look at the situation that today’s kids find themselves in with despair. Having to gamble that spending four years and $100K to get a degree will pay off when jobs are few and hard to get. Knowing that after all that effort, all they might have is a huge debt and be over qualified for the minimum wage jobs on offer. I know that if this had been my situation all those years ago, we would have been sitting around the kitchen table discussing which apprenticeship I should take, while I wished for a Lotto win or some other miracle so that I could go to university.
The people of my generation who took Gough’s free education and now expect today’s kids to pay the equivalent of a small house for a degree should be ashamed of themselves. I believe that education should be a universal right based on merit and ability, not on wealth and privilege. Any society that does not educate those with the ability and who want to learn, is wasting a scarce resource. Which is better for society: a doctor or a cabbie; a teacher or a burger flipper; an accountant or a call centre operator; (or in my case) an application developer or a brickie?
Those that believe Margaret Thatcher’s statement that “There’s no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families.” may disagree with what I have said. I wish them good luck finding a doctor.
People who know me well will know that the last few years have not been kind financially, but I still give what I can to The Smith Family for their work in educating kids that do not have the privileges of some.
Please give generously.