During the 1890s a higher education was the exclusive privilege of the upper class. There was a depression in Australia and Curtin had to leave school prior to his 14th birthday to go to work to help support his family. However, Curtin continued to educate himself by extensive reading at the public library and attending classes organised by the Victorian Socialist Party.
John Curtin's belief in the value of education never dimmed. In 1932 he wrote: 'The pursuit of knowledge is far more important than even knowledge itself...That is why the Labour movement has always striven, even passionately, for educative opportunities for all...' (1)
Under Curtin's influence the Commonwealth Government began to take a growing role in education, which constitutionally was primarily a matter for regulation by the states. In 1943-44 the Commonwealth Government spent £1,400,000 on education. By July 1945, government policy provided for:
Australian National University
On 11 April 1945, Curtin said in parliament: 'There has been great interest in the establishment at Canberra of a national university. I see no reason why Canberra should not become a place such as Oxford and Cambridge...Canberra should be a place where all types of national bodies should have facilities either to conduct their affairs or to hold conferences.' (2) And on 30 April Ben Chifley noted that the Universities Commission would examine the proposal to establish a National University at Canberra. (3)
The Australian National University was established by an Act of parliament in 1946 and became Australia's only full-time research university, originally offering no undergraduate studies.
Commonwealth Reconstruction and Training Scheme
To prevent a recurrence of the Great Depression which followed World War One, the Curtin Government set up the Commonwealth Reconstruction and Training Scheme in 1944 to encourage the rehabilitation of returning service personnel into areas of need by providing means-tested scholarships for medicine, dentistry, engineering, veterinary science, agriculture and science. The Scheme provided for payment of tuition and other fees and a living allowance for those undertaking full time study. By the time the scheme was concluded in 1951 more than 300,000 people had been approved for training. The unprecedented scale of the undertaking made it 'one of the most significant strategies for social change in Australia.' (4)
Financial Assistance to University Students
In 1944 assistance was extended from degree courses in medicine, dentistry, engineering, science, veterinary science, agriculture, arts, law, economics and architecture, to cover selected students studying for the Diploma of Social Studies at the universities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, as well as diploma students in senior technical colleges and the Western Australian Dental College. Although subject to a means test, the full amount of assistance covered payment of all a student's university fees plus a living allowance of up to £143 a year.
One of Curtin's hopes for the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) formed in 1932 was that it would be able to provide an independent and impartial news service, raising awareness of Australian issues and helping in the ongoing education of the general population.
As early as 1913, he railed against 'press denunciation' of Labor in the lead-up to the elections: 'Day after day in all the capital cities the great dailies [newspapers] wrote column after column of gross misrepresentation and misleading criticism [of Labor].' (5) He believed strongly in Labor's need to counteract what he saw as the capitalist propaganda of the daily newspapers which were run by rich businessmen such as Keith Murdoch. This was one of the reasons why he founded the Timber Worker weekly paper in 1913 when he was Secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers Union and why he took up the post of editor of the Labor newspaper the Westralian Worker in 1917 to provide an alternative view. In 1935 in parliament he said 'this alliance of great newspapers and broadcasting stations' might 'so inflame public opinion as to make ordered government almost impossible.' (6)
According to Curtin, the ABC 'should be following a more aggressive national policy in all respects. It should be promoting a national consciousness.' (7) From 1942 the ABC was told to 'put Australia first' in its news reporting, with daily bulletins of Australian news broadcast over the airwaves , and, in an even more exceptional move, the Australian news would lead the broadcast ahead of the British service, announced by a rendition of 'Advance Australia Fair' (8).
Cartoon by John Frith published in the Bulletin on 1 April 1942. "The Parliamentary Committee on Broadcasting, while admitting huge losses on the 'A.B.C. Weekly,' recommends continuance and a shilling on the annual charge for a listener's licence, now £1." "Yes, Mr. Curtin, I admit he isn't much to show for the hundred thousand or so he's cost; but try what another hundred thousand or so will do."
In April 1945 when appointing Sir Richard Boyer as the new Chairman of the Commission, Curtin issued a statement committing the government to recognize 'that the intent of the Australian Broadcasting Act is to create a position of special independence of judgment and action for the national broadcasting instrumentality.' (9) Curtin further assured Boyer that the ministerial power to approve agreements would not be used to prevent the Commission from carrying out any policy on which it was resolved. Boyer encouraged staff to consider Curtin's statement as a form of charter for the ABC assuring its future independence. By 1946 the Labor Government proposed that the ABC should have an independent news service whereby it no longer needed to rely on collecting news from press proprietors, thus achieving one of Curtin's dearest aims.