Did John Dawkins wreck the higher education system?

John Dawkins was the Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 1987 to 1991, and the person who gave the higher education system its present shape. His period and its consequences are having a reconsideration, with a conference at the University of Melbourne at the end of last month, and some books and articles. I confess that I haven’t read the books and didn’t go to the conference. I did read a fine extended article by Dean Ashenden in the magazine called Inside Story that came in my paper, and you can read that here. I had something to do with those changes, and like Ashenden I approved of much of what Dawkins did — and paid quite a price for saying so and helping him.

In 1987 we had what was called ‘the binary system’ of higher education. Universities were thought to be for the more proficient students, who would go on to honours degrees and then postgraduate courses. Colleges of advanced education were for the rest, who would work at more applied things and go out into the workforce. Colleges could not offer honours degrees, were not funded for research, and had no staff called ‘professor’. Otherwise universities and colleges paid their staff the same salaries for the same levels as universities.

This system, which was not unlike the university/polytechnic division in the UK, had originated in the Martin Committee’s report of 1964, which had proposed it in part to deal with the rapidly increasing costs of the rapidly increasing numbers going to university. Twenty years later, when I came to be involved with it, the system was coming apart. Universities had expanded their postgraduate offerings, and now generated lots of PhDs. But these graduates could not find jobs in the universities, because university undergraduate student numbers had stopped growing. Colleges had proved an attractive option for students, and now had as many students as the universities, and their recent staff now consisted in large part of recent PhD graduates from the university sector, who wanted to keep on doing research.

The tension inside the system was great, but the Fraser and Hawke governments had refused to deal with it. I could see the writing on the wall when, as a member of a selection committee recommending Special Research Centres to the government in the mid 1980s, I was impressed with an application from RMIT in Melbourne that was the equal of anything proposed by a university. And it got up, too. A little later I heard of a move in Western Australia to turn the Western Australian Institute of Technology into ‘Curtin University’, something that the State Government could do without reference to the Commonwealth. Would it be funded for research? If not, why not?

I knew that there had been moves in the past to amalgamate some universities and adjacent colleges, moves that were nearly always strenuously resisted by those concerned. At one point Australia had more than 90 institutions of higher education. The election of the Hawke Government in 1987 was followed by a restructuring of the ministry, bringing back the Cabinet and outer Ministry that Menzies had used, but had gone with Whitlam. John Dawkins, by then very much a senior Minister, got one of the big portfolios, Employment, Education and Training. I welcomed that creation, because it put all the research-related aspects of higher education into the one department, and Dawkins proposed to create an Australian Research Council, a move that I had been working on for some time in ASTEC.

I had not known John Dawkins before, but he asked me to become part of his ‘purple circle’, an ad hoc group of advisers, roughly representative of the system, but keen to see change in it. Getting rid of the binary system was a common aspiration of the circle, but we differed on how much change we wanted to see, and on many other things as well. My thought was to do it gradually, turning the larger technological institutes and the Canberra CAE into universities, but leaving the smaller ones for the moment, and admitting them as they grew. The department wanted a cold-turkey approach, because dealing with lots of unhappy little colleges was not a future its senior members welcomed.

In the end Dawkins followed their advice, and set up what I called at the time an ‘amalgamation ballet’, in which State governments, universities and colleges danced around and selected the partners they liked. There were some initial errors in all of this, but it settled down fairly quickly and produced the system we have today, which works well, as far as I can see. There are no moves to change it. The old and rich became bigger and richer, which is usually the case, but some of the newer institutions have also done well. I don’t think that ‘quality’, whatever that elusive attribute is, has suffered.

Dawkins made me the chairman of the new Australian Research Council, and after two rocky years, in which I was the poster-boy of dislike inside the old universities (because Dawkins had drawn $65 million from the operating grants of those universities for competitive re-allocation by the ARC), it too settled down. It is still there today, and disbursing a lot more money than was the case when I was there, though I was successful in getting some handsome forward commitments.

I found Dawkins an excellent Minister, He left me alone, supported me when I was in trouble, and agreed to all but two of my recommendations, which isn’t a bad record for anyone who needs his Minister to agree to what he thinks ought to happen. His philosophy, explained to me in one of our conversations, was to ‘shake the tree vigorously’ — the rotten stuff will fall to the ground, but the good will still be there.

He was right about the binary system. It was rotten, and had to go. It should have gone earlier, but no one had the resolve to do it. The universities hated what he did, because they lost their privileged position. But the assumption that there are two sorts of students, who therefore needed two different types of institution in which to learn, was flawed from the start. Why the Martin Committee adopted it, and why politicians of the day accepted it, is another good story, but this essay is already long enough.


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  • Francesca says:

    I’d love to hear your story of the Martin Committee. It does seem to me that we do have to think again about why students are going to university and how best to cater to vocational aspirations as well as educational ones, not to mention how we fund excellent research.

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