At high school, and even as an undergraduate, I didn’t give much thought to my future working life. I would be a high-school teacher like my Dad and Mum. I had a clear acquaintance with the school system, and it seemed to have decent holidays, which I was used to. I would finally have to have a job of some kind, and the only one I had any interest in was teaching at school, preferably high school. I managed to get a teachers college scholarship to university, and that seemed to come with a Commonwealth scholarship offsetting whatever costs were not covered by the teachers’ college one. I determined that my majors would be English and History because they were my best school subjects, and dropped happily into undergraduate life. This was 1954.
Nothing happened for a few years, other than I grew much more interested in History than English, and went on to do an Honours year in that subject, much to the irritation of the Education Department, which wanted me out into the under-manned schools as fast as possible. The Honours year was by far the best year in my university life and I discovered that I had a passion for, and even a modest competence in, ‘research’. At the end of the year the far-sighted and omniscient Commonwealth, that had supported me throughout, now came out with a new Commonwealth Postgraduate Scholarship scheme, and my mentors said firmly I should apply for one. I did, and very soon I had one! The same mentors said I should do an Honours MA, which meant a thesis and a course. The Education Department was furious, and said I would have to pay back the $500 bond, but I could do so over a few years, which made it possible.
Teaching in high schools seemed far away. I topped the course I had to sit, the first academic distinction since primary school, and disappeared into the world of research, which engrossed me. I would work all day and all night on the thesis. It was exciting, unbelievably more enjoyable than undergraduate lectures. When my two years were up I sent off my thesis for examination, only to discover that I had moved from History into Political Science, and the world of electoral, Census, agricultural and Year-Book statistics. No matter, I loved it, and so did the examiners. I was offered at once a PhD scholarship at the ANU, and spent the next three years there, emerging with a doctorate and a travelling fellowship, which I took in Oxford, and then the University of Michigan. That was 1964, ten years after leaving high school.
Then I was offered a non-tenured post at the ANU, to do more research. I grabbed it. I couldn’t think of anything more enjoyable than to be paid for what you loved to do. I wasn’t interested in tenure, just working on my own research agenda — which was by and large the rule for people like me, though those in medical research and physical sciences were usually part of a larger team whose problem was set by ‘prof’. Six years later I had been approached to become a professor, and eventually accepted such a post at Macquarie University in 1970, where I learned the hard way that teaching and administration took most of the nervous energy and concentration that academics have. My output in the 1970s was not great, and most of it was the outcome of work I had done earlier.
In 1980 I returned to the ANU, as the head of my old department, and before very long became a ‘policy wonk’, first in the research granting world, then in the ANU itself, the second largest recipient of Commonwealth research funding after the CSIRO, then in the Australian Science and Technology Council, which advised the Prime Minister. I learned a great deal quickly. In 1987 I became part of the group of advisers (somebody called it ‘the purple circle’) to the new Minister for everything educational and researchy, John Dawkins, who gave me the task of setting up the Australian Research Council. Quite quickly, my status in the world of higher education went from being to the go-to person for the next vice-chancellorship to the second-most-hated person in the system after Dawkins himself.
They were tough years. The universities hated any change to the settled order, in which they were superior in crucial ways to the colleges of advanced education that Menzies had created in the mid 1960s. That ‘binary system’ was flawed from the beginning, and was patently unworkable in the mid 1980s, when the big institutes of technological education were transforming themselves into universities with the support of their State governments. The system was ready to break, and Dawkins broke it, establishing a ‘unified national system’ in which there was some attempt to establish a level playing field. It still isn’t level, and never will be, since age and early endowments, site location and traditions are powerful enhancements of the position of the original universities despite the present playing field, and the more recent creations need fifty years before they can point to their own interesting and sometimes distinguished history.
When I left the ARC it was well funded and well established; it is the only surviving element of the Dawkins changes other than, of course, the amalgamations of colleges and universities that occurred in the late 1980s. My path took me to a new university, that of Canberra, where I had the lovely challenge of helping to determine the sort of university UC would be, and I am happy with where it is today. I retired from the post mostly because I had done more than eleven years, and was increasingly aware that I had nothing new to offer, while it seemed every new Minister wanted another review of higher education, exercises that were a terrible waste of time, energy and money. I needed a change, and found it in other areas than higher education.
The fascinating aspect of my working life is that it all depended on Commonwealth expenditure on research in higher education, for which the Constitution gives the Commonwealth no explicit authority at all. And its role in research funding and policy neatly surrounds my working life. The Commonwealth set up the ANU in 1946, a kilometre or so from Ainslie Primary School, where I was in Third Class. In the same year it won a Constitutional amendment allowing it to give grants to students, from which I certainly profited, first as an undergraduate and then as a postgraduate. When I was an undergraduate no one much talked about ‘research’; the words in common use were ‘scholarship’ and ‘the advancement of knowledge’. But at ANU the word ‘research’ was everywhere, and today you’ll find people using the American pronunciation, stressing the first syllable — research’. Today around 130,000 people work in that industry, or profession, or activity. They are overwhelmingly funded through taxpayers’ money.
When I became interested in the world of research I thought the point of it was to increase the amount of money going to research done by academics. When I reached the position where I had to argue a case to Government, I realised quickly that there has to be some sort of pay-off for the taxpayer, and that led me down the ‘priorities’ path, which made me more unpopular still with the universities, which believed in something called ‘excellence’, a quality that every university will tell you is in great abundance on its campus.
Critical Mass. How the Commonwealth got into funding research in universities is the story of that working life, a career that I thoroughly enjoyed, even in the bad times — because I was doing what I believed to be essential and correct. It is a mixture, an analysis of how universities were organised, a study of the Dawkins changes by someone ho was part of them, and of course, the story of a long working life. I still work, I still read some of the journals, I still write. I’ve done it so long it is like breathing. The first version of the book was angrier, but the passage of time has allowed me to smile at some of the bad things, and reflect that, despite their eminence, academics are just like everyone else.
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