The history of a working life

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.

Those interested can buy the book here by tapping on the new book icon. There is also a Kindle version for those who don’t buy paper any more.










Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • Chris Warren says:

    IN the late 1980’s there were many false promises that education (aka ‘skills formation’) was the key to economic growth and prosperity.

    Dawkin’s unified national approach seemed consistent with this as it presumably enhanced the importance of skills formation in the economy – ie in the workforce. But I don’t think the TAFE system ever got the necessary funding to go with this political opportunistic sloganeering.

    We now have couriers, and travel agents, and shop assistants with degrees, and public servants with Phd’s doing little else but managing contracts.

    A lot of the ALP politics of the 1980’s was to lead the ACTU ‘up the garden path” with fancy clothes – eg Accord and “Australia Reconstructed” – so they would not notice that their real wages and salaries (and factor share of GDP) was being taken away from them to stabilise the capitalist system for others.

    Today some have finally woken up to the fact that the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer, but not to the fact that they were complicit in their own demise.

    Today, access to higher education and other skills formation pathways are many times more expensive than they were before Dawkins. It has been a public policy disaster and the education policy bureaucrats of the 80’s and 90’s are to be blamed.

  • Michael Dunn says:

    Oh, my golly…on the one hand Don tells us an interesting story, thank you Don, and on the other we have CW drearily telling us how bad it all was and how much worse it’s got. Surely if there was something for Australians to learn from the collapse of communism, it was how blind some intelligent Australians can become when enthralled by an ideology. In truth, Australians are richer, healthier and longer-lived and better educated than ever. (Leave aside what poor use some may make of these gifts.) History, as an intellectual discipline offers genuine perspective as its reward for diligence in seeking out and scrupulously respecting the facts as best as we can discern them. It seems some commenters would not find its discipline congenial.

    • Chris Warren says:

      It doesn’t take much before capitalist dogmatists start up with their wingeing.

      The facts are that some Australians have got richer but many have got poorer – in complete contradiction with the promises of Hawke, Dawkins, Beazley and the public service bureaucrats of the era being pushed around by subservient academics pushing for full fees in education for people, wage cuts for workers and free trade for corporations.

      Anyone with a skerrick of integrity would check-up on the latest spreading impossibility of young workers to buy a house or find permanent fulltime work, before making dogmatic statements telling everyone that they are richer.

      You can always use data to dowse fake “we are getting richer” news.

      Here is the declining factor share going to employees [ABS data]:

      Here is the opposite the increasing factor share going to Capital:

      These trends go back into the late 70’s.

      Presumably Michael Dunn has not read or did not understand Picketty. Tough, but in Australia as elsewhere, the rich are getting richer and the rest are getting poorer, in complete contradiction to the capo-labourite slogans of the 1980’s. See for example claims that labor’s prices and incomes policy would seek “more even income distribution” [Australia Reconstructed (1987) p25]

      History records that the opposite happened and is continuing although most of the damage was done by Fraser and Howard.

  • margaret says:

    … something went awry in the Seventies in America – I guess Australia followed its hero. Education didn’t help make a fairer society and I could see that when my own children were at university, despite my hopes.
    It’s the public schools and pre-schools that have that potential.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Margaret, I don’t think that people were arguing that more education would make Australia fairer, but that it would give more people an opportunity to live fuller lives, which it did. As I have written before, giving every man the vote did not mean a new world, nor did giving women the vote. These changes, like the move to universal education, improved the lot of the poorer sections of society, but we still have poor people, even if they’re wealthier than the poorer fifty or a hundred years ago.

      • margaret says:

        As a Polish colleague I worked with in the eighties said “Education is something that can never be taken from you once you have it. So to give your children a good education is always worthwhile.
        But rarely can it transcend the class of your birth unless you wear blinkers.
        It pains me that private schools are given so much government funding when if that money was put into public schools equality of opportunity would lead to a fairer society.

        • margaret says:

          “but we still have poor people, even if they’re wealthier than the poorer fifty or a hundred years ago.”

          We need a new song …
          “There’s nothing surer, the rich get richer and the poor get wealthier, in the meantime in between time, ain’t we got fun”.

          • margaret says:

            From Wikipedia
            George Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier highlights the lyrics of “Ain’t We Got Fun” as an example of working class unrest:

            All through the war and for a little time afterwards there had been high wages and abundant employment; things were now returning to something worse than normal, and naturally the working class resisted. The men who had fought had been lured into the army by gaudy promises, and they were coming home to a world where there were no jobs and not even any houses. Moreover, they had been at war and were coming home with a soldier’s attitude to life, which is fundamentally, in spite of discipline, a lawless attitude. There was a turbulent feeling in the air.

            I don’t think this is off topic – just a bit of a tangent.

            A working life history is great as long as you have work but if you don’t have an excellent public education system how do the less advantaged get to have a great working life let alone enter the portals of an institution of higher education?

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Ah, that question. In world terms we do have an excellent school and higher education system. Maybe Finland’s is comprehensively better, but so what? We’re not Finns. There are many possible answers to your question (how do the less advantaged get to have a decent working life?). It helps if parents take the whole education system seriously, encourage their children, keep them occupied, active and healthy. Schools cannot make up for parental neglect. Peer-group culture is also an important factor, as is the neighbourhood culture. In my youth it was (retrospectively) fascinating to learn about the poor backgrounds of some of my classmates, and the importance of mothers, and kids’ own determination, to get at least a step up in society, surmounting all the difficulties that existed at home. Some do and some don’t. Some can and some can’t. Do you have answers? The proportions, not just the numbers, of those completing high school and going on to higher education and TAFE is much greater than in the past. That is a good thing, surely.

            But it could always be better. What are you comparing today’s society with — an ideal, our own past, some other society that you know? All judgments involve comparisons.

          • margaret says:

            Part of the answer is to allow the private schools to sink or swim without government funding. At the same time giving that funding to the public schools

          • spangled drongo says:

            When it comes to state aid for schools you didn’t pay attention to your history, hey, marg?

          • margaret says:

            “The Australian Government provides the majority of public funding for non-government schools, which is supplemented by states and territories.

            The states and territories provide the majority of public funding for government schools, with the Australian Government providing supplementary assistance.”

            Don’t worry Spangled … I do get it.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Do you know the history of the DLP and the QLP, marg?

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    As an untenured research fellow, living on the edge of unemployment and poverty for thirty years, I’m afraid I won’t be buying this book.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    You would do Australia a favour, Don, if you found out how the system worked for the people who are in it.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      PS. I have an earned DSc, over 150 publications, and over 4000 citations of my work…and I got my first job when I was 56. Farcical.

      To the trolls, don’t bother looking me up. The trolls on The Conversation did, and I will never again post my real name on the web.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Bryan, I watched the growth of the PhD with some anxiety, and the growth of the post-doc industry with an equal feeling. I feel for you, and am embarrassed a little that because of the luck of my birth year I had an easy run. I did my best to change things at the ANU in the mid-1980s, but not with a lot of success.

  • JimboR says:

    It’s an interesting case study in reform. Change the system so that researchers have to spend a lot more of their time and effort justifying their existence, and then later reject their research findings on the grounds that it’s tainted by their need to justify their existence….. climate scientists use homogenisation to create fake warming because that’s what the minister wants to hear and they’re worried about their next research grant etc. etc.

    How about you Bryan, have you ever faked your data in order to improve your chances of further research grants?

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Would I have 4000 citations if I had faked data?

    • JimboR says:

      Indeed, it doesn’t strike me as a winning strategy to a long and prosperous career as a researcher. Set aside that those data homogenisation guys are maths geniuses who could likely treble their salaries by moving to the world of corporate finance; they slog away on their BOM salaries risking their professional reputations by making up fake warming to please the minister so he’ll toss them another research bone. They truly are a strange mob.

      • JimboR says:

        I use “guys” in a very generic sense there…. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least half of them are women.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    As far as I know, none of my work has ever been questioned.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    To Don Aitken and others,
    I am sorry my irritation got the better of my good sense. Living things is different to talking about them.

    • spangled drongo says:

      Thanks for your honesty, Bryan.

      I sometimes wish I had had the luxury of a university campus ed but when I was young I always thought I would learn more elsewhere.

      I did night courses in later years to help me cope with businesses I had started in economics and architecture but that was to generally assist work in progress.

      Maybe I had my thinking back to front but it worked OK.

      You can make a lot of money as a labourer as long as you grasp the opportunities that come along.

      I was a wheelbarrow executive most of my younger life and I retired at 33 to improve my education with luxury projects.

      Today, hard yakka is not part of anyone’s life plan but it’s still very rewarding, financially and philosophically.

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