The Dawkins Revolution 25 Years On

The title of this essay is also the title of a book launched in Melbourne two days ago, edited by Gwilym Croucher, Simon Marginson, Andrew Norton and Julie Wells (and apparently $39.95). For overseas readers, and the very young, John Dawkins was the Minister who transformed the Australian higher education system between 1987 and 1990, greatly enlarging the sector, its research activity, its internationalisation and its status in the Australian community. The book, published by Melbourne University Press, is a collective effort by a set of authors some of whom played their own part in what were three or four tumultuous years for universities and the former colleges of advanced education.

Their summary judgement: what Dawkins did remains largely in place, and has been most successful. That the book should have had that conclusion, and been largely written, and  launched, inside the University of Melbourne is somewhat paradoxical, in that much of the criticism of the then Minister and his works came from the then Vice-Chancellor that University, Professor David Penington, and some of his senior staff. There are certainly some today who see what happened 25 years ago as an unmitigated disaster; they might read the book with profit, as it sets out why the changes were necessary, and the ways in which the changes came to be made.

I had a role in those events myself, and I was at the launch. Qantas made it possible for me to read a lot of the book at Melbourne airport (though that was possibly not its intention in cancelling my return flight), and I can say that inasmuch I was privy to what happened the authors’ account seems accurate to me. I think they have got the beginnings pretty well right, and that their judgments of what has happened since are temperate and measured.

What they don’t convey (and it wasn’t their purpose) is the sheer pace and turbulence of the first three years of the Dawkins period. He was already a successful and tough Minister, with experience in Finance and Trade. Somewhere I heard that his practice on entering a new responsibility was ‘to shake the tree as hard as he could’ and clear away what fell, leaving a tougher plant behind. The higher education tree was falling over, and (along with a few others) I had been saying so for some time: the binary system set up by the Martin Committee in 1963/4 was dead, and no one would do anything about it other than pretend it was still flourishing.

At that time I was was the Chairman of the ARGC (predecessor to the ARC), Chairman of the Board of the Institute at the ANU (a sort of DVC for Research) and a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council. I found myself one of the members of Dawkins’s ‘Purple Circle’, which did little other than argue with one another, and with the Minister, about what was really important. The Green Paper (discussion) and the White Paper (policy) that were to come were influenced by these discussions, but only because there was a common sense of what had to be done, once it was agreed that the present system had passed its use-by date.

Funding the new Australian Research Council properly was a problem. The Minister had asked me how much it should expend and I had said ‘$250 million’ (it was then around $30 million). ‘Goodness me!’ he responded, or perhaps it was another ejaculation altogether. But I explained why, and he nodded. What follows I wrote  a couple of years later, when I had ceased to be the Chairman. It gives some sense of the way decisions were made, quickly, and under high pressure.

The Green Paper had foreshadowed a transfer of perhaps $50 million from university recurrent grants to the Research Council in order that the proportion of funds going to competitive grants could double.  ‘Clearly this could only be achieved over time’, the Paper said.  One morning I went to a meeting in  Dawkins’s office , and found that I was there to discuss this most central question.  The Minister told me that in his judgment the vice-chancellors would wear such a transfer.  But was $50 million enough?  If that was all the ARC was to get, clearly not, was my unspoken response.  I still had my eye on $250 million.  For a moment I thought of asking for $100 million.  Then my political sense returned.

 ‘With all the demands for improvements in every program — and there’s a decade or more of catching up to do — $50 million is going to be spread pretty thinly,’  I said.  ‘Why not go for $75 million?  It’s not a lot more, but it will have a powerful effect on what the Council can do.’

 Those present tossed that one around.  In these processes you do not get many chances to argue your position, and I knew that every word of the White Paper was being weighed.  The transfer of funds from university budgets, if done over time, would represent a reduction  in funding of perhaps one or two per cent in any year, which had to be set against the funded growth the university would be receiving.   And each university would have a chance of winning back the funds taken, or gain even more,  through the success of its researchers in the ARC grants round.  Dawkins himself, as Minister for Finance, had originated the rule that Ministers must find the funds for what they wanted to do from within their portfolios.  It would be difficult for him to go to Cabinet and seek extra funds for the ARC.  The best source within the portfolio was the $2 billion or so spent on the universities.  If the ARC was to have any new money at all, it had to come first via an internal transfer.

 Dawkins asked some questions, but mostly listened to the argument.  Then he intervened.  ‘Why not $65 million?’  He turned to me.  “Can you live with that?’  I nodded.  ‘All right,’ he said, ‘that’s it.’   I left Parliament and went back to my office, thinking only that ten minutes argument had been worth fifteen million dollars.  There were times afterwards when I wondered whether the extra money had really been worth the resulting pain.

I’ll publish that whole story in due course. In the meantime, this book is important, balanced and readable.


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  • […] It seems to me that ‘transparency’ is not the same as saying that a government must conduct its business in public. I would have thought that ‘transparency’ relates to the business of making decisions. It ought to be clear, after the event, that a decision was made for the right reasons and that the process was the right process. It does not mean that we can all watch the process taking place. My own experience of decision-making in government is that very often the factors that weighed on the Minister could lead to a variety of outcomes, and it was the business of the senior officials to do their best to ensure that the final decision, whatever it was, was a good one. I gave an example the other day. […]

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