The power of a policy

By Professor Glyn Davis

Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis has been Vice Chancellor for two universities with strong creative arts faculties and is aware of the particular issues that arose for creative disciplines after the Dawkins reforms. Here he shares observations from his book ‘The Australian Idea of a University’, published by Melbourne University Press in 2017.

The Dawkins moment began outside the university sector. For while diversity was hard to find among the traditional universities, it could be found in many other post-school education institutions. From the nineteenth century Australia supported an array of technical and further education colleges, institutes, colleges of divinity, art schools and conservatoria in fields such as nursing, teaching, agriculture and the arts. This lively sector ranged from small colleges with just a few hundred students to large institutes of technology in capital cities. Ownership and governance proved equally diverse, from autonomous institutions to units within state education departments. Here was the variety of missions and forms not found among universities.

Minister Dawkins understood the power of policy to remake a system. The ministerial title he adopted - placing ‘education’ after ‘employment’- underlined that university reform would focus on human capital, with explicit economic objectives.

This plurality reflected different histories and purposes. In the university sector, governmental and community expectations weighed heavily on a small number of institutions, each obliged to be all things to all people in their state. In contrast, the non-university higher education sector could occupy many niches. Without research as a primary requirement, the post-school sector employed a diverse array of teachers, including many who combined professional practice with instruction. Artists taught students such as painter Margaret Preston and writers the novelist Joan Lindsay, who both attended the National Gallery School of Victoria Art School. Margaret Olley spent time at Brisbane Central Technical College before transferring to East Sydney Technical College, where Charles Blackman also took classes.

These autonomous institutions would not survive the decision by Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training John Dawkins to open up the sector by combining a diversity of institutions into just a few standardised universities.

Minister Dawkins understood the power of policy to remake a system. The ministerial title he adopted - placing ‘education’ after ‘employment' - underlined that university reform would focus on human capital, with explicit economic objectives. Higher education, he argued, must be ‘more responsive to the needs of industry, more flexible, more consistent with “national interests and objectives”’

To expand enrolments he abolished the binary divide, and extended university status to a wider array of institutions. National protocols would define a university and regulate its operations, creating what the minister called a ‘unified national system’ of higher education.

The Commonwealth would only support research institutions with at least 8,000 full-time students. This meant an end to the independent art schools and music conservatoria, along with the rural and fashion colleges surviving on the periphery of tertiary education.

The Dawkins reforms adopted the familiar template of an Australian metropolitan university and compelled all institutions to conform. The loss of small specialist colleges accentuated similarities. Henceforth Australian higher education would operate with a single set of funding rates and a preference for three-year undergraduate degrees, using the programs, titles, nomenclature, and operating procedures of the nation’s founding institutions.

The unified national system accepted only one idea of a university and made it the national standard. Minister Dawkins stressed efficiency, and imposed a new minimum size requirement. The Commonwealth would only support research institutions with at least 8,000 full-time students. This meant an end to the independent art schools and music conservatoria, along with the rural and fashion colleges surviving on the periphery of tertiary education. Their demise ended the distinctive educational experience possible only in a small and specialised institution. Some became part of TAFE, but those aspiring to university status faced a difficult decision. Twenty-one institutions failed to meet the size threshold. Their arguments for continued independence were rejected, and so small specialised teaching colleges were absorbed into larger institutions. In the process Australia lost a diverse set of institutions, even as it gained new universities.

 

Reproduced with the kind permission of Melbourne University Press.


Glyn Davis is Professor of Political Science, and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne. He has written extensively on policy making, universities and media, including a doctorate from the ANU on the political independence of the ABC.