Archives for category: government reform

Purpose and Future of the University recording at NLA, March 2020Back in the far off land of The Time Before, in an empty lecture theatre at the National Library of Australia, I was part of a socially-distanced discussion about the purpose and future of the university.  Planned as part of the ANU College of Law’s 60th anniversary celebrations, it was recorded on 17 March 2020 for ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas programme and has recently been broadcast in two parts.

Part 1: Focuses on the value and purpose of the university, and the form it has taken in Australia. How have universities changed in the twentieth century, and what might they become, under the pressure of this present moment? >> Listen now

Part 2: Takes up the question of the university in the post-COVID19 world, focusing on possible reforms as well as wider questions of climate, technology and what we want and need from our universities? >> Listen now


  • Professor Brian Schmidt – Vice Chancellor, ANU; 2011 Nobel laureate for Physics
  • George Megalogenis – author and journalist
  • Associate Professor Tamson Pietsch – Director, Australian Centre for Public History, UTS.
  • Dr Rebecca Huntley – social researcher
  • Professor Des Manderson, interdisciplinary scholar, law and the humanities, ANU.
  • (moderator) Dr Natasha Cica – founding director,; author; honorary professor, ANU College of Law.

The question of how COVID-19 is reconfiguring the relationship between universities and their societies is one I’ve been thinking about *a lot* in the wake of this discussion. It’s something I’ll be coming back to in the next few weeks, but for now here’s my definition of a university from Part 1 of the above discussion, and why I think it matters so much, both in our current moment and more broadly:

The university has changed a lot over the course of the last one thousand years and it will continue to do so if it will survive. But … a university remains an orienting institution. It is one of the great institutions for how we make sense of the world as humans and also how we have ruled the world, so it’s connected to power. But if we think of it as an orienting institution, the university sits between the past and the future, between the dead and the living and the yet to be born, between the here and the elsewhere, and also between the known and the unknown, and research sits in that space. As a consequence, it is an incredibly important institution to hold us through uncertainty and in times of certainty. And that’s a useful definition to hang on to in this moment.

I recently wrote a review (with the longest title ever) on a series of books about the Dawkins’ reforms of the early 1990s. Now I know that higher ed reform is hardly everyone’s special subject, but I think the review (and maybe even the books) might be of interest to those attempting to understand the present state of Australian higher education. They certainly serve as a reminder that change – even system-wide change – is always possible.

Tamson Pietsch, “Life After Dawkins: The University of Melbourne in the Unified National System of Higher Education / Coming of Age: Griffith University in the Unified National System / A New Kid on the Block: The University of South Australia in the Unified National System / Preserving the Past: The University of Sydney and the Unified National System of Higher Education, 1987–96”,Australian Historical Studies (2019) 50:1, 146-149,

These four little blue books are a must read for anyone interested in understanding the contours of contemporary higher education in Australia. They offer deep dives into the ways the reforms introduced at the end of the 1980s by John Dawkins, the Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training, took shape in four very different state and institutional contexts – the Universities of Sydney (details here) and Melbourne (details here), Griffith University (details here) and the University of South Australia (details here). Produced as part of ARC Discovery Project, these four volumes constitute studies in the determinative political roles played alike by institutions, individuals, states, and communities in shaping processes of change. “The universities were not passive instruments of government policy”, states their common introduction, “they resisted some components of the Unified National System and grasped others”; and – it may equally be said – they resisted or grasped these components according to their own (often internally inconsistent) ends and desires.

In the years since the publication of his Green Paper in 1987, the name of Dawkins has become shorthand for the introduction of marketised mechanisms of governance into Australian higher education. The list of the major changes he introduced sounds a familiar note: the abolition of the binary system that distinguished between universities and other advanced education providers; the amalgamation of institutions to meet various size thresholds; the increase of student numbers; a more competitive and selective approach to increased research funding focused on newly defined areas of “national priority”; the centralisation of governance and greater power for Vice-Chancellors; greater institutional autonomy within funding agreements; and the transfer of the financial burden for higher education to students and users. Together these initiatives constituted a shift to what the authors of the University of Melbourne volume describe as “indirect control that embedded the government’s objectives in the practices of universities themselves” (M 36). Critics of this shift often look back to a pre-Dawkins era in which tuition was free, universities were given block grants and governance was democratic and participatory.

Brett, Croucher and Macintyre begin their volume on the University of Melbourne by reminding readers what life was like in universities in the 1980s. After the expansions of the 1970s, Commonwealth spending had all but frozen. Course offerings and student numbers were static, infrastructure spending had stopped and cost cutting measures were required (S 15). Dubbed the “steady state”, for academics this meant declining salary levels, poor teaching facilities and restricted recruitment and career opportunities (M 7). There were also real questions of equity: female participation among students and staff was low, as was indigenous participation, and McKinnon’s volume on the University of South Australia contains a salutatory reminder of the privileged political relationship enjoyed by the older, established universities. In 1990, she notes, there was only one tertiary-educated member of the South Australian cabinet who did not have a degree from the University of Adelaide (UniSA 61).

One of the things these books show is that by the mid 1980s the need for change was already driving reform. Professional central administration and hierarchical management had appeared at Melbourne in the 1970s (M 6), many Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs) had been forced to merge in the early 1980s (UniSA 17), and the binary divide between the universities and colleges was already breaking down (S 15; M 30). Initially restricted to undergraduate teaching focused on vocational training, drawing some of their staff from the cohorts of PhD students unable to find positions in the universities, many colleges had begun to offer courses in a wide variety of fields including at Bachelor and Masters level. In some research was substantially developed. Recognising this, state governments had begun to legislate for the conversion of some colleges into universities, enabling them to qualify for higher Commonwealth funding. In 1985 the WA Institute of Technology became Curtin University and in 1987 the NSW Institute of Technology because the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). By 1987, the combination of these already-in-train changes, together with the crisis in university funding and the evident need for Australia to adjust to a de-industrialising economy made higher educational reform a necessity.

What is notable about reading these four volumes together, is just how complex and comprehensive were the changes Dawkins introduced and how quickly they were implemented. At times I longed for a timeline that would help me keep track of the green papers and white papers and policy initiatives and the various committees and consultative processes and protests and negotiations – national and state – that emerged in response to them. This is not always helped by the institutionally specific focus of these volumes. Brett, Croucher and Macintyre are best at setting the University of Melbourne story in the wider national context and for this reason their volume should be read first, though for a full account, their more synoptic companion volume, No End of a Lesson (MUP, 2017) is the place to go. Alison McKinnon outlines the way staff living through these changes frequently felt “adrift and distrustful, and experienced identity crises as they came to terms with new structures” (UniSA 92). What did lives lived in service of one institution mean in the wake of its closure or merger? Even David Penington wept when he retired (M 119). The effect of the closure of CAEs on regional and suburban communities is only briefly gestured at. (UniSA 109)

The stories told in each volume are necessarily specific. The internal culture of each institution, its peculiar state political context, as well as its relationship to other local universities significantly shaped how it was able to respond to Dawkins’ reforms. The University of Sydney had a had very politically active staff and a particularly dire institutional financial context (S 7); South Australia was characterised by four relatively evenly matched institutions in terms of student numbers (UniSA, 57), whereas in Victoria the established position of the University of Melbourne gave it considerable negotiating power. The Universities of Melbourne and Sydney were both conscious of the rising challenge of Monash and UNSW, whereas in Queensland it was Griffith that presented that challenge. But institutions are made up of people, and in these accounts the influence of individuals on events is also apparent. At times in can seem that the main characters in the story are the Vice-Chancellors: Sydney’s John Ward, master of internal politics (S, 34); Melbourne’s David Penington; Griffith’s Roy Webb and, for better or worse, the Director of the South Australian Institute of Technology (SAIT), Alan Mead. And of course there is John Dawkins himself – a man who was not scared of conflict. Horne and Garton give good attention to Ward’s formation at Sydney in the 1930s and 40s (S 22) and other leading figures also need to be placed in the contexts that shaped them. But the Vice-Chancellors were not the only ones influencing events: the Principals of the CAEs, State Ministers of Education, Chancellors together with the – in these books – largely unnamed members of Dawkins’ trusted “Purple Circle” of advisors were also crucial. So too were the staff associations and unions, student groups, professors, Deans and members of governing bodies who directly and indirectly created the context for negotiation as well as accommodation. People make institutions make people make institutions.

One of the most fascinating elements of these books is the alternative possibilities for Australian higher education, to which they point. As Horne and Garton point out, the historians Bruce Mansfield and Mark Hutchinson described the amalgamation negotiations of 1988 and 1989 as “a frenzied dance” with “partners clasping and disengaging and clasping elsewhere, lest they be left neglected or pass into oblivion” (in S 63). But reading these volumes sometimes seemed like following the plot of an Iris Murdoch novel in which a small number of characters experiment repeatedly with coupling in various overlapping combinations. The marriages that were contemplated but never eventuated are worth pausing over because they point to alternate futures as well as possible pasts: a large South Australian university made from the merger of all the state’s institutions (UniSA5; 7;28; 54); a federated state-wide Queensland University (S65); and my personal favourite, a NSW creative arts institution consisting of the various colleges of visual art and design, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and other cultural institutions located at the Rozelle Mental Hospital (S68; 72). And there are other policy initiatives that-might-have-been as well: the state-wide staff and student mobility scheme proposed by the University of Adelaide (UniSA 28) and the possible combined opposition of the universities of Sydney and Melbourne (S 34) standing out. This latter possibility is given more discussion in the Sydney than the Melbourne volume, perhaps indication of a different kind of dance that continues to be played by Australia’s two oldest universities today. The story does serve to highlight, however, just how little universities banded together to resist Dawkins’ reforms and just how little opposition came from the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, something Terry Hogan points out (G 56).

There is, however, a tension in these books between the sense that Dawkins’ reforms pushed higher education institutions towards uniformity and the notion that they brought about a new form of hierarchy among them. Prior to Dawkins there had been some experimentation in course design, social mission and governance structure evident in the newer “gum-nut” universities such as Flinders and Griffith and also in some of the CAEs such as SACAE. But as the Griffith volume shows, the monetary incentives Dawkins offered encouraged all institutions to develop similar characteristics – a spread of courses, postgraduate training and research (G73; G78; G86) – and assessed them according to uniform standards. Glyn Davis, the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the University Melbourne, has lamented this at length in his 2018 volume The Australian Idea of a University (MUP). Yet the common introduction to these four books makes it clear that, “despite its homogenous characteristics … the Unified National System [was] [n]ever likely to result in a uniform national system” and by 1993, Griffith’s Roy Webb, believed that “a new binary system was evolving as a divide between the wealthy older universities, on one side … and the rest of the sector on the other side” (G 135; 137; 144). Historic funding for research enabled established universities to attract almost all of the competitive research funds. This in turn determined the allocation of the Research Quantum, the Infrastructure Block Grant, small ARC grants and eventually the allocation of postgraduate scholarships (M 106). CAEs with smaller research active staff, many of whom did not have PhDs, struggled to compete. As Brett, Croucher and Macintyre point out, it was an uneven competition. To whom much had been given, much, much more was given.

The questions raised by Dawkins’ reforms, raised in these books, and as yet unanswered in Australia are these: what is a university and who should hold it to account? The older universities viewed the proliferation of newer institutions as a threat. Not only was there a great deal of snobbishness and fear of dilution of standards and resources (eg. G62-63) but there was also the threat of competition and the concern that in a mass system research could not be maintained. The AVCC responded to these concerns by seeking to define what a university was: it must have a significant load of students in at least three broad fields of study; a minimum of 3 per cent postgraduate research students; meet certain thresholds of competitive grants and refereed publications per staff member; and have at least 25% of staff with PhDs (60-80% in “well-established” institutions)(G 69; M 143). But like all attempts at definitional stabilisation, their effort proved futile and in 1993 the “Great Eight” came together to make the same case via different means (M 145). If a university is a knowledge institution that, through its teaching and research, exists to orient individuals and communities not just to the needs of the present, but to the conditions of future life and past life; if it is an institution that needs to be remade in every age, to accommodate changing political and economic, social and intellectual currents and to maintain its relevance to the communities that support it, then Dawkins’ reforms were an important if imperfect part of the long story of the renewal of the university. But since the early 1990s a host of new pressures, including policy stasis, massive funding cuts, dramatic technological change, the marketization of the society and economy, housing stress, global competition and the attendant recruitment of large numbers of international students, have pressed down on Australia’s higher education system in ways that make the reforms of the 1980s no longer fit for purpose. These four books compel readers to ask anew what a university is and what it might be. Above all they show that change is always possible.


Impact is not just coming, it is already here. Rant and rage, it’s a fact of academic life. In my view that’s (mostly) not such a bad thing. As a researcher I want my work to reach broad audiences, though I recognise that attempting to measure the impact of research is a fraught exercise with potential perverse effects. Our physicist friends tell us that observing a phenomenon changes it, and even “quality metrics” are pretty bad at capturing the kinds of value produced by culture. Scholarly work not only has intrinsic merit, but its “real world” effects or applications can take decades to manifest.

Yet like it or not, impact assessment is upon us. This means that historians need to spend a bit of time getting their head around what it means and how it might shape their work. And to my mind, there’s good political and disciplinary reasons for doing so.

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