Archives for posts with tag: higher education

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.


I’ve written a chapter (co-authored with Meng-Hsuan Chou) in a new book from Berghahn, edited by L. Tournès and G. Scott-Smith and titled Global Exchanges: Scholarships and Transnational Circulations in the Modern World.

The book aims to examine the politics and efficacy of international scholarship schemes and our chapter focuses on the long history of the Rhodes scholarships. There’s a lot (a lot!) to say about that history, and our chapter is only the first attempt at a general analysis of the way in which the scheme shaped the lives of those who received it in the twentieth century. Beginning by placing the foundation of the scholarships in their historical context, we go on to examine three basic issues that underpin most international exchange programs: first, the geographic distribution of award; second, gender parity in award; and, third, the long-term geographic mobility of scholars. Working with publicly accessible data on Rhodes scholars as published in the Register of Rhodes Scholars, we bring together historical and quantitative methods to identify patterns of continuity, change, and regional diversity in the management and effect of the scheme.

Here is an excerpt from the section on geographic mobility:

Geographic mobility is at the heart of contemporary debate concerning knowledge exchange and generation. The assumption is that mobility enables scholars to make new contacts and acquire different knowledge that could lead to the acquisition of cultural and social capital, and opportunities for new collaboration and possible innovation. Hence, states encourage the mobility of scientists, scholars and students via funding support and through the reduction of administrative barriers to entry. The Rhodes scheme has traditionally brought selected participants to Oxford, envisioning that they would likely return to their countries of election and take up public positions of leadership.

However, how far this has actually been the pattern for scholars has not been systematically examined. In order to track the geographic mobility of Rhodes scholars across the twentieth century, we therefore developed three indicators: (a) those who made their careers at home; (b) those who made their careers both at home and abroad; and (c) those who principally made their careers outside their country of election.

Geographical Mobility of Rhodes Scholars 1913–1983 (in percentage)

Geographical Mobility of Rhodes Scholars 1913–1983 (in percentage)

As this table shows, the majority of scholars elected in the years analyzed established their careers in their countries of election, with limited mobility to some mobility (more than seventy-five percent of all cohorts for all coded years). Scholars with extensive mobility, who established their careers outside of their countries of election, have generally remained in the minority (around twenty to twenty-five percent of their cohorts). However, since 1913, it is evident that the percentage of scholars in this category has been steadily increasing. We believe that it is likely that more recent cohorts, especially those from the late 1990s onward, may have still greater geographic mobility patterns than earlier cohorts.

One of the difficulties of this data is that it collapses the particular local and cultural contexts that shape patterns of behavior in different countries. To provide more fine-grained differentiation between the election constituencies, we have therefore disaggregated the geographic mobility patterns of Rhodes scholars who have been elected from the United States (a dominant cohort for most years) in comparison to those who were from other election regions.

Geographical Mobility of US vs. non US Rhodes Scholars (in percentage)

Geographical Mobility of US vs. non US Rhodes Scholars (in percentage)

The above table reveals several striking patterns. First, Rhodes scholars from the United States have been more likely (about twice as likely) to spend part of their careers at home than their counterparts from other election regions. Second, while very few US scholars established their professional careers abroad, many more non-US scholars pursued this option (between twenty-two percent in 1913 and sixty-two percent in 1983). Third, the relatively high mobility (compared to other decades) of non-US scholars elected in 1923 points to the danger of telling a linear story of increasing mobility across the century. The opportunities and constraints of the interwar and World War II years, the period in which this cohort developed their careers, meant that more non-US scholars built their lives abroad than did so in later decades. This data clearly shows that awardees from different constituencies have used the Rhodes experience differently in the establishment and consolidation of their professional careers: while US scholars have utilized it as a platform to pursue a variety of careers principally at home, non-US scholars have employed the Rhodes program as a springboard to careers outside of their countries of election.

We caution, however, against making assumptions between these patterns and the notion of “brain drain.” As several recent studies in other contexts have shown, the notion of brain drain is likely to oversimplify the relationship that Rhodes scholars have had with their countries of election. Work by Tamson Pietsch suggests that Rhodes scholars who were academics maintained strong ties with their home countries, supervising the next generation of leaders and scholars from their countries of origin by hosting their stay abroad. The importance of such intergenerational networks might also be considered in other professional contexts, notably medicine or management consulting. In these instances, rather than acting as the source of brain drain, Rhodes scholars who have made their careers outside their countries of origin have nonetheless still contributed to knowledge mobility and circulation— factors that are usually considered to sit at the heart of national innovation.

The chapter is available electronically and in print as Tamson Pietsch & Meng-Hsuan Chou, ‘The politics of scholarly exchange: taking the long view on the Rhodes Scholarships’ in L. Tournès and G. Scott-Smith, Global Exchange: Scholarships and Transnational Circulations in the Modern World (Berghahn Books, 2017). Introduction to the book available here.

You can read a pre-print version on here.


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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