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Decline and fall?

22 November 2012

Twenty-five years ago, John Dawkins dramatically reshaped higher education. His critics still fail to distinguish the good from the bad in his reforms, writes Dean Ashenden


Photo: Ashley Holmes/ Flickr

IT IS an astonishing fact that almost a quarter of a century after John Dawkins ceased to be federal minister for education he is still being demonised, vilified even, for the changes he wrought in Australian higher education. In the late 1980s academics were accusing him of “sheer educational vandalism” and of “an attack on intelligent culture,” sneering at the “deep thinking” and “intensive research” behind his proposals, and jeering that “governments like these pass like ships in the night but leave enormous oil slicks behind them.” The rage has, if anything, intensified, and taken a biblical turn – the Garden (the Community of Scholars), the Fall (into utilitarianism, managerialism and the market), and the Serpent (John Dawkins).

Apostles of this cosmogony include historian and commentator Don Watson (“A New Dusk,” in the Monthly), Donald Meyers (whose Australian Universities: A Portrait of Decline is endorsed and publicised by Watson) and former ABC religious affairs editor Paul Collins (“Thought Under Threat at Australia’s Universities,” in Eureka Street). Less theological constructions of the times and their consequences have come from the distinguished moral philosopher Raimond Gaita (“To Civilise the City?,” in Meanjin), from Robert Manne in response to Gaita (“The University Experience: Then and Now,” in the Conversation), and from Richard Hil (Whackademia: An Insider’s Account of the Troubled University).

Since I knew, liked and admired Dawkins during his time as federal minister for education between 1987 and 1992 in the Hawke governments, this article is partly in defence of the man and his achievements. I also want to suggest that in many commentaries on universities and their purposes a miasma of mythology, nostalgia and straight-out snobbishness conceals what is true and important, and obscures what has gone wrong, and right, in higher education since Dawkins’s time.

In Collins’s account the Dawkins amalgamation of the universities with the CAEs (colleges of advanced education) “confused two separate purposes”: “critical and creative scholarship” on the one hand, and instrumental and vocational teaching on the other. Collins also claims (quoting academic Judith Bessant) that Dawkins was guilty of “the indiscriminate application of market models and values, a commitment to user-pays systems and the widespread application of entrepreneurial language and practices.”

For his part, Watson blames Dawkins’s “reforms” (the inverted commas are Watson’s) for turning universities into “massive revenue-chasing enterprises,” academics into administrators, students into customers, and managers into royalty. Watson also holds Dawkins responsible for “the dumbing down of university education.”

Raimond Gaita writes more in sorrow than in anger, but anger is not far from the surface when he asserts that “managerial newspeak” has smothered traditional and crucially important ways of thinking about the university and its purposes, and anger bubbles to the top when he concludes that “the upshot of the expansion of the university sector is not that many more people enjoy the university experience: it is that no one does.”

Former academic Donald Meyers is the most disaffected of all. His first sentence announces that the subject of his book is “the destructive ‘reform’ of the tertiary sector spearheaded by John Dawkins,” while his last, 180 pages later, expresses the hope, however faint, of an apocalyptic crusade of recovery waged by “a Churchillian figure, able to brush the managerialists, the educationalists and political correctness to one side and to lead into action those willing to put their careers on the line for the benefit [of] all students to come and the nation our young people will inherit.”

It is certainly the case that Dawkins was, as one commentator puts it “spectacularly reform-minded.” His astonishingly bold program – it included the integration of the two higher education sectors, the amalgamation of small institutions into large ones, and the introduction of the HECS system – makes him by some margin the most influential federal minister of education ever. But Dawkins did not do several of the things he is accused of, while several of the things that he did do had origins and consequences quite different from those claimed. Before setting out to argue this case, some disclosures: I worked in CAEs between the late 1960s and the early 1980s; I was subsequently ministerial consultant to Dawkins’s predecessor, Susan Ryan; and with Sandra Milligan I established the Good Universities Guides, sometimes anathematised along with Dawkins.

DID Dawkins introduce the “user-pays” principle to universities? No, he did not. He reintroduced it, albeit on a new and much-improved basis. Users had paid to get into every university except the University of Western Australia for more than a century after the first of them was established in 1850. That foundational fact was modified by various exemptions and scholarships, particularly after the second world war. Returned servicemen, trainee teachers and, from the 1960s, holders of Commonwealth Scholarships, were all fee-exempt and given other support as well. It was not until 1973 that the user-pays principle was abolished in favour of “free” university education.

But of course it wasn’t free at all. Taxpayers paid, and much of what they paid went to families already doing quite nicely because it was their children who got into uni, and it was those same children who, thus subsidised, went on to the most-desired and best-paid jobs. As unprecedented numbers took advantage of a free uni degree, it became clear that what was intended as an egalitarian measure was in some respects the opposite, a form of middle-class welfare or, more bluntly, regressive taxation, and was rapidly becoming unaffordable as well.

Dawkins’s task was to find ways of paying a bill that looked like expanding into the indefinite future, to dampen negative redistribution, and yet still to encourage easier access for more people. It was a tall order, and the inspired answer was found nowhere else in the Western university world. Under the HECS arrangement, devised by ANU economist Bruce Chapman, “users” (perhaps better thought of as “beneficiaries”) do indeed pay, but only if and as their graduate salaries make them able to. No one was kept out for being unable to pay. Parents were relieved of the obligation to fund yet more education for their offspring. Governments could afford to expand access. And graduates whose earnings were low were required to pay nothing at all. It was a user-pays system in no simple or ordinary sense of the term. It was a most-users-pay-something-if-and-when-they-can system.

The regime that applied to international students, on the other hand, was user-pays, plain and simple, and it replaced a “free” system. But that was not Dawkins’s doing. Two reviews conducted during the Fraser years found against the existing system, which brought students to Australia as part of our international aid program, and recommended that a full-fee system take its place. These recommendations were accepted by the incoming Labor government, and the first full-fee-payers enrolled two years before Dawkins became minister. Their numbers grew rapidly, but were still relatively small when Dawkins moved on in 1992.

Dawkins is also accused of bringing “managerialism” to universities, but his contribution to that development was indirect at best. It is true that by turning small institutions into big ones and by expanding the number of government-funded places in universities Dawkins hastened the demise of the so-called “collegial system.” But it is forgotten that Dawkins confronted two substantial problems of organisation and governance. The first was a dog’s breakfast of nearly ninety higher education institutions, all answering in one way or another to both state and federal governments, many of them tiny, single-purpose and isolated, some very large and right next door to each other yet often doing the same thing. (Adelaide probably set some kind of record in this regard, with two teacher-education programs about 200 paces apart, by my reckoning, on the same campus.)

The other problem inherited by Dawkins was a “collegial system” of governance in most universities that was quite unable to cope with the substantial expansion of the preceding two or three decades. Its shortcomings were starkly revealed by a series of “discipline reviews,” initiated by Canberra before Dawkins came into the portfolio and conducted by academics eminent in the fields concerned. The reviews revealed, for example, that one in four engineering academics had published nothing in the previous five years; that law courses in the “old” universities ignored social, political and ethical issues intrinsic to the law and its administration, encouraged rote learning, and provided few or no practical skills into the bargain; that departments confident in their own academic standards rarely compared them with standards obtaining elsewhere; and that reviews of staff performance were ad hoc or non-existent, as was any attempt to solicit the views of students or to offer them any redress for unfair treatment.

Of course there were exceptions to the rule, but that was one part of the point: the “collegial system” wasn’t systematic at all. It was person-dependent, erratic and amateurish. As Manne reminds Gaita, “it was unrealistic in the extreme to imagine that mass universities could continue to be managed by academics.” The Dawkins reforms were the occasion, not the cause, of a lurch toward “managerialism” in Australian universities; and it was academics in university administrations, not politicians, who looked to American universities for more capable forms of governance, just as those universities, facing the same problem decades before, had found much of their solution in the methods and language of business.

Perhaps the most bitter of the charges against Dawkins is that he mixed the oil of universities with the water of the CAEs, that he confused institutions that were (as Gaita puts it) answerable to the idea of the university as “home to a distinctive form of intellectual life” with institutions of the vocational and instrumental kind.

One side of the reality is that Australian universities have themselves always been “vocational,” and have grown by steadily expanding the number of occupations embraced, from medicine and law and theology to engineering and teaching, geology and architecture, pharmacy and accounting, computing and surveying and nursing. The other side of the fact is that by the time of the Dawkins amalgamations the CAEs were doing much the same thing, graduating engineers, teachers, architects and accountants who had exactly the same entree to their professions as the graduates of universities. College and university academic staff were employed on similar terms, including tenure and in some cases access to study leave. Some college academics had the union ticket, a PhD, just as some in the universities did not. The colleges offered many of the reflective humanities and social science disciplines, and were getting into research as well, not as much as the universities, but not so different in scale from the efforts of the universities only two or three decades earlier. The universities weren’t fundamentally different from colleges at all, just further down the same road.

Dawkins saw that the distinction was unsustainable, but was agnostic as to the solution. His initial concern, as the responsible minister, was that different kinds and amounts of funding were going to institutions that seemed to be doing the same things, with no clear rationale for the difference and, indeed, no clear basis for the allocation of resources within the institution. Various models were canvassed in the extensive consultations commissioned by Dawkins (and, often enough, conducted by him in person), but the overwhelming press was for cold turkey: one in, all in, in name anyway. All the players knew that in place of sheep and goats would be a whole new range of hybrids.

ONE of my own criticisms of Dawkins’s policies focuses on the implications of the one-in-all-in decision for the relationship between research and teaching. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Adelaide in the early 1960s, many academics in the arts faculty were Oxbridge trained. Pining for the dreaming spires (and who wouldn’t?), few had doctorates, and they often affected a lofty disdain for the “publish or perish” proclivities of the Americans. The sciences were already different, and things were changing in the American direction across the university. By the time Dawkins arrived on the scene universities regarded research output as the crucial difference between them and the CAEs. For their part the colleges were going as fast as they could to ape their betters. Both claimed an abiding commitment to teaching, of course, but it was honoured mainly in the breach, perhaps particularly in the universities, where public rhetoric about the mutually reinforcing relationship between teaching and research cohabited with private talk about “spoon feeding” and the idea that mass failures indicated high standards.

When Dawkins accepted the recommendation that all higher education institutions should be brought or changed into universities he also accepted the near-universal assumption that the colleges had to be more like universities than vice versa, and with that he inadvertently accelerated the dynamic that was putting teaching at a discount and research and publication at a premium. The sense that “something should be done” about teaching was in the air at the time, but found no support in the Dawkins proposals. The most effective single effort to “operationalise” and reward good teaching was the Course Experience Questionnaire, or CEQ, introduced after Dawkins’s time. The questionnaire allowed comparison of graduates’ evaluations of the character and quality of their university experience, in all disciplines, in
all universities, and gave some teeth to the “teaching quality” units then being established in the universities, and to the Good Universities Guides.

But these efforts were popguns to the heavy artillery of research and publication in the arms race for advancement by individuals and institutions. Recent analysis of CEQ data for the Bradley review of higher education suggests that there have been some declines and some gains in the quality of the student experience since the early 1990s, not bad going in the face of massive increases in student–staff ratios. This suggests what might have been possible had teaching been made as countable and career-enhancing as research. That was the opportunity open to Dawkins, and he missed it. The costs of this missed opportunity are suggested by a comparison of CEQ scores in Australian and British universities since the questionnaire was introduced in Britain in 2005, and by the findings of another more-recent survey (the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement), which allows comparison of a sample of universities in Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Neither result shows Australia to advantage.

My second regret about the Dawkins program arises from what he was not able to do. Here, too, my concerns approach some of those advanced by Watson, Meyers, Collins, Gaita and Hil, but from a different direction, and with different implications.

The push for “access” and the beefing-up of the university system coincided with a neglect and relative downgrading of vocational education and training, or VET. Had that sector been revamped, refunded, and given the attention and respect it deserves, it would have been much better placed to compete with the universities as a destination for both occupational groups and individuals wanting to upgrade their training and qualifications, and thereby taken some pressure off the universities. Dawkins was as hyperactive as ever in shaping a “skills agenda” which embraced VET, but had nothing like the freedom of movement in that area that he enjoyed in higher education. VET was dominated by the TAFE systems. They were “owned” by the states, and the states wanted to keep it that way. Progress was slow, erratic and unpredictable.

Dawkins faced no such difficulties in the higher education sector. Although all the universities except the Australian National University were created under acts of the state parliaments, they were funded almost entirely from Canberra. The rest, as they always say, is history. Higher education went up, vocational education went down. The newly expanded university sector became the gateway to an ever-expanding range of occupations and people; the vocational sector didn’t. That unfortunate juxtaposition did not initiate the cult of “going to uni,” but it did accelerate it and take it past the point of no return, and in the process it deepened problems of vocational preparation in both universities and TAFEs. With the partial exceptions of medicine and some other health disciplines, the universities have never been very good at combining theory and practice, for the simple reason that they put one way of knowing and learning above rather than beside the other. The TAFE sector, by contrast, has always assumed that theory and practice complement and reinforce each other, a “philosophy” of knowing and learning embodied in its apprenticeship programs.

The effect of all this on universities is not well-described as “dumbing down,” as Watson and others assert. For one thing, it would be hard to dumb down the experience of pass students when I was an undergraduate, a reality exposed to me when I joined the honours stream. Inside that stream was “the university experience.” Outside was mayhem – often-incomprehensible lectures, intimidating tutorials, if any, three or four essays submitted across three terms and returned weeks later bearing an unexplained and uncontestable mark, and one or two do-or-die exams at the end of it all, mostly marked, I later learned, by just one assessor who proceeded with no criteria other than those provided by intuition.

What the critics refer to as dumbing down was in fact a differentiation that included smartening up: a wider spectrum with a wider range of courses for a wider range of people entering a wider range of occupations. The common element is a constant pressure to lengthen courses to upgrade their status and hence the status and rewards of the occupation concerned – what is sometimes referred to as “credentialism.” This was advanced by the rhetoric of “broadening and enriching” the educational experience and “advancing the standards of the profession” concerned. Often it has done neither; sometimes one, occasionally both. It is surely not all bad that credential inflation has given us so many double-degree programs, for example – engineers who also study linguistics, lawyers who do neuroscience, or financiers who have done some anthropology or literary studies. But it is almost all bad when the pursuit of academic respectability results in “theory” that is neither vocationally engaging nor intellectually stimulating, and a separation of “theory” from “practice,” a dynamic I witnessed in its early stages in teacher education in the 1970s.

None of that justifies Gaita’s claim that “the upshot of the expansion of the university sector is not that many more people enjoy the university experience: it is that no one does.” In 1950 there were just over 30,000 students in Australian universities, a mere 20 per cent of whom were women (and even that was good compared with the proportion of female academics). In the course of a single lifetime, numbers have multiplied thirty times while the proportion of women enrolled has almost tripled. The “university experience,” as varied as it is, and as far as it is, was and probably ever shall be from anyone’s version of the ideal, now belongs to a sizeable minority of the population. That represents a substantial expansion of the life experience of millions of people. Among its consequences is a less mystified and mystifying society, and a less unequal and excluding one. To the extent that these achievements are noticed by some critics they are depicted as a mere change in scale, and an unfortunate one at that. One consequence of “the university experience” is intellectual arrogance.

The universities did grow too much and too quickly. Each university place is expensive, and funding has failed to keep up. Student–staff ratios have spiralled, irrespective of minister or political party in office. That has pushed universities into the money-generating international student market further and faster than is defensible. We now have something like three times the proportion of international students as in American universities, for example. Yet another knock-on effect is that a necessary and essentially viable way of managing and governing universities was introduced too quickly, generating pretensions and absurdities to match those of the old “collegial” system, which in consequence looks much better now than it did at the time. In the process, the working lives of many academics have become unliveable.

UNIVERSITIES do have crucial, if not exclusive, responsibilities that go beyond the vocational, economic and social, of course. These include, in my book, a capacity and willingness to see and to know beyond what has been learned from experience and beyond what serves our own particular material and psychological interests. This capacity is hard to detect in much of the criticism of Dawkins and of the university system. The exception that proves the rule is Robert Manne, who sees his life’s work and workplace in the stream of history, and is therefore able to find gains as well as losses, and possibilities in the future other than Stygian gloom or the Rapture.

Why have his contemporaries and colleagues failed at the same task? Watson, Gaita and Collins are public intellectuals notable for a largeness of spirit and comprehension that seems to have gone missing in this case. Whether it is their interests or mine that have got in the way I cannot judge, of course. They do seem to mistake their own “university experience” for the typical when almost by definition it was not. They were good at their studies and were therefore admitted to the inner sanctum. A less benign explanation is that they suffer from a blinding anger at a loss of caste. The academic life of thirty or forty years ago was indeed pampered, as Watson concedes. “Intellectual effort coexisted with a certain amount of well-paid Olympian lassitude,” he writes. “A year’s sabbatical in every seven; a thirty-week year; tenure with no obligation to publish; for some, little more than three or four hours of teaching a week.”

But it was not just pampered. It was exclusive and excluding. Academics were Brahmans. Once admitted to the caste you were there for life, as of right. Now, everyone is an academic and lots of them are called “professor” as well. Academe is no longer a point of arrival, more an endless scramble for positional advantage. The critics are entitled to lament these developments, but criticism should not be confused with blanket condemnation, and disinterested analysis should not collapse into demonisation. Too often some of these critics sound less like righteous prophets than Russian aristocrats in the Paris of the 1920s, driving taxis and refusing to understand why the world declines to take them at their own estimate, dreaming still of a Restoration or, at the very least, revenge. •

Show Comments


Don Aitkin

14 December 2012

I thought this article was excellent, and agree also with Gregor, as I should, since he and I were colleagues at the time. I found the article in my local newspaper, and it prompted me to write my own take on it all:


DEC Did John Dawkins wreck the higher education system?

John Dawkins was the Minister for Employment, Education and Training from 1987 to 1991, and the person who gave the higher education system its present shape. His period and its consequences are having a reconsideration, with a conference at the University of Melbourne at the end of last month, and some books and articles. I confess that I haven’t read the books and didn’t go to the conference. I did read a fine extended article by Dean Ashenden in the magazine called Inside Story that came in my paper, and you can read that here. I had something to do with those changes, and like Ashenden I approved of much of what Dawkins did — and paid quite a price for saying so and helping him.

In 1987 we had what was called ‘the binary system’ of higher education. Universities were thought to be for the more proficient students, who would go on to honours degrees and then postgraduate courses. Colleges of advanced education were for the rest, who would work at more applied things and go out into the workforce. Colleges could not offer honours degrees, were not funded for research, and had no staff called ‘professor’. Otherwise universities and colleges paid their staff the same salaries for the same levels as universities.

This system, which was not unlike the university/polytechnic division in the UK, had originated in the Martin Committee’s report of 1964, which had proposed it in part to deal with the rapidly increasing costs of the rapidly increasing numbers going to university. Twenty years later, when I came to be involved with it, the system was coming apart. Universities had expanded their postgraduate offerings, and now generated lots of PhDs. But these graduates could not find jobs in the universities, because university undergraduate student numbers had stopped growing. Colleges had proved an attractive option for students, and now had as many students as the universities, and their recent staff now consisted in large part of recent PhD graduates from the university sector, who wanted to keep on doing research.

The tension inside the system was great, but the Fraser and Hawke governments had refused to deal with it. I could see the writing on the wall when, as a member of a selection committee recommending Special Research Centres to the government in the mid 1980s, I was impressed with an application from RMIT in Melbourne that was the equal of anything proposed by a university. And it got up, too. A little later I heard of a move in Western Australia to turn the Western Australian Institute of Technology into ‘Curtin University’, something that the State Government could do without reference to the Commonwealth. Would it be funded for research? If not, why not?

I knew that there had been moves in the past to amalgamate some universities and adjacent colleges, moves that were nearly always strenuously resisted by those concerned. At one point Australia had more than 90 institutions of higher education. The election of the Hawke Government in 1987 was followed by a restructuring of the ministry, bringing back the Cabinet and outer Ministry that Menzies had used, but had gone with Whitlam. John Dawkins, by then very much a senior Minister, got one of the big portfolios, Employment, Education and Training. I welcomed that creation, because it put all the research-related aspects of higher education into the one department, and Dawkins proposed to create an Australian Research Council, a move that I had been working on for some time in ASTEC.

I had not known John Dawkins before, but he asked me to become part of his ‘purple circle’, an ad hoc group of advisers, roughly representative of the system, but keen to see change in it. Getting rid of the binary system was a common aspiration of the circle, but we differed on how much change we wanted to see, and on many other things as well. My thought was to do it gradually, turning the larger technological institutes and the Canberra CAE into universities, but leaving the smaller ones for the moment, and admitting them as they grew. The department wanted a cold-turkey approach, because dealing with lots of unhappy little colleges was not a future its senior members welcomed.

In the end Dawkins followed their advice, and set up what I called at the time an ‘amalgamation ballet’, in which State governments, universities and colleges danced around and selected the partners they liked. There were some initial errors in all of this, but it settled down fairly quickly and produced the system we have today, which works well, as far as I can see. There are no moves to change it. The old and rich became bigger and richer, which is usually the case, but some of the newer institutions have also done well. I don’t think that ‘quality’, whatever that elusive attribute is, has suffered.

Dawkins made me the chairman of the new Australian Research Council, and after two rocky years, in which I was the poster-boy of dislike inside the old universities (because Dawkins had drawn $65 million from the operating grants of those universities for competitive re-allocation by the ARC), it too settled down. It is still there today, and disbursing a lot more money than was the case when I was there, though I was successful in getting some handsome forward commitments.

I found Dawkins an excellent Minister, He left me alone, supported me when I was in trouble, and agreed to all but two of my recommendations, which isn’t a bad record for anyone who needs his Minister to agree to what he thinks ought to happen. His philosophy, explained to me in one of our conversations, was to ‘shake the tree vigorously’ — the rotten stuff will fall to the ground, but the good will still be there.

He was right about the binary system. It was rotten, and had to go. It should have gone earlier, but no one had the resolve to do it. The universities hated what he did, because they lost their privileged position. But the assumption that there are two sorts of students, who therefore needed two different types of institution in which to learn, was flawed from the start. Why the Martin Committee adopted it, and why politicians of the day accepted it, is another good story, but this essay is already long enough.

Gregor Ramsey

22 November 2012

As someone who was there at the time, Dean Ashenden's review of the Dawkins years is a refreshing and accurate take on the significant changes to higher education that arose from the famous 1988 White Paper and the amalgamations it initiated. His language is crisp and clear and reminds us of the regular attempts by academics to denigrate what eventuated rather than outlining the advantages that accrued for students, academics, and the system as a whole. And particularly that these commentators are from the old universities, not the advanced education sector. There was more for the pre 1987 universities to gain from their adopting some of the approaches of the CAE sector than the reverse: they were in many senses moribund and were jolted into facing 20th century issues by the more nimble advanced education sector. We note that universities today run schools, offer TAFE type courses and do whatever they can to earn a dollar or be better placed to take students from their colleague institutions.It has all made for a healthier system.

The most recent Bradley review of higher education in 2008 made no suggestions about structural change, focussing on funding issues that will always be with us and expanding on the agenda that was set out in the green and white papers. The particular emphasis was on improving the quality of provision and the implications of an expanded market for international students including a greatly expanded non universwity provision of higher education. Speaking of which one should remind readers that it was John Dawkins when he was Minister for Trade, before he became Minister for Education who along with Susan Ryan the then Minister for Education called a meeting in 1986 of all the CEOs of higher education institutions (universities and CAEs) to outline the opportunities the attracting of full fee paying International students to Australia would bring and so began the International trade (initially over the dead bodires of some of those CEO's) making it now the third largest export earner in the country. To my knowledge this was the first and possibly the last time such a meeting was ever held.

Simon During

25 November 2012

As someone who is unconvinced by the overall argument here (though I agree one can't blame Dawkins for all that has happened since) just a couple of points.

1. Dawkins confused the real need to increase participation in the postcompulsory sector with the presumed need to centralize and homogenize it. What the bigger system needed actually was more different kinds of institutions rather than a relatively small number of huge so-called "universities".

2. I agree that HECS was a good and genuinely imaginative solution to the problem of funding as it was perceived under what we might call nascent neo-liberalism. But it isn't as good as the free provision of education to all whose skewed benefits to the already rich are offset by higher taxes on the rich. Which was what had been in place in the smaller system.

In both cases he took the politically easier route.

Dick Friend

22 November 2012

In the early 1970s I rejected a UNI "training" in Medicine after passing first year, and enrolled in a CAE "education" in the design professions. YES, the medical degree was based on rote learning and couldn't have been "dumbed-down" and further, while the design degree was about conceptual thinking, problem solving and multi-disciplinary collaboration.

"Equal but different" was the mantra of the creation of CAEs and, if the academic/vocational divide was to be real, then the training courses for medicos, lawyers and engineers should have been moved to CAEs.

As vested interests ensured this was never going to happen, the academic vs vocational split was absurd, and was more snobbery than substance.

Undertaking post-grad research at Sydney Uni, I became appalled at derogatory attitudes to teaching - when students arrived after holidays, they were noticed for their nuisance value, and activity levels barely changed.

It all had to change...

No single academic can be expected to be valued and productive as a researcher, as well as a teacher, as an academic mentor, and as an administrator.

Let's behind old paradigms, and instead recognise strengths and weaknesses, and build on them!

john clark

22 November 2012

I arrived to teach at ANU in 1989 and from 1992-2012 at University of Sydney. My understanding is based on the situation after the deluge, not before. Dawkins' reforms meant two things apart from superficially increased student consumer choice and the de-skilling of specific degrees. They meant the systematic downgrading of linguistic skills as a pre-requisite to Honours resulting in an increased anglo-centrism and lack of 'other cultural' awareness on the part of most students who did not bring this as part of family background. It also meant, so far as I could see, mensuration of course and research outputs from the centre, the University administration, rather than skill inputs measured for students at departmental level.

Universities have in consequence systemically become top-down decision-making trees with disempowered departments, and professorates deprivileged by the structure of a quite inappopriate, and managerial ideology-driven profit-centre accounting structure applied to departmental and school units. These last organizational elements may not all have been directly caused by Dawkins' reforms, but were certainly facilitated by them.

John David McLaren

23 November 2012

Ashenden's essay is a refreshingly clear and accurate appraisal of the contemporary Australian university and its critics. In defending Dawkins's reforms, he could perhaps have placed more emphasis on the fact that the dual system of universities and colleges had become unsustainable. This was not simply due to the ambitions of those of us working in Colleges, but to the fact that our students had to find jobs in the same fields as university graduates, and therefore had to be able to achieve qualifications in no way inferior. This in turn meant that teaching in the Colleges had to be, like that in the Universities, based on scholarship and research. Unfortunately, since the changes were made formalized and measured research in all tertiary institutions has tended to displace pure scholarship.

The issue of managerialism is separate from that of institutional organization. The old collegial system may have become moribund, but corporate governance through centralized bureaucracies and multiplying committees do not provide a satisfactory alternative. As at all levels of education, teachers must be responsible for their own practice, which they should be able to justify to their peers. By extension, this applies also to research. Students in turn should be recognized as partners in the production and diffusion of knowledge. I would suggest that a return to these principles--probably never fully realized even in so-called golden ages--is a central problem in Australian universities today.

dennis altman

23 November 2012

this is a very useful corrective to some of the sillier nostalgia floating around. But it ignores some crucial points:

1: as govts ask Unis to find more of their own funding they demand greater accountability thus swelling the ranks of senior administrators;

2: there are few senior managers who deserve the salaries they are paid: an incompetent Dean will probably earn far more than an academic who is a first rate teacher and researcher;

3: financial pressures mean we are losing areas of study crucial for Australia, eg. Asian languages in many Unis.

the solution may be to think of a University system rather than competing institutions, in which we reward cooperation rather than constantly force Unis to seek competitive rankings--currently at least 3 Victorian Unis are determined to be 3rd in the state--the leading position of the G8 goes unchallenged--which is mathematically impossible

Dean Ashenden

25 November 2012

A clarification, and a response:

First, the clarification: my concluding paragraphs confuse general criticisms with specific ones. In work associated with the Good Universities Guides and elsewhere I often witnessed ‘a blinding anger at a loss of caste’, for example. But my speculation that such anger may help to explain the positions taken by Watson, Gaita and Collins reads as an assertion that it did, which I did not and do not intend. Nor do I want to suggest that every individual whose work is discussed should be seen as charged with every offence (‘blanket condemnation’, ‘demonisation’, and so on.)

Second, a response: Dennis Altman is correct to say that I paid insufficient attention to the involvement by government in the universities, and to the question of whether Dawkins expanded or changed that involvement. John Clark and John David McLaren raise similar concerns. Perhaps particularly relevant is the work on performance indicators by the late Professor Russell Linke which came to fruition in the Dawkins years, and certainly influenced the relationship between governments and universities as well as the way universities are organised and run. I doubt that this would justify the simple claim of ‘more’ influence, however, or the simple assumption that ‘more’ means ‘bad’. How far did performance indicators (to continue with that example) reflect what universities were already doing or being pushed to do by forces well beyond the control of Australian governments? Were there, or are there, better approaches to funding and governance? Were the new approaches better or worse, for example, than the practices of the old Universities Commission which, as I understand it, refused even to disclose to universities the basis of allocations, let alone justify them? Is ‘managerialism’ better or worse than the ‘collegial’ system and its ‘God professors’? Can it be improved, by getting rid of its grosser abuses, at least, or is it an essentially foreign body? Perhaps most important of all, what effect if any did these developments have on the crucial freedoms of universities and academics? All questions for another day.

John Brenan

26 November 2012

I am grateful to Dean Ashenden for another refreshing and informed reflection about education. Dawkins does not deserve the animosity he received and receives still, for much the reasons that Dean argues. Perhaps his critics are skewed in ways Dean suggests. However looking forward, we have some serious problems which the article does not much address:

- Universities are now mostly too large. Organisations as large as Melbourne or Monash, for example, not only suffer from managerialism, but are incapable of providing the discourse, interaction and sense of intellectural society which are critical to academic life. Undergraduate life, particularly, has become stratified away from graduates, let alone teachers, still less researchers.

- HECS was indeed a great idea as some sort of discipline on the system and upon perpetual students, but the steady increase in amount of debt accrued has become a serious problem for young employees and their families. It probably works against social equality too: what offspring of an unskilled or semi-skilled family can contemplate not just 3-plus years of study but a debt exceeding $40k, perhaps exceeding $100k, before they start "real life"?

- One consequence that has torn the guts out of undergraduate life is that students mostly spend far more time in paid part-time employment than as students. Increasingly digital approaches to teaching only make this worse and cosmetic approaches to providing "study hubs" and the like in university buildings will not change the fundamental dynamic.

- On any measure, today's undergraduates are being short-changed. They are getting vastly less lecture time (largely from sweated sessional staff, little or no tutorial and prac time as my generation understood it. They are not even getting value-for-HECS if one makes, say, a comparison with private school fees.

- University academics are not just working harder than of old - as perhaps they should be. They are largely working on unproductive bureaucratic tasks, fundraising and poorly conceived assessment measures. Work requirements of the sort imposed on academics are simply not tolerated in the better private companies whose business is ideas and consultancy.

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They say they want a revolution

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There’s plenty of scope for the federal government’s “revolution” in schooling but few signs of the ideas and resources it would require, writes Dean Ashenden


The author’s father and his pupils at Tooligie School in the 1930s. Dean Ashenden

The author’s father and his pupils at Tooligie School in the 1930s. Dean Ashenden