Inside Story

Decline and fall?

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

Dean Ashenden 22 November 2012 3917 words

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. •