Announcing his plans for university reform on 19 June, the minister for education, Dan Tehan, did as many of his predecessors have done. He invoked Robert Menzies.
Here is an extract from Tehan’s speech at the National Press Club:
When Australia was rebuilding after World War II, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, recognised the important role of universities in educating Australians to power our economic recovery.
Funding and enrolment growth for universities increased sustainably under Menzies, and more Australians were given the opportunity to obtain a degree.
Australia harnessed its higher education system to drive its recovery from World War II and make our nation stronger than before the war started.
By harnessing our higher education system once again we can drive our recovery from COVID-19.
Like so many nods to the past deployed by politicians, this reference distorts the historical record. Menzies repeatedly made it clear that the value he saw in higher education went well beyond the economic. Take this extract from his 1942 Forgotten People speech:
Are the universities mere technical schools, or have they as one of their functions the preservation of pure learning, bringing in its train not merely riches for the imagination but a comparative sense for the mind, and leading to what we need so badly — the recognition of values which are other than pecuniary.
David Furse-Roberts presented an excellent account of Menzies’ attitudes and actions on education in an essay published last year in Quadrant called ‘A Rugged Honesty of Mind: Menzies and Education’. It should be compulsory reading for all education ministers wanting to recruit Menzies to their reformist ventures. They would see that Menzies was fully aware his plans to expand universities would cost the federal government an enormous amount of money. Nevertheless, he persisted.
Furse-Roberts does not discuss the Martin review Menzies commissioned in 1961 to ‘consider the pattern of tertiary education in relation to the needs and resources of Australia, and to make recommendations to the Commission on the future development of tertiary education’. But it too deserves consideration by contemporary policy makers, who purport to be striving for an integrated tertiary education sector. The principle underpinning the Martin review, which resulted in the binary system of universities and colleges of advanced education, came from Sir Harold Robbins who was tackling the same questions in the United Kingdom of how to expand tertiary education:
tertiary education should be available to all citizens according to their inclination and capacity.
Most regrettably, Tehan’s proposals ignore that vital ingredient for success in both learning and life: motivation.
Menzies supported the idea of a national university that would focus on researching issues directly relevant to the national interest. But he also championed pure learning and ‘the unfettered search for truth’. He considered that these things contributed to a civilised life, the goal of his education policies.
Today’s proposed reform of humanities education, as well as the government’s lacklustre support for arts and culture and for the ABC, suggest our leaders are retreating from the aim of creating a better Australia to one that can produce good-sounding statistics about jobs and growth. The latter are important but without the fulfilment of talent, the creation of social wellbeing and a celebration of beauty, the numbers add up to a nation in decline.
Historians do, sometimes, point out inconvenient facts: Cook did not circumnavigate Australia; Australia did have slave labour (and arguably still does); Menzies believed in learning for its own sake. That is no reason to send a price signal to students dissuading them to study history, which offers policy makers so much if they choose to overcome the presentism of contemporary debate. Were they to champion the humanities and agree with Menzies that progress means embracing not just the utilitarian and profit but also ideas of tranquillity and leisure, we would be heading towards real prosperity.
Surely, in these weird days of COVID-19 we deserve leaders who share Menzies’ yearning for the company of books and conversation with friends, rather than people who selectively quote or misquote him and focus only on the prosaic and the next poll.