Roger Scott’s trilogy on the state of higher education raised a number of important issues, several of which might have led me to the keyboard, but his observations about the former colleges of advanced education (CAEs) seem particularly worthy of further comment.
The now defunct CAE system was (on the best interpretation) widely misunderstood within much of the university sector or (on the worst) deliberately misrepresented to defend a privileged position. That confusion (putting it politely) continues to this day with even those too young to have been in the sector in the 1980s criticising John Dawkins for dismantling a reasonably well-functioning binary system.
Closer to the truth, the system was essentially dismantling itself, as the model was frozen in the late 1960s. Long before the Dawkins changes (I eschew the value-laden “reforms”), the only way in which the system could be accurately described as “binary” concerned the distribution of resources, with universities explicitly funded for their research activities.
In terms of what was happening within the system, neither universities nor CAEs represented internally homogeneous sectors. Just as older universities (which would become the Group of Eight) saw themselves as superior to the newer, so did the larger institutes of technology see themselves as the cream of the non-university sector. Indeed, they had established an earlier version of the GO8—the (eventually nine) Directors of Central Institutes of Technology (DOCIT), seeking to act as a coherent lobby group and, in the process, put some distance between themselves and the other “inferior” CAEs.
By the mid 1980s, the CAEs were able to take advantage of the growing numbers of doctoral graduates, and staff profiles (far from the elitist characterisation of “trumped up tech teachers”) started to change accordingly. Granted, this was more the case in some disciplines than others, but nor was it true that every university academic staff member in that era had a doctorate either, especially those appointed decades earlier. Indeed, in the late 1970s, I worked in a department where one of the professors possessed a BA and three journal articles/chapters (two, if you don’t count self-plagiarism). But, he thought a lot!
While some PhD graduates may seek a research-free life post-graduation, it would be surprising if that were the norm. In many cases, doctorally qualified CAE staff pursued modest research activities within their colleges, sometimes backed by some level of institutional funding. While capital-intensive projects could not be undertaken on the same scale as universities, the annual reports of many CAEs in the pre-Dawkins period revealed some impressive research outcomes from an interesting array of colleges, with some securing research funding from private industry. In addition, CAE staff were sometimes collaborators with university staff (often their former supervisors) in externally-funded research projects.
Roger is right to acknowledge the role of the CAEs in serious vocational preparation and their focus on student engagement, that legacy living on in the “Dawkins universities”. Of course, the definition of “vocational” was reasonably imprecise, since the older universities were surely also involved in “vocational” education—in areas such as Law and Medicine. Moreover, in many areas of study, while the teaching approach may have differed between university and CAE, the content was similar or virtually identical. I discerned no great difference between the syllabus for Applied Sociology at the CAE where I worked and that for the (presumably “non-applied”) Sociology ten kilometres down the road at the nearest university. This was gradually evidenced in credit transfer arrangements, albeit granted reluctantly, at first, on the university side.
To complete this picture of blurred boundaries between sectors, it should be noted that a number of CAEs in certain jurisdictions, already offering research Masters degrees, gained approval to offer PhD programs in designated areas. The CAEs were not a research-free zone.
While the blurred boundaries of the binary system were increasingly apparent, a state government decision in 1986 served as an immediate game-changer. That year, the Western Australian parliament conferred university status on the former Western Australian Institute of Technology. It became Curtin University of Technology, followed in 1987 by the New South Wales Institute of Technology becoming the University of Technology Sydney. This left Dawkins to choose between acquiescing in the ad-hoc creation of new universities or attempting to impose an orderly national framework. The Green Paper appeared in December 1987 and the White Paper in July 1988.
Of course, to admit that the system was broken is not to endorse every aspect of Dawkins’ version of the solution. Indeed, one might detect elements of a poor man’s Karl Marx—a reasonable analysis of the problem, but serious questions about parts of the proposed remedy.
Roger’s comments on research grants mania would be endorsed by many in the sector and his colleague’s quote about the Melbourne Cup being awarded to the horse that eats the most oats was wonderful. The endless focus on grants won rather than results achieved is truly mystifying, and frustrating in those disciplines where the key requirement for research is not truck loads of money but (as a Law professor once told me) “to be bloody left alone”. Moreover, it is curious that universities, when it suits them, can boast of being run like businesses, but can anyone imagine BHP allowing such a high proportion of relevant staff to devote days/weeks/months to an activity (in the universities, grant applications) with an average success rate of less than twenty per-cent (with of course, much lower rates in many institutions)?
Another point relates to the size of universities and Roger’s endorsement of smaller, even single-discipline institutions is no less valid for being (as he admits) unlikely to be acted upon. The economies of scale god can be a flawed deity.
Finally, Roger’s article contains the important reminder that the notion of a university is not fixed: it is a contestable concept, ever evolving. In the past, after a couple of glasses of a decent red, I have been capable of asserting that a “real” university requires departments of both Philosophy and Physics. These days, it takes me four glasses to get to that point.
As for John Dawkins, despite the misrepresentations, he didn’t kill the binary system, which was already on life support, but he did organise the funeral.
Paul Rodan is an adjunct professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Swinburne University of Technology. In prior lives, he worked at the University of Queensland, La Trobe University, Caulfield/Chisholm Institute of Technology, Monash University and Central Queensland University, involving a variety of academic and administrative roles, plus sessional teaching stints at Queensland Institute of Technology and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. He is also a Research Associate of the TJ Ryan Foundation.