ROGER SCOTT. 1987 and the “Dawkins Revolution”.

Jan 9, 2018

This is part 2 of my response to an invitation to share my memories linked to the release of Cabinet papers from 1987. Here I will focus on the tertiary education reforms instituted by federal Education Minister John Dawkins.

The Dawkins reforms were proposed in Higher education: a policy discussion paper, a Green Paper published in December 1987. This was followed by a White Paper: Higher education: a policy statement published in July 1988.


By the middle of 1987, I had completed a decade of service at the University of Queensland, first as a Professor of Public Administration, and then facing the prospect of completing a second term in one of the elected offices within the university administration. I was appointed Principal of the Canberra College of Advanced Education later that year.  My colleagues on the top storey of the University of Queensland administration block had regarded my appointment with levels of puzzlement: people leaving the presidency of the Academic Board who did not wish to relax back into their previous professorial duties tended to aim at, and often win, leadership positions in ‘real’ universities.

Viewed from a university ivory tower, CAEs were barely above the basement occupied by TAFE. But I was the oddball, having somehow managed in 1977 to scale the parapet and be promoted from a principal lectureship at the Canberra CAE, to the professorship in Queensland.   So the Canberra CAE was literally going home. It was a move that took place after a decade during which my oddball background led to invitations to serve on various national committees of inquiry such as the Ralph Committee on Management Education and on accreditation panels for various state governments charged with accountability for college-level institutions. In as much as I had a ‘research’ record, it was mainly focussed on tertiary administration and in particular on the relationship between CAEs (especially former teachers colleges), universities and state government employing authorities.

My first task as Principal of the (then) Canberra College of Advanced Education was to provide its Council with a briefing paper on the significance of the Green Paper for the College and specifically future relationships with the other tertiary institutions in the ACT.

John Dawkins had the definitive answer and he told me so in no uncertain terms. He wanted all the values identified within the CCAE to be rubbed off on the ANU, particularly valuing teaching and community engagement and the vocational focus on courses like education, nursing, librarianship and public sector management. The expanded ANU would be the flagship for the new Unified National System. This would replace the binary system of CAEs and universities, recommended by the Martin Committee, and then implemented by John Gorton in 1965.

Glyn Davis has written widely on ‘the Australian idea of a university’ including the published version of the Boyer Lecture series with its focus on how higher education transforms Australia (The Republic of Learning: Higher Education Transforms Australia, Harper Collins, Sydney, 2010). But his recent book, The Australian Idea of a University (Melbourne University Press, 2017) is a damning indictment, warning of the dangers and costs created by the Unified National System. Painting on a wide historical canvas stretching across the British empire, he shows how a particular definition of a university took root in colonial days. As he notes, ‘institutions are often “path dependent”, staying close to their original inspiration’ and the incentives to standardisation proved stronger than any capacity to tolerate diversity.

This led to certain characteristics becoming reified as essential to being a ‘real’ university.  Some of these characteristics were modified under local community pressure, such as diverging from the ‘metropolitan’ model by allowing creation of campuses outside the major population centres. Davis has a chapter on the ‘attempts to leave the path’ with Armidale cited as one example. Canberra itself personified this in its early relationship with the University of Melbourne before the Canberra University College became part of the ANU in 1960.

The two dominant and persistent characteristics identified by Davis are ‘comprehensiveness’ and ‘research focus’. And, in turn, Davis sees Dawkins using legislative force to impose this single model when he created the Unified National System. Dawkins thus rendered the whole system impervious to the diversity and flexibility needed as technological change continues to create alternatives which will render the current model redundant.

As Principal of the CCAE, I had the enthusiasm of Dawkins, his advisers and the federal bureaucracy on the side of the merger, ranged against the international firepower and political sympathisers resisting any change to the ANU (see Scott R, ‘Resisting Amalgamation from a Position of Weakness‘). Many staff in both institutions feared the impact of any diversity created by the merger. Incongruous new subjects and staff without research qualifications might challenge the conventional model of a university with international standing, and it might also weaken the ANU’s capacity for attracting overseas students in an unregulated competitive market.

After 1987, a great deal of very murky water flowed under the bridge before the ultimate resolution. A number of unlikely actors became involved. The Canberra CAE found friends in unexpected places in resisting the merger. Davis does not discuss this period of Canberra history but, based on his first principles, he ought to welcome an outcome which increased diversity, even if the University of Canberra, born in 1990, still operates within the institutional and financial straightjacket imposed by the Unified National System.

Davis also points the way towards a more sensible structure in which diversity and flexibility can be encouraged, even it involves universities (as currently defined) being subject to advice from a Platonic body of experts motivated by wider concerns for the future of higher education. Davis suggests a revived Australian Tertiary Education Commission to oversee policy implementation from vocational education to doctoral programs, and to offer a wider perspective than the current debates on funding and nurture rather than resisting new players.

In his concluding paragraph, Davis somewhat optimistically suggests that ‘fortunately we have a public university sector skilled at responding to profound challenge. With the right policy settings, Australia can trade a single history for diversity, one path for many.’  I wish this book had been available in 1987 and hope it becomes as influential as it ought to be in 2018.

Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Foundation Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.

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