Australian Liberals ‘rejected founder’s higher education ideals’

Liberal politicians glorify Robert Menzies but few share his love for universities, says former Melbourne v-c Glyn Davis

March 1, 2021
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with both hands up to illustrate Australia parliament rejection.
Source: Getty

Political scientist Glyn Davis is “genuinely puzzled” that Australia’s dominant parliamentary party has forsaken the instinctive support for universities espoused by its founding father.

In an essay published by the journal Meanjin, Professor Davis argues that the Liberal Party has abandoned Robert Menzies’ view of universities as a civilising force. “The man who founded the Liberal Party carried into public life a distinctive, thoughtful and coherent vision of the role of the university in society,” the essay contends.

Menzies thought that universities should “share the riches of civilisation, preserve pure knowledge and embrace values that are ‘other than pecuniary’”, it says. “He saw universities as absolutely central to his mission and his proudest achievement as prime minister,” Professor Davis told Times Higher Education. “It’s hard to think of a Liberal prime minister who might have said that in the years since.”

The essay cites last year’s Job-ready Graduates reforms as the strongest sign that the party had renounced the Menzies view. The reforms’ goal – to make students “switch from the humanities so beloved by Menzies” into more vocational degrees – was not anchored in any clear principles or guiding educational philosophy,” Professor Davis writes.

He insisted that he was “not trying to be accusatory” with the essay, a rare incursion into higher education commentary since he stepped down as vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne in 2018. “I’m trying to think it through and understand what changed. I don’t know that I’ve got a complete answer.”

Many assume that Liberal politicians mistrust universities as hotbeds of the left – a view reinforced last year by the government’s repeated interventions to exclude them from the JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme. Professor Davis offers a more nuanced view: that the Liberal “imagination” for universities has eroded, partly because of their cost.

As the essay notes, Menzies understood that his higher education ideals risked clashing with budgetary realities. “Unless there is early and substantial modification of the university pattern, away from the traditional 19th-century model on which it is now based, it may not…be practicable for Australian governments to meet all the needs for university education,” the then prime minister told parliament in 1963.

Professor Davis offered another potential explanation for the Liberal change of heart. “The universities that Menzies knew in the 1920s and 1930s were where the boys from private schools went,” he told THE. “They were relatively conservative institutions.

“As participation widened dramatically, the [people] who went to university – and their politics – probably changed quite a lot. That may have something to do with why contemporary Liberal politicians are a lot less sympathetic to universities than their predecessors.”

While conventional wisdom associates academia with leftist sympathies, a straw poll of the sector reveals a more ambiguous story. The only recent Australian vice-chancellor to enter politics, the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Celia Hammond, is a Liberal. Both Labor and Liberal have former academics as serving MPs, while universities and their lobby groups have employed former politicians from both sides.

But universities’ most ardent critics tend to be conservatives, Professor Davis noted. “The [Liberal-National] Coalition has held the Treasury benches for nearly 60 of the 90 years since the Great Depression,” the essay observes. “If the party of government has an issue with public universities, then the sector faces a difficult future.”

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