Backbiting in a backwater

March 28, 1997

In the past 30 years I have been associated with 100 vice chancellors. Ten prime ministers have come and gone in Australia and the higher education system has been transformed from a group of 14 elite institutions with an enrolment of 69,000, all aspiring to emulate Oxbridge, to become a vigorous and diverse group of 36 publicly-funded universities with nearly 650,000 students.

These institutions now lead the world in distance education, bringing in close to Aus$2 billion (Pounds 1 billion) in overseas earnings. Yet they are facing major cuts to funding despite a vigorous fight to make the conservative government of John Howard aware ofits folly.

In the early days the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee was run very much like a club. Members used to meet five times a year for two days. Now we seem to be able to deal with much more complex business in just one day.

Australia was a prosperous, conservative backwater until the late 1960s. But unrest came from the radical student movements of Europe. It was all to do with the democratisation of universities but the Vietnam War and conscription got caught up in it.

Students wanted a say in the way universities were run. Vice chancellors faced sit-ins and some could not get into their offices for weeks on end. Students rifled through their files, painted graffiti all round the walls. This behaviour was antithetical to the whole notion of universities. It was direct action, some of it very violent and very nasty.

For all that vice chancellors were outraged at the behaviour of their radical students, they were right behind them when the government of the day tried to impose a heavy hand over the issue of student confidentiality. We stood together when the government threatened legislation compelling universities to name students avoiding conscription. The vice chancellors said they would go to gaol before they would surrender that information and the government backed down.

Those student leaders are now in Parliament. Leader of the opposition Kim Beazley Jr came to talk to the vice chancellors in the late 1960s as a student leader. Tom Roper, who became a minister in the Victorian government, Bob Pierce who became minister for education in Western Australia, and John Bannon, who became premier of South Australia, were all prominent student politicians.

A watershed occurred in the early 1970s when the Whitlam Labor government came to power. It abolished university fees and created the notion that a university education should be free. The then minister for education, Kim Beazley Sr, two vice chancellors, Sir David Derham and Sir Zelman Cowen, some department of education and science officials and I negotiated the deal in September 1973. That coincided with the Commonwealth government taking over full responsibility for university funding. Prior to that there was shared funding with the states. The universities had to negotiate with two sets of bureaucracies and it was a real juggling act. Even today, universities are still state institutions, set up under state acts and having to make an annual report to the state parliament.

The major step in transformation began with a report by Sir Leslie Martin in 1961 that recommended setting up colleges of advanced education (CAEs). "Equal but different" and "parity of esteem" were the phrases used to describe the colleges which, like the British polytechnics, were to focus on vocational education.

As things unfolded, the colleges became more and more like universities. Their staff wanted the same salaries as their university counterparts, and the colleges wanted to award degrees and introduce masters programmes. Eventually, after two government inquiries, academic salaries were made the same and the colleges were permitted to award degrees.

But the colleges still could not get funding to do research, and they could not award doctoral degrees. They continued to agitate about those two issues for the next ten years and eventually, when John Dawkins became minister for education, it was recognised that some were already offering doctoral degrees, although with overseas universities, and some were very successful in getting research grants from industry.

The face of higher education changed even more dramatically in 1988 when Mr Dawkins announced the amalgamation of the CAEs with the universities. The demise of the binary system and the birth of a unified national system brought an upheaval in funding. The Australian Research Council instituted a "clawback" of research funds from the original universities to be redistributed among the newly created ones. One of my tasks was to soothe the ill feelings this created among AVCC members.

Since the unified national system was put in place, universities have been subjected to a string of reviews and assessments - of their quality assurance mechanisms (for three years in a row), their profiles, their management structures, their academic standards, and their audit procedures. Institutions have been reviewed almost to a standstill. It reached a point where they were spending nearly as much time and effort answering questions for government as they were on teaching and research. (The AVCC itself has not escaped the review process. In 1995, we instituted an internal review which resulted in a tightening of its standing committee structure and a realignment of secretariat expertise.) Shortly after coming to power in March 1996, the government announced (as new governments do) that the previous regime had left the economy in a much worse state than expected, and that promises made in their pre-election higher education policy might now be "all off" in the interests of finding budget cuts totalling Aus$8 billion over two years.

Education minister, Amanda Vanstone, sent shock waves through the system when she announced at an AVCC dinner that the cuts might be as high as 12 per cent. We were prepared to concede that she might have made the comment half-jokingly but the joke was lost on the vice chancellors who heard it.

After that now-famous dinner, the AVCC and the universities conducted the campaign of their lives to convince the government not to renege on its pre-election promises to maintain operating grants and research grants. It was an eventful time for me to be stepping aside. I will miss the excitement.

Frank Hambly was secretary, and most recently executivedirector, of the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee. He retired at the end of 1996.

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