Cambridge don rattles deans

February 7, 1997

CONTROVERSY continues to dog the Australian government's appointment of a committee to advise on the future of higher education for the next 20 years.

Deans of education have called for the sacking of committee chairman, former private school headmaster Roderick West, over his claims that vocational courses have no place in universities. Business groups also attacked the claims and warned that they might not bother to make submissions.

The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee was similarly critical of the appointment of Sir David Williams, vice chancellor of Cambridge University until his retirement last year, as a consultant to the committee. AVCC executive director Stuart Hamilton said the appointment reinforced Australia's colonial origins.

Mr Hamilton told one journalist that "asking a Briton to cast the imperial ruler over us in the 1990s is somewhat unnecessary" and said he was surprised the government believed it needed the opinion of the British when Australia had plenty of people with vast experience who could have been asked.

The acting president of the committee, Geoff Wilson, said he was also surprised by Sir David's appointment. "The review committee will certainly need to look at trends overseas but I would have thought Australia has enough expertise regarding the future of higher education to draw on."

The National Tertiary Education Union backed the AVCC's criticism saying there were a number of retired vice chancellors who were far more experienced in Australian higher education than Sir David could possibly be.

The union feared the appointment would pre-empt the outcome of the review, given that Sir David came from an elite research university and that therefore the contributions of smaller universities in applied research would be undervalued.

Sir David has spent four periods at Australian universities over the past 30 years. He was here last year as a visiting fellow at the Australian National University.

The chair of the Victorian Deans of Education, Richard Bates, said that Mr West's bias was clear.

"Mr West's pre-emptive statement that vocational courses have no place in universities, if endorsed by the committee, would present the government with a drastic programme of elimination of courses such as law, medicine, architecture, engineering, agriculture, business, accounting, journalism, computing and applied science," he said.

He said the implication that the preparation of contemporary teachers was no business of the university was of equally great concern.

Mr West's failure to recognise the vocational role of the university in the contemporary world, and most particularly the place of teacher education in the university, suggested a more appropriate chair should be appointed to the committee.

Mr West, however, appears to be unfazed by the storm his comments have created and has not qualified his earlier remarks.

He has begun travelling across Australia, meeting the other six members of the committee and talking to his critics. In Melbourne last week, he held discussions with the NTEU and the National Union of Students.

The full committee will not meet until February 11 but Mr West has already prepared a programme of visits to all of Australia's universities.

In May he will travel around Asia and to Britain, Scandinavia and possibly the United States. Then it will be time to sit down and begin reading the 1,000 or so submissions he expects the committee will receive.

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