Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Notes on Eric Ashby

Professor Eric Ashby – listed as a Baron in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) (and I thought Barons only existed in Georgette Heyer novels) was a British man who was professor of Botany at the University of Sydney from 1938 maybe to around 1946 with a few other jobs in the middle. These other jobs included chairing the Australian National Research Council, advising the Chifley government on the allocation of intellectual resources for the war, some sort of consular-advisory kind of role in Moscow and a “peripheral” involvement in the planning of the Australian National University (ANU). The ODNB lists a range of incomprehensible achievements in Botany amongst his work at Sydney, later at Manchester and then his work as an educational administrator as Vice-Chancellor at Belfast and some other leadership role in one of the Colleges at Cambridge.

According to the ODNB it was at Belfast (1950-1959) that Ashby realised he was “more interested in problems about people than problems about plants” and in “teaching and educational issues”. It was in this period that he wrote the book Technology and the Academics. If Ashby only just realised this then, this is somewhat surprising. The role with the Chifley government should be enough to demonstrate that Ashby’s strength from the 1940s was in thinking about the universities, but so should the large number of pamphlets, radio broadcasts, journal articles and the book entitled Challenge to Education, compiling a range of these in 1946.

Ashby seems to have been one of those people who can capture an audience with their charisma and clever words - and his writing is seriously charming. Now we must remember that universities in the 1940s and 1950s were, as they are today, looking for funding, and constantly in a position of needing to justify to the public why they ought to be supported at all and why they need more support than they currently have.

You would expect, during and just after the Second World War, universities had really obvious reasons to exist and be publicly (well) funded. And indeed eventually (delayed by constitutional issues as much as anything else) the Commonwealth government did inject really significant funding after implementing the Murray Report of 1957 (of course it was still not enough money, despite being really quite a lot). The war had shown that new research – especially in science and technology – gave enormous strategic and economic advantage to the nation that could possess it. As well, the war had raised concerns in the public consciousness over issues of morality and national ethics, leading to a rise in research in the social sciences as well.

Despite all these circumstances and incentives Ashby avoided what must have been an obvious argument to make – that Australia - economically, politically and morally - could not afford to not fund universities adequately. Ashby did say that Australia couldn’t afford to not fund universities, but for quite different reasons. And I suspect he went to great pains to deliberately avoid the obvious ones. I’ll try to explain why.

To see the full text, go to http://docs.google.com/Doc?id=dfqggshp_19hjf5dtdt

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