Monday, 14 December 2009

Technology and the university: two British scientists in Australia

When botanist Eric Ashby arrived in Australia in 1939, his ideas about higher education were already compelling. Ashby’s subsequent experiences in science policy during the Second World War then combined with ideas formed by scholarly networks in the pre-war Empire. These led him to consider how technology, needed for national development after the war, could be integrated into academic traditions.

The war changed everything for the universities. Old networks of scholars were complicated by new relationships with the state and industry and new public concerns. This paper discusses the contrasting networks that influenced the ideas of two British academic leaders after the Second World War. Eric Ashby, influential in higher education throughout the Commonwealth, held ideas informed by a pre-war scholarly environment. Another British scientist who travelled to Australia, John Philip Baxter, though only one year younger than Ashby, was influenced by an altogether different network.

Baxter had spent significant time in nuclear facilities in the United States and contributed to the construction of British nuclear weapons during the war. When the war was over, he was disappointed that public sentiment led his employer, Imperial Chemical Industries, to shut down its work in atomic power. Feeling that he might have more influence in Australia, in 1949 Baxter accepted an academic post in Sydney.  By 1952 he was Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales.  Baxter’s goal, like Ashby’s, was the promotion of technology in the university system. However, his notion of scholarship and his ideas about the university were very different. Where Ashby promoted technology while preserving scholarly values, Baxter sought to transform scholarship to align to the values of industry.

Comparing networks of pre-war Empire with post-Empire Australia, this paper examines the emergence of a longstanding uncertainty about the focus of higher education: specific professional competencies or unique, creative intellectualism.

This is the abstract that I submitted to Scholarly Networks in the British Empire for July 2010.

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