Monday, 22 March 2010

The emergence of the idea of knowledge for the nation: ANU


As a result of the war, several new characteristics needed from university knowledge had started to emerge. The need for innovation, research and development was becoming a priority over the traditions of scholarship and teaching that had long dominated Australian universities.[1] Connections between academic researchers, government and industry were being made through the war, as efforts to keep up with the enemy’s military machine were imperative. These connections complicated university knowledge but even Clunies Ross, whose fear for civilisation of the fragmentation of knowledge was substantial, could see that Australia’s economic and agricultural future relied on the research and development a network of government, industry and universities encouraged – these connections and their consequences are the subject of the next chapter. It was not only for scientific and economic development that new research was required. The war, to a degree, represented an effort to protect civilised (and British) values that were, according to an epistemology common amongst intellectual leaders, underpinned by knowledge. But the war had also shown that civilised values – and indeed, with a large enough bomb, civilisation – could be threatened by knowledge. This shook previously held certainties and, combined with fragmenting knowledge and increasingly specialised disciplines, suggested the need for ever-expanding inquiry – a new focus on research.[2]

For all these reasons, the Commonwealth government’s interest in higher education grew and it implemented some measures that could lead to its having some control in the production of knowledge. Energetic government administrator during and after the war, HC (Nugget) Coombs, said in an oral history interview that all these ideas had had been floating around until they coalesced in a scheme for a new type of university, based within the Federal government’s reach in Canberra:
We had ideas about the need for research in medicine, ideas about research in the social sciences so that they could be applied to the conduct of our collective affairs. There was an opportunity from Australia to get a view of the universe and to come to understand it which was unique … it came out of work that Post-War Reconstruction was doing that … they could be grouped and combined into an institution which provided opportunities for those things.[3]
Given the difficulties traditional universities were having resolving the relative civilising value of science, technology and the humanities – and probably their constitutional distance from Commonwealth influence – a new, research-only university was established in 1946: the Australian National University. This offered the opportunity to join emerging types of knowledge in a single institution, conforming to Ashby’s and Clunies Ross’ idealised unity of knowledge: indeed Ashby managed to have an influence on the scheme just before he left Australia.[4]

The Australian National University was intended, from its strategic location with the Commonwealth government in Canberra, to contribute to the technologies of war, military strategy, social change, international and Pacific policy development and medicine.[5] Jealous, perhaps, of its direct access to the federal treasury, staff in other Australian universities tended to see the Australian National University as the Commonwealth government’s pet institution. There were indeed some issues with government interference in the university’s early days – its planners were not even able to select the name of the university. When the 1946 government, with Dedman as champion, approved the establishment of the university, cabinet insisted on its current name, which all planners and academics hated, since it “smacked of nationalised knowledge, a nexus between state and university…”.[6]  Then head of CSIR, David Rivett, summed it up by saying that, whenever he heard “The Australian National University” he wanted to add “Pty Ltd”.[7] Research was needed, as Foster and Varghese show, to optimistically solve the problems the war had presented – “a kind of intellectual power house for the rebuilding of society”.[8] And where society was to be rebuilt, many academics at the new university feared, in the shadow of the Federal parliament, how independent would scholarly enquiry be?
The Australian National University was thus in a risky position in terms of intellectual freedom, uniquely funded by the Commonwealth at a rate transparently higher than the State universities and precariously close to national decision-makers. Furthermore, a number of the university’s founders and foundation professors – including Nugget Coombs, Mark Oliphant and Howard Florey – spent time with Prime Minister Chifley, making the university appear potentially as an arm of the Federal government.[9]  And indeed this had been the idea. Knowledge was needed for the nation, scientific, medical, technological, social and humane. But, as Ashby and others had shown and as the tradition of the university maintained, academic freedom – the freedom to choose what and how to research and teach, to spend its money as it sees fit and to choose its own means of governance and discipline – was essential for a university to do its job.[10] Furthermore, the Australian National University would have no credibility, its academic staff feared, if its reputation was tainted by its proximity to politicians. However suspect this situation was for academic autonomy, and despite the transparent need for knowledge for the nation, effort was made, especially by key Federal politicians, to preserve the university’s autonomy and the independence of the research conducted within it. Chifley established a convention of deflecting any parliamentary questions about the university by saying it was “the University’s business”, a simple step that helped prevent Commonwealth intrusions.[11]
Chifley lost government to Menzies’ Liberal Party at the end of 1949, when the Australian National University was still in its infancy. Menzies, with an Oxford-based education, was fond of the universities and was determined to both support them and uphold the tradition of academic freedom. Foster and Varghese say, “With Copland [the Vice-Chancellor] vigilant and Menzies benign, the University remained fairly safe from ill-disposed politicians”. The problem, as we will see, is that it was the well-intentioned politicians universities needed to fear.
While the Australian National University was at risk of intrusions into academic freedom – particularly during the Cold War, as the next chapter will explore – State responsibility did not make the other universities immune to interference. Eric Ashby had said:
In Australia it is extremely important that the tradition of academic freedom should be preserved, and that advantage should be taken of it: for the opportunities for political and sectarian interference in education are greater here than in other British countries.[12]
Geoffrey Blainey, writing a history of the University of Melbourne in 1956, described that university’s tendency to conduct its business in the way it imagined the Victorian government would like – during the Second World War, for instance, two otherwise innocent staff members had been dismissed for being German. Blainey, only just over a decade from the end of the war, suggested that the Melbourne university council might not have been inherently over-zealous in their nationalism in this, however:
In justice to the council, its conduct may have reflected the dilemma which had often troubled its members, the dilemma of whether a university which depended on the financial aid of the state would be wise to defy the strong feelings of a majority of its people.[13]
That universities were making decisions, apparently all along, with one eye on their source of funding does not reflect the sort of autonomy and intellectual freedom that Ashby had said was a precondition to the type of knowledge society needed. In fact, some politicians thought this was a problem too. Jim Cairns, longstanding Labor MP in opposition to Menzies, said in parliament that universities’ inhibitions in standing up to the governments that funded them reflected “a pigeon-livered attitude”.[14] The session of parliament in which he made this accusation was one of the most important in the history of Australian universities: 28 November 1957, when Menzies presented the report of Universities Committee chaired by Sir Keith Murray.


[1] xxx
[2] This is consistent with Lyotard’s claim that a research focus is a result of a shift away from certain and encyclopaedic knowledge. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
[3] H.C. Coombs, "Interview with H.C "Nugget" Coombs," ed. Director/ProducerFrank Heimans  Executive ProducerRon Saunders Interviewer: Robin Hughes (Film Australia Australian Biography Series: http://www.australianbiography.gov.au/coombs/, 1992).
[5] SG Foster and Margaret M Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin, 1996).
[6] Foster and Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University, 14.
[7] Foster and Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University, 14.
[8] HC (Nugget) Coombs, quoted in Foster and Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University, 19.
[9] Foster and Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University. 
[10] See Russell, Academic Freedom.
[11] Foster and Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University, 114.
[12] Ashby, Challenge to Education, p.vi
[13] Blainey, The University of Melbourne: A Centenary Portrait, 28.
[14] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities Committee Report 28 November 1957," 2711.

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