Tuesday, 23 March 2010

National Funding, Academic Freedom and Public Accountability: 1957

When Menzies took government in 1949, a review of universities chaired by R.C. Mills, had already been commissioned. This committee, in Menzies’ view, was limited to the assessment of the immediate financial needs of the universities. It was clear, however, that Menzies had more in mind for the future:
If we were shaping a Universities Committee to determine the scope of the universities, the subjects they should teach, and how they should teach them, a somewhat more widely constituted body…would be appropriate.[1]
This statement suggests that Menzies had, at least partly, an intention to eventually exercise some control over the academic content and teaching methods of the universities. This apparent intent to invade regions of academic freedom contradicts, however, the statement Menzies made when granting the funding recommended by the Mills report:
It is not the desire of the government to interfere in the internal management of the universities nor to attach conditions to the use of those moneys which would interfere with the traditional liberty of the universities to determine the courses of instruction that they wish to pursue or the character of the research that they wish to undertake. The Government has acknowledged the principle of academic freedom…[2]
Menzies had difficulty resolving the tension inherent in the need for knowledge: the nation needed knowledge to support economic growth and its standard of living. It also needed knowledge to support and uphold civilised, British values.[3] In supporting higher education, Menzies believed he was securing:
Immeasurable and civilizing benefits which flow or should flow from the study of, or association with the students of, humane letters.[4]
For knowledge to achieve these things, Menzies knew, academic freedom was essential. But it was also essential that universities met national needs – and some of these needs were in areas universities had not traditionally focused, as Ashby’s Technology and the Academics had shown. What guarantee would academic freedom give, that universities would use their free inquiry to explore unfamiliar disciplines? The Australian National University with it new format might help, but it was important for Menzies to somehow balance the quality of knowledge derived from free inquiry with the specific explorations required of a changing industrial economy and post-war moral and diplomatic anxieties.  Menzies’ job was to try to resolve the problems identified by the likes of Ashby and Clunies Ross. His approach to this was to position himself, personally, in a patron-like relationship to the universities.

Menzies’ autobiographical writings and orations on higher education all highlight how personally he felt about supporting the universities and building a future for higher education in Australia. One section goes so far as to suggest that the national treasurer set aside vast quantities of public funding for universities as a personal favour to Menzies:
I spoke to the Treasurer, my colleague Arthur Fadden, and warned him that I was initiating an enterprise which could not fail, in the result, to be vastly expensive. Now Arthur (or ‘Artie’) Fadden was not a graduate of any university, nor would anybody (as he would be the first to concede) have taken him for an academic type. But he had a good Australian outlook; he knew that this matter was almost an obsession with me; and he was my friend. So he gave me the all clear.[5]
I suspect that Menzies was trying to express his passion for educational reform and not to suggest, as this passage might, that to him “good” and “Australian” implied using the treasury to support any obsession the Prime Minister might possess. Indeed, more than just expressions of feeling, the personal character of his interest in Australia had an instrumental function. It was Menzies’ mechanism for maintaining the tension between the accountability for public funding necessary to parliamentary democracy and the freedom from political interference needed for quality academic inquiry. At that time only a limited number of politicians held university degrees and even those who did could not necessarily be counted on to restrain any wish to exert the power that funding might hold over university activity.  By having a personal role as a benign patron, Menzies could politely ask the universities to fulfil the needs society required while also maintaining their autonomy. University leaders might thus feel sufficiently obligated to their patron to pay attention to national needs, but would not be structurally compelled to do so. Civilisation and the nation could be supported and university autonomy retained. The system came with an expiry date, however. Menzies was, after all, only one person and, although his 14 years of Prime Ministership may have felt, to some electors, like forever, this personal, patron-like solution to the balance of autonomy and national needs could only last as long as his tenure. Menzies needed a more permanent solution, one that would systematise what he as an individual fulfilled. To design this, he looked for help to friend and British academic, Sir Keith Murray.

In 1957 Menzies commissioned Keith Murray, of the UK University Grants Committee, to chair the “more widely constituted” committee he had earlier envisaged. In three months, Murray’s committee (which included Ian Clunies Ross among its members) visited all of the Australian universities, meeting with staff, Vice-Chancellors and Registrars and collected and reviewed submissions from all interested parties. By now there were nearly 10 universities. The Australian National University and the NSW University of Technology (later called the University of New South Wales) had been added. New England had been transformed from a university college and Canberra was in the process of negotiating its conversion. Murray’s report, unlike the file now in the National Archives, is short and succinct – and contained exactly what Menzies had hoped it would. Murray’s report reaffirmed the importance of academic freedom, making it more politically palatable by styling academic inquiry in heroic terms:
These men have no immediate practical aim or profit in view: they are simply “knowledge-intoxicated” men who love the life of intellectual effort and inquiry for its own sake, and will devote their lives to it if they possibly can. Though this pure pursuit of truth seems to many to be a rather inhuman, and to some a rather super-human, kind of life, there are fortunately far more of them than most people would have thought possible.[6]
This impressive description, taking up precious space in Murray’s short report, served two purposes. One was to reassure parliament that, in granting substantial sums of money, the government was not feeding aristocratic greed, but intellectual vocation. The other was a technique Ashby had also employed: an attempt to prevent government interference by reminding them that money could not influence academics who, according to this passage, all held a monastic-like disinterest in profit. The report, almost wholly adopted by parliament, recommended a 10% annual increase in the systematic grants already in place after the Mills report, a pay rise of £500 per year for professors with increases for all other academics too, immediate capital assistance valuing in excess of £12 Million and emergency funding of more than £4.5 Million. It was substantial money and the universities felt its impact immediately.[7] Despite what seemed to be overwhelming support for higher education and its traditions, Murray warned that a streamlining of course offerings between institutions would be needed in order to ensure the efficiency of the government’s investment:
Sound university planning for expansion to meet Australian needs also requires some degree of co-ordination of the ideas and programmes among the ten universities.[8]
This co-ordination went beyond the allocation of funding for free use by universities that Menzies’ had indicated with the tabling of the Mills report. In this, Murray was describing negotiated decisions on which universities would be able to offer which courses – an expectation that, with centralised government funding across all universities there would need to be at least some centrally negotiated control. Murray justified this interference in the academic programmes of universities, explaining that the same efficiency will need to be implemented internationally. That international academics were to be equally interfered with was supposed, somehow, to make its interference in Australia acceptable:
There is no doubt that the university systems necessary to meet the future are going to make very exacting demands on the national economies. No country is going to be able to afford to be unnecessarily extravagant in duplicating expensive establishments and departments.[9]
The requirement for universities to meet national needs and be efficient, then, meant the Universities Commission, sold by Murray to the academic community as similar to the British Grants Commission, was granted a wider function by the Menzies government:
The government agreed that it [the Australian Universities Commission] should not be called a Grants Commission, for this might narrow its significance.[10]
In this respect the government did more than the Murray Committee recommended. The purpose of the Grants Commission in the UK was to provide a buffer between government and the universities, avoiding the political interference that could potentially be attached to funding allocations. The existing Universities Commission in Australia was set up, as we have seen, to enable universities to make a direct contribution to the war and post-war reconstruction under the direction of government: indeed, it was only this that made it constitutionally possible for Commonwealth funding to be granted at all. If the new Australian Universities Commission was created along the lines of its UK counterpart, it would have had less power, and certainly less connection to government, than that which had been established in Australia during the war. Far better, Menzies decided, to allow the wider ‘significance’ of the existing Commission to continue than reduce government influence from its current state. This wider role meant that, as Gallagher has shown, over time it increased government interference in university business.[11]

Although the Murray report did not recommend this expansive role for the Australian Universities Commission (with its slight name change indicating a new body), segments of the report helped the government obtain it. The report was explicit that, since the nation needed knowledge that the universities could offer, Federal funding must provide some way that the government could obtain it from the universities:
Each university naturally and rightly prizes its independence and every government in Australia will rightly desire to safeguard the independence of its own universities. In the western tradition it is entirely accepted that a university cannot perform its function without such independence. But from the point of view of government and people the national interest must be served, and universities must find some means, however informal, to enable a policy to be formed.[12]
Sir Keith Murray would never have been so crude as to suggest a financial transaction between the government and the universities, but he did hint that Commonwealth funding would be contingent on the provision of knowledge for the nation:
The universities and individual members within them will have to give the Committee a full measure of trust, goodwill and patience, if, in the end, they are to gain for themselves the facilities which they feel that they need, and to play the part which the country expects of them.[13]
Murray was attempting to place the Universities Commission in the role that Menzies had assumed, a position of patronage and trust, which would obligate the universities in exchange for financial support. By emphasising a heroic type of academic freedom but obligating the universities to the Commonwealth, he sought to resolve the tension Clunies Ross had felt so keenly: ensuring liberal knowledge and, at the same time, supporting industrial and economic imperatives.

When Menzies tabled the Murray report in Parliament on 28 November 1957, he argued that:
This new charter for the universities, as I believe it to be, should serve to open many doors and to give opportunities and advantage to many students. They will, I am sure, not forget that, under all the circumstances I have described, the community is accepting heavy burdens in order that, through the training of university graduates, the community may be served.[14]
Menzies’ language – “they will, I am sure” – is that of the parent indicating an expectation of good behaviour in exchange for an unexpected indulgence – an attitude most likely shared by many Members of Parliament and hinting, again, at the exchange of funding for service adoption of the report hoped to achieve. Stressing the nation’s need for university knowledge, Menzies went so far as to articulate a nation’s claim on the universities:
It has become demonstrably clear that a complex and highly industrialised modern society has claims upon the universities which must be met.[15]
Despite the best intentions of Murray, Menzies and others, the allocation of substantial Commonwealth funding established the possibility that the government might have some right to the ownership of university knowledge. This right was obtained through funding – the condition in which Menzies said society could make a claim on universities was through its “great responsibilities for seeing that those claims can be met”.[16] Such funding thus created a sense of reciprocal responsibility that started to resemble an exchange of money for knowledge. 

Menzies and Beazley were among the most sympathetic of politicians to the importance of academic autonomy and intellectual freedom in ensuring the integrity and value of university-based knowledge. They both spoke at length in the parliamentary session of 28 November. Other members spoke too, supporting the report or discussing its details: one attempted to ensure university buildings would be noble, not just utilitarian, while another wanted assurance that Adelaide, which he said had spent more on buildings than others, would not thereby miss out. Frank Crean, Labor member for Melbourne Ports, wished to ensure technological education received an equal share of funding as more traditional disciplines. But it was Liberal Member for Warringah, Francis Bland, whose comments point to the ways that substantial Commonwealth funding was likely lead to increased sense of government investment and thus some sense of ownership in universities and in knowledge. Pointing out the size of university annual expenditure – budgets that were growing too, of course, with the acceptance of the report – universities, he said were “big-time business requiring first-class managerial ability”. Such skills, he said could not necessarily be “found in academic circles” and thus there was no guarantee that Commonwealth funding would be used in the universities “to the best advantage”. He said:
It is not enough to simply pour in large sums of money. We must also see that the organization of the universities is capable of such development that the funds provided will be used in the best possible way.[17]
Taxes in a democracy are “consensual”, Conrad Russell has shown, “and consent must rest on some understanding about how they are to be used”.[18] The difficult balance is that research is necessarily unknown and, Russell argues, there is no valid comparable measure for its cost – and nor can there be, he says, if the research is real and therefore has uncertain outcomes.[19] Menzies and Murray sought to create a system of obligation that would manage this tension, but in so doing created the possibility for exchange, making knowledge potentially purchasable and putting the government in a position to gradually take control.

[1] House of Representatives Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities, 9 March, 1950,"  (1950): 571.
[2] House of Representatives Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "States Grants (Universities) Bill, 27 November 1951,"  (1951), 2787.
[3] Bessant, "Robert Gordon Menzies and Education in Australia."
[4] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities Committee Report 28 November 1957," 2696.
[5] Menzies, The Measure of the Years, 87.
[6] Keith A.H. Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities,"  (1957). page
[7] Patrick O'Farrell, UNSW: A Portrait. The University of New South Wales 1949-1999 (Sydney: UNSW Press, 1999). Page Brown, Governing Prosperity: Social Change and Social Analysis in Australia in the 1950s. page
[8] Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities," 84.
[9] Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities," 85.
[10] Menzies, The Measure of the Years, 90. See also A.P. Gallagher, Coordinating Australian University Development: A Study of Australian Universities Commission 1959-1970 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1982).
[11] Gallagher, Coordinating Australian University Development: A Study of Australian Universities Commission 1959-1970.
[12] Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities," 93.
[13] Murray et al., "Report of the Committee on Australian Universities," 107.
[14] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities Committee Report 28 November 1957," 2701.
[15] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities Committee Report 28 November 1957," 2701.
[16] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities Committee Report 28 November 1957," 2701.
[17] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, "Universities Committee Report 28 November 1957," 2715.
[18] Russell, Academic Freedom, 10.
[19] Russell, Academic Freedom. pages

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