Monday, 19 April 2010

Universities as Public Utilities

Baxter embraced the reconstruction of the university as a public utility, but everyone in the university felt it, many with some regret. The ‘service station’ versus ‘ivory tower’ debate that we saw in chapter one had raged through the universities in the 1950s coalesced, by the mid-1960s, to a certainty. As political philosopher PH (Perce) Partridge put it:
It is no longer a wry jest: universities are now, in considerable part, public utilities or instrumentalities. They are being increasingly supported by governments from public funds because they carry out public functions, as hospitals and public transport systems do.[1]
Compare, for example, two cross-disciplinary discussions about Australian universities held at the University of Sydney – one in 1954, the other 1965. In 1954, the debate had life. Sydney philosopher John Anderson argued vehemently that the university was there for no purpose other than the furtherance of knowledge itself: whether Australia had sufficient medical doctors was not the concern of academics, for the university was not a graduate-factory where “university teaching is an industry that has a certain product”.[2] Unlike Anderson, many academic staff in attendance – which included the Dean of Arts, RB Farrell, RM Hartwell from economics at the NSW University of Technology, WHC (Harry) Eddy from Adult Education at Sydney, JJ Auchmuty from Newcastle, Marcus Oliphant from the Australian National University and of course, Philip Baxter – were interested in government policy around higher education and felt that academic staff should have a say in it. If universities were considered to be public instrumentalities, this say, many felt, might have more weight.[3] The moral philosophers, PH Partridge and AK Stout felt that it was part of a larger question about the social functions of the university, which went beyond providing sufficient graduates, as they had during the war, to a philosophical question about the relationship of university knowledge and education to society.[4] The overall tone of the discussion was one of possibility: the university sector could at that point go either way, towards public utility or to cloistered knowledge with various nuances applied, by their advocates, to both.

Such possibility had disappeared by a similar (though not so high profile) seminar in 1965. This seminar included discussion of the “social role of higher education in Australia” by sociologist Sol Encel and Perce Partridge who by then was a political philosopher at the Australian National University. There was no longer any question of whether universities had a social role, rather what exactly that role was.[5]  Many felt that, as government interference increased there may not be any choice. This seminar had been organised by EL (Ted) Wheelwright and Ken Buckley at Sydney university to attempt to establish dialogue between the new post-Murray Australian Universities Commission, the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and (their own interest) the emerging academic staff union who sponsored the event, the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations, known for around 25 years as FAUSA.[6] With the power now attached to the Commonwealth as a result of its increased funding, academics felt they needed this unified organisation to have a voice at all in higher education issues – whereas in 1954 they could still consider whether they allowed a voice to others. Earlier known as the Federal Council of University Staff Associations or FCUSA, the association had recently gained a great deal of its strength and credibility as a result of the Orr case at the University of Tasmania.


[1] P.H. Partridge, "Comment on the Social Role of Higher Education by S Encel," in Higher Education in Australia, ed. E.L. Wheelwright (Melbourne: F.W Cheshire, 1965), 34.
[2] W.H.C. Eddy, Universities of New South Wales: Proceedings of a Convention on the Present Pattern and Future Trends (Sydney: Worker's Educational Association of NSW, 1954), 29.
[3] Eddy, Universities of New South Wales: Proceedings of a Convention on the Present Pattern and Future Trends. pages
[4] Eddy, Universities of New South Wales: Proceedings of a Convention on the Present Pattern and Future Trends. pages
[5] S. Encel, "The Social Role of Higher Education," in Higher Education in Australia, ed. E.L. Wheelwright (Melbourne: F.W Cheshire, 1965).
[6] Buckley 1992

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