Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Introducing the 1980s


In October 1981, higher education delegates from all of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries pondered what they felt to be their most perplexing question: what happened to the respect academics used to command? The god-professor had fallen and most could agree that it was not before time: he (and part of his problem had been the consistency of his gender) had gained his place largely through snobbishness. But the welcome meritocracy was becoming something new. The delegates struggled to put their collective finger on it. Perhaps the expansions of the 1960s were to blame:
It may be that with so many admitted into the temple, the mystery is gone, the secrets are out and former respect and awe have given way to a more cynical view of the virtues and vices of the priesthood.
Certainly “respect” and “awe” had not characterised the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

The OECD delegates admitted that the late 1970s had been difficult in other ways as well. Demographic changes (they had finished educating the last of the baby boomers) led to an income plateau for universities which, as a result of the 1960s, had become addicted to growth.  Then the oil shocks hit, crippling public funding capacities. Delegates all reported that their governments, forced to make ruthless decisions about public funding priorities, publicly questioned if the traditionally elite higher education sector had genuine value to the nation. There was a “real danger”, they agreed, that if the current crisis in public confidence in higher education continued, the university “could be seriously and perhaps irretrievably compromised”.  It was the 1980s. Would this be the decade that would cripple the intellectual environment that had taken centuries to mature?

That OECD conference on higher education was chaired by the man people would later refer to as Australia’s godfather of higher education, Peter Karmel. Karmel, who died in 2008, was heavily involved in higher education as an academic, public servant and senior university administrator since the 1957 Murray Review and still submitted his advice to the 2008 Bradley Review only months before his death. While his presence was felt in the system throughout the 1980s Karmel’s influence was already diminishing by the 1981 conference. Karmel was increasingly seen as “old fashioned”, a label that in the 1980s was rarely used with affection or sympathy and in this case implied “irrelevant”.
It was time, many felt, to re-think higher education. Libraries bulge with 1980s reports, reviews and submissions to and from government on higher education in Australia. Rupert Murdoch chose 1980 as the year to launch an Australian version of his Times Higher Education Supplement in The Australian newspaper. And it was in the 1980s that Labor Minister John Dawkins transformed the environment in which knowledge in Australia was pursued.

Dawkins dominates the memory of Australian universities. In higher education terms, he seems to define the 1980s. However, Dawkins had little to do with higher education for most of the decade. He was made minister in 1987; his reforms were not formally proposed until 1988 and few of his measures were implemented until 1989. Dawkins and the shadow he cast dominated the work by Simon Marginson and by Marginson with Mark Considine that describe changes to the policy environment and thereafter to management structures for Australian universities.  Dawkins’ reforms did not appear out of the blue, they reflected sentiments and changes that in many universities were already leading to internal reforms. To understand these and how they made their way into public policy, I interviewed two members of the group dubbed Dawkins’ “purple circle”, whose advice and contributions shaped the Green and White papers that would in turn shape Australian academic life. Reform was resisted at many sites across the sector and I also interviewed Professor David Penington, the Melbourne University Vice-Chancellor whose opposition to Dawkins was most vocal.

The question for higher education in the 1980s, however, is not who changed it but how did it happen. How did the language of freedom promoted by student movements in the 1960s and 1970s come to be deployed in service of the free market? How did universities shift from scholarly communities to economies where knowledge flows like money?


[footnotes have been removed but are available on request]

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