Wednesday, 18 August 2010

A kind of perverted Bastille Day

By the Federal election of 1987 each of these discursive elements were converging on higher education. Entrepreneurialism, increasingly utilised by academic staff as a self-regulatory ethic, was offset by a more controversial, but highly vocal call for widespread implementation of privatisation initiatives and (more importantly) its associated values. These issues were given focus, in the minds of many nervous members of the higher education sector, by Ryan’s request for a report on efficiency and effectiveness, which the sector thought would act as a judgement and a mandate for what would happen next.

The review of efficiency and effectiveness in higher education, which reported at the end of 1986, was a firmly Canberra-based affair. Hugh Hudson chaired the review – he was then Chair of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC). Peter Karmel was a prominent member too: he had then moved from CTEC to Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University. There were a few other members too, but in Canberra this was understood to be Hugh Hudson’s report, conducted though it was under Karmel’s shadow.

Canberra is in every possible sense a city apart. The character of this separateness is central to the 1988 reforms of higher education. When I went to interview the first chair of the Australian Research Council, Don Aitkin, he gave me a tour (he is now chair of the National Capital Authority and felt it his duty to give me a sense of “my” capital, he said). Aitkin told me that every piece of Canberra is designed, every flowerbed considered, each roadside monument a part of a city that is one great work of art. Driving to the edge of Canberra (which does not take long, it remains an oversized small town) the artwork simply stops, becoming bushland. Robert HT Smith – Bob in person, but not on paper – was invited in 1987 to move there. He told me it was a strange world, where the correctness of the process was appreciated more than the value of the outcome: where decisions were considered in light of other Canberra colleagues rather than their impact on the world beyond its surrounding protective hills. His wife didn’t like it, so they chose not to stay more than a couple of years.

In some of Canberra’s back rooms, around a year before Aitkin and Smith were encouraged into their new prominent roles, advocates for change in higher education were despairing over both Hugh Hudson’s “E & E Report” and Susan Ryan’s sympathetic approach to the universities. The efficiency and effectiveness review had failed to describe lazy, layabout dons in antiquated oversized bureaucracies. It did not tell the truth reformers wanted to hear. Instead of affirming their conviction that full Commonwealth funding over the decade since Whitlam’s reforms had made the universities fat and indolent, the report said:
There have been substantial improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of higher education over the last decade. On the other hand, the scale and rate of change, coupled with the pressure on resources have also had its effect. To some extent, morale has been affected and standards reduced.
The report was a symptom of the system’s disease, not a diagnosis, thought the reformers – though it did outline several ways institutions should continue to improve their efficiency. Robert HT Smith told me that the whole system was infected by what John Dawkins referred to as a type of “terrified conservatism” – though Smith thought the E & E report had more value than Dawkins believed.

After the 1987 election it was what Dawkins thought that would matter. Susan Ryan was moved sideways for Dawkins to take over a super-portfolio consisting of industrial relations, workplace training and education. “Ossified bodies incapable of adaptation” was how Dawkins saw the older universities, and no report would persuade him otherwise.  In fact, a report that described these antiquated institutions even slightly favourably incriminated its authors. CTEC, it was felt in Canberra, was all together too cosy with the universities.  The world was changing and knowledge had a central role in it. Surely the spoilt, ineffective public bureaucracies that Dawkins saw could not be trusted with the ownership and control of knowledge?

After 2000, when Dawkins reviewed Simon Marginson and Mark Considine’s book The Enterprise University, he expressed surprise at how influential they considered his reforms to have been. Changes to the internal management of universities, for example, were things he could not have influenced, he claimed, since they fall under the power of the States.  In this episode of Australian university history, causes and effects, triggers, scapegoats and convenient excuses are all difficult to untangle. Dawkins himself engineered some of this murk, starting with the deliberately mysterious establishment of an almost-secret group of advisors.

Seven people received phone calls or visits from Dawkins or one of his senior staffers shortly after he was made minister. “I knew every one of them”, Don Aitkin said: they had a lot in common. “If he’d asked for advice on research” in the normal way, Aitkin told me, “he’d get it from eight different areas and they’d all disagree. What’s the use of that?” These were leaders in the university system that Dawkins knew he would agree with. Hugh Hudson, suddenly finding that he and his efficiency and effectiveness report had been marginalised in Canberra, “outed them”, calling the group the “purple circle”.  Helen Hughes, Don Watts, Don Aitkin and Robert HT Smith joined Mal Logan from Monash, Jack Barker from Ballarat College of Advanced Education and Brian Smith from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology over dinner to plan the reform of Australia’s higher education sector.  Red wine flowed, fuelling conversation. Don Watts – still yet to suffer the launch of Bond University – was as irrepressible in person as he had long been on paper: discussion was lively in any room he inhabited. Dawkins’ staffer Paul Hickey abstained, taking the notes that would become the Green Paper. Drafts of it were circulated on more sober days, when there was time to reflect. When everyone agreed, it was released.

The publication of the Dawkins Green and White papers and their reception by the universities, Colleges of Advanced Education, Institutes of Technology and the Federation of Australian University Staff Associations is well known.  The moment of the Dawkins reforms and their consequences are recounted and memorialised by the higher education sector like a kind of perverted Bastille Day. Certainly the dissolution of the binary system so that all institutions became universities (many needing to amalgamate to qualify), the instatement of a new system of tuition fees, deregulation of postgraduate coursework (added to the earlier deregulation of international education) and centralisation of research funding amounted to a revolution, which is what Peter Karmel called it. 

The sector long knew something was up. The not-so-secret Purple Circle had signalled change was on its way. “I deliberately made it a bit mysterious”, Dawkins later said.  Releasing revolutionary plans after a nervous wait set Dawkins up as higher education’s bogeyman, triggering widespread, and perhaps panicky, changes. They were changes that, as Dawkins himself observed, went a long way beyond what he was constitutionally permitted to instate. He became the Vice-Chancellors’ scapegoat and their convenient excuse. Dawkins became the effect and the cause of all of higher education’s problems and solutions. Apart from the Purple Circle Dawkins felt no compulsion to persuade, for reforms were unstoppable once revolution had started. Government had stormed the universities and taken control of knowledge.

No comments: