Sunday, 28 March 2010

Knowledge and Civilisation Draft One revised

In August 1943, John Dedman, Minister for War Organisation of Industry, addressed the brand new Universities Commission in conference with student representatives of Australia’s six universities. The Second World War was still dominating the nation, but the Allies were making such progress that Australians were starting to plan for the work to be done when the war was over. Universities were high on the list, for the war had changed them. Dedman praised them, saying:
The magnitude and complexity of the demands made by the war on educational and scientific and technical resources have given a most effective answer to those who regarded higher education as a luxury commodity in war time … panicking in a moment of crisis, they lost their faith in the underlying value of education in a democracy.[1]
Managing the level and quantity of knowledge needed for the Second World War was a complex task indeed. The importance of universities to democracy, however, was a more problematic proposition than faith would allow. The war provoked anxiety about the necessity and character of democratic knowledge – and indeed the nature of the civilised democracy the war itself had been intended to protect. The challenge for politicians like Dedman and later, Prime Minister Robert Menzies, as well as for intellectual leaders in the universities was to navigate the space between knowledge before and after the war and renegotiate its role in society.

This is introduction to the recently revised draft chapter one.

Friday, 26 March 2010

It is enough to make you tear out your hair.

As universities expand, concern about falling standards is inevitable. Falling standards are not inevitable, but concern is. And we would hope that universities, before they expand, put measures in place to ensure standards are maintained: we need to be able to rely on the quality of graduates. They are going to teach our children, nurse our sick, prepare our tax returns.

But universities and government are rightly concerned about falling standards even before the next big expansion. This is because the secret universities never tell is that standards have been falling for some time - not in all universities, but in plenty.

There is a problem with the fact that they won't say this. The government and the public deserves to know when there is a problem and government needs at least the opportunity to provide the funding to fix it. Naturally, the reason universities won't say that standards are falling is because that would be bad marketing. So academic standards and the reliability of graduates are sacrificed to universities' ability to attract fee income. If we're honest, everyone knew that it would happen as the whole system was gradually commodified. Everyone that is except the few who were convinced a bit of market competition would drive standards up: it is clear it has achieved the opposite.

In this system these massive mistakes seem only to be outdone by the ludicrous solutions. We have falling standards because universities will lower entrance scores to attract fees and 50% of teaching is done by casual staff with no capacity to review curriculum and who don't get paid enough to provide the additional support students need. Those with more permanent jobs are worked so hard they can't fix any problems either. And fewer and fewer of those people have sufficient job security to either feel motivated or safe enough to make a difference.

But instead of fixing the causes of falling standards, the discipline with the relentless desire to measure things decided to define standards. The standards project might be a good one, I don't know, but it sounds to me like a good way to make sure knowledge doesn't progress or change for a while.

Another example. The need to quantify everything in sight has meant academics have been getting promoted on the quantity, not quality of their publications and so there end up being lots of crap ones. But instead of fixing this simple problem, a thousand additional problems are created by ranking the journals (rank them one year and by the next year the ranking is true - and then the real trouble starts). Instead of valuing new knowledge, surely the purpose of research, we ask universities to keep the knowledge they pursue in areas of research defined by numeric codes and require academics to keep track of every little thing they do against those codes. All this instead of getting on with working on new knowledge that doesn't have a code yet.

It is enough to make you tear out your hair. When the solutions are more terrifying than the problems we should consider ourselves to be in very big trouble. Not start squabbling about exactly how to measure the next immeasurable thing.

I'm considering making this my email signature: you don't get quality by measuring it.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

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

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.

So permanently mutilated by university that it is idle to expect anything of them. Ian Clunies Ross


Ashby's concern was shared and, arguably, deepened, by his friend and colleague, Ian Clunies Ross. Ashby left Australia in 1946, but maintained continual correspondence with him until Clunies Ross died in 1959. Clunies Ross, despite being declared by Robert Menzies “the greatest public relations man for science Australia had ever seen”, felt disquiet about the role science was taking in society and the university, especially after the war. Clunies Ross was concerned, above the science that he doubtlessly loved, for humane democracy and civilisation, which he felt was underpinned by a different construction to knowledge than the one science was then promoting. With a note of regret, Clunies Ross said:
Society…recognizes that it must live by science even at the risk of dying painfully by it.[1]
What is ironic about his anxiety over the rise of science is that Clunies Ross’ reputation (which earned him a place on the $50 note for some time) is for the leadership of Australia’s science boom in the period after the war. A veterinary graduate of the University of Sydney, he conducted research at that university before going on to scientific leadership roles, most notably as first chair of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), a vastly expanded and reconstituted body from the old CSIR.[2] Clunies Ross’ intellectual leadership, like Ashby’s, was not confined to science – he was far more concerned for the objects that he felt science was for than for the promotion of science for its own sake. Clunies Ross was deeply concerned for knowledge broadly and the civilisation he felt it upheld.

In public orations, as well as in his letters to Ashby, Ian Clunies Ross gave his perspective on the changes science, the war and its aftermath had made to knowledge. He said “the universities have fallen from that traditional high estate in which they exerted a commanding influence on the ideas and ideals of their times” and that this was primarily a result of science’s tendency to specialise, rather than encompass the ‘sublime’ character of knowledge:
Science poses the major problem of education because of the very magnitude of its success, so that the ceaseless and bewilderingly rapid proliferation of knowledge forces its votaries into ever-narrowing specialisms. ... what is more, they not only suffer this fate but glory in it: for are not specialists the new elect, the high priests of the cult whose mysteries none may share? Not for them
'To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower'
The grain of sand has become all the world and the heaven they know or seek to know.[3]
Clunies Ross saw university-based knowledge as a singular, coherent whole, the exploration of which, in becoming increasingly intelligible, should enable “the operation of the social organism”:
It is significant that, today, we seldom think of university men [sic], collectively, as possessed of sound judgement or of a vital system of ideas which unites the past and present in an intelligible whole.[4]
Anthony Clunies Ross, Ian’s son, confirmed that his father was a romantic, a scientist of “quest and achievement, the wonder of seeing the world unravelled and seeing the systems that make it up, and the satisfaction of doing new things with it that have never been done before”.[5] This romantic view of knowledge meant that for Clunies Ross, his idealised university was a place for immersion in the vast greatness of a singular, sublime knowledge.[6]

The dominance of science in universities was, even after the war, still relatively new. At the Centenary of the University of Sydney, Ian Clunies Ross said:
How fanciful must have appeared the rhetoric of William Charles Wentworth, when, moving the Bill for the establishment of the University in 1849, he saw that from this Act would flow 'a long list of illustrious names of statesmen and patriots, of philanthropists and philosophers, of poets and heroes...’. It is noteworthy, and indicative of the change that 100 years have wrought, that Wentworth made no mention of scientists...indicative not only of the lesser place of science and of the scientist in the hierarchy of university men [sic], but of the appreciation which we have now lost that there was then a unity of knowledge.[7]
This unity of knowledge, so longed for by Clunies Ross, is consistent with his romantic sense of knowledge – a whole, sublime idea of knowledge as a singular entity: deified almost, worshipped certainly. A coherent knowledge as an underpinning to civil society had the advantages, for Clunies Ross, of suggesting a similarly coherent and unified civilisation. If knowledge was fragmented, as science’s “ever-narrowing specialisms” encouraged, what would the civilisation it underpinned look like?

Always less optimistic about universities than Ashby, Clunies Ross said that in the post-war period universities were now training scientists and engineers in such a way that “they are not only ill-equipped but, as a result of their university training, so permanently mutilated that it is idle to expect anything of them”.[8] In a letter to Eric Ashby in 1956, he expressed apprehension about the way changing knowledge priorities would impact civilisation. He was responding directly to Ashby’s article in which Ashby had first he first articulated his hopes for technological humanism in the universities:
My fear is that as science and technology draw from an increasingly large proportion of those best endowed intellectually, we will have fewer and fewer men [sic] capable of contemplating in any adequate way the problems of national or international society.[9]
It seems an odd conversation for two scientists to have had and the fact of their having it says something about the ways they saw their roles in society, beyond their own disciplines.
Clunies Ross and Eric Ashby are both examples of the new type of scientific leader required during and after the war as it became apparent that science and technology were disrupting university knowledge traditions. These two particular scientists stand out in the period as those who thought – and communicated – particularly carefully about scientific and technological development and humane civilisation. Both grappled to connect new technological knowledge to their versions of pre-war intellectual values. Their leadership, in different ways, functioned to reinterpret the notion that knowledge underpinned civilisation at the very moment that the concept of civilisation was threatened and the nature of university-based knowledge changed fundamentally. Government claimed both as extensively as each would submit to it, for knowledge and thus knowledge leaders had gained new importance in national development.


[1] Ian Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952 (Melbourne: CSIRO, 1952), 177.
[2] Marjory Collard O'Dea, Ian Clunies Ross: A Biography (Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing, 1997), 226-42.
[3] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952.
[4] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952.
[5] Anthony Clunies Ross, "My Father," in Ian Clunies Ross Memoirs and Papers with Some Fragments of Autobiography, ed. Janet Clunies Ross (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1961), 117.
[6] Clunies Ross’ epistemology supported the myth Latour described of a humanity united by a singular natural reality – a perspective displayed in all Clunies Ross’ work: one which, it must be said, promoted tolerance and generosity in his approach to science and service to the public.
[7] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952, 171-72.
[8] Clunies Ross, The Responsibility of Science and the University in the Modern World: An Oration Delivered on the Occasion of the Centenary of the University of Sydney, August 26, 1952. Despite the accusation of mutilating their students, a Clunies Ross lecture theatre still stands at the University of Sydney, so they must have forgiven him.
[9] I Clunies Ross, 'Letter to Eric Ashby (4 May 1956)' NAA/A10651/ICR20/5 (Canberra: National Archives of Australia, 1956).

Not 'is this knowledge useful?' But does it breed ideas? Ashby and technology.


Eric Ashby had arrived in Australia from Bristol in 1938 with his university-educated wife Helëna (a novelty to the Sydney press) and two small children, to take up the chair in Botany at Sydney University. At 34 years old, Ashby’s sense of the civic responsibility of scientific leadership was already substantial – we have already seen that he quickly became involved in the Australian National Research Council and in government policy. As well as assisting government in the allocation of scientific resources, Ashby gave radio broadcasts, public lectures and wrote articles on education in Australia, especially on the future of the universities. Some of these were collated in Challenge to Education in 1946, by which time the Universities Commission had already implemented some of the expansion to the universities Ashby had advocated.  Sent as Australian scientific counsellor to Russia in 1944, he was thereafter in demand for diplomatic and administrative roles in both government and higher education in Australia.[1] He refused all and tried, unsuccessfully, to resume a life of botanical research in the UK, before finally succumbing to offers of Vice-Chancellorships at Queens Belfast and Cambridge successively.[2] He worked and wrote on higher education policy, leadership and history throughout the Commonwealth, and wrote a book on the United States’ tertiary education system.[3] This international leadership in higher education during a period of significant change meant that, by the end of his life Ashby had been granted multiple honours and awarded 18 honorary degrees in nine countries.[4] In Australia it was said, “it would be difficult to name an academic who, with eight years residence in Australia (interrupted by one in Moscow), had greater influence”.[5]

Ashby was characteristically optimistic – at least in 1958 – about the potential integration of technology in the universities, though he was also realistic about the barriers to such integration. In tracing the gradual adoption of science by the great centres of learning in England, he noted the relative ease with which ‘pure’ scientific research, analogous to humanities traditions, could be understood. Technology, with its associations of being ‘earthy’ of its susceptibility to pressure from industry and government is described, Ashby said, with adjectives like ‘crude’ and ‘mere’.[6] In the 19th century it had been possible to credibly suggest that the upper class should study literature while the middle classes looked after science, an attitude Ashby described as “puzzling” in the 20th century.[7] But remnants of this class distinction were still erecting barriers to the successful integration of technology into the realm of knowledge. Ashby considered it to be time disciplinary class distinctions were eradicated. The threats to civilisation many felt were attached to knowledge after the war Ashby thought could be addressed through a system of ideas he called technological humanism.

Technology, Ashby claimed, could achieve what science could not. Science, he had pointed out, generally needed to remove the human variable in order to be valid. Technology, on the other hand, was a space in which science and humanity interacted, enabling a unity of knowledge that was inherently humanist.[8] What made knowledge pure, according to Ashby, was not that it was never applied to anything – it was that the university remained autonomous and that academic inquiry was free and curiosity-driven:
It is a matter of cold fact that most of the discoveries and ideas which have shaped history began as speculations, as disinterested curiosity, as thinking for the sheer delight of thinking.[9]
It was this motive that Ashby saw as central to the unique responsibility of universities. He said that university knowledge was not evaluated on whether or not it was useful, but rather on its potential to further knowledge itself: “Does the subject breed ideas?”

Australia was particularly prone, Ashby said, to pressure from secondary industry to include technical skill training in university education. This was partly a result, he thought, of the bad press Australian universities had been subject to prior to the war. Widely seen as useless, elite, privileged and wealthy[10], the public commonly assumed that universities were committed to the unnecessary promotion of irrelevant medieval knowledge.[11] The result was regular pressure to change by including one thing or another industry needed. Indeed, Australian universities did need to adapt more to a changing society, Ashby said, and should assume some obligations to industry and government. These obligations, however, were not the purpose of universities. He said, that “although professional training is still the university’s business, cultivation of the intellect has become its vocation”.[12]

Governments and industry did not therefore have the right to select new disciplines and new projects for research – the university was not, Ashby said, an “intellectual department store”.[13] This was different to his wartime advice that expert scientists were needed to know what scientific problems to address. Ashby was in favour of democratising education, opposed to “academic snobbishness” and believed the specialised language of science and the faith many put in it was a dangerous type of authoritarianism.[14] He was not elevating academic authority over the society in which it functioned by suggesting that academics must provide society with what it needed, not what it demanded. Ashby believed that the freedom to pursue knowledge for love would be the best assurance there was that society would obtain from academics the knowledge by which it would benefit.

Academics must be free to pursue knowledge as they see fit, Ashby argued, as it was this freedom that would allow universities to fulfil their true function:
Today our universities, criticize them as you will, are the trustees of Australian intellectual life; despite their weakness, despite their unworthiness for this high office.[15]
“High office” denotes the sacred duty that Ashby intended to convey, a sanctity related to the role of knowledge in upholding and promoting civilisation. It was through this sense of civilisation that the universities would be connected to the nation. “Upon the universities depends in large degree Australia’s future”, said Ashby, since:
Universities are the defenders of the intellectual life, and if the intellectual life is crushed by prejudice and stupidity and selfishness, then it will profit us nothing to win the war against the Axis, for we shall still be dragged to defeat by our own ignorance.[16]
Knowledge might win a war but the war would not be worth winning if civilisation was undermined in the process, according to Ashby’s logic. For knowledge to continue to perform its social function even ‘useful’ knowledge must be pursued for its own sake.


[1] Alan Burges and Richard J Eden, "Ashby, Eric, Baron Ashby (1904–1992)," in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[2] Peter Froggart, "Eric Ashby," in Queen's Thinkers: Essays on the Intellectual Heritage of a University, ed. Alvin Jackson (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 2008).
[3] Eric Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," in Challenge to Education, ed. Eric Ashby (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1946). Eric Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on Universities and the Scientific Revolution (London: Macmillan, 1958), Eric Ashby, "The Diversity of Universities in the Commonwealth," The Australian University 2, no. 1 (1964), Eric Ashby, Masters and Scholars: Reflections of the Rights and Responsibilities of Students, The Whidden Lectures for 1970 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970). Ashby, Adapting Universities to a Technological Society. Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson, Universities: British, Indian, African; a Study in the Ecology of Higher Education (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). Eric Ashby, Any Person, Any Study: An Essay on Higher Education in the United States (New York: McGraw Hill, 1971).
[4] Burges and Eden, "Ashby, Eric, Baron Ashby (1904–1992)."
[5] Sir Rutherford Robertson, "Eric Ashby: Letter for University of Sydney Gazette," in Eric Ashby (Biographical) (Sydney: University of Sydney Archives, 1993).
[6] Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on Universities and the Scientific Revolution, 66.
[7] Ashby, Technology and the Academics: An Essay on Universities and the Scientific Revolution, 32.
[8] Eric Ashby, "Technological Humanism," Nature, no. 10 March (1956).
[9] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," 77.
[10] Spaull, Australian Education in the Second World War, 221.
[11] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944." 
[12] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," 77.
[13] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944." 
[14] Eric Ashby, "The New Authoritarianism," in Challenge to Education (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1946).
[15] xxx
[16] Ashby, "Universities in Australia, Originally ACER Pamphlet, 1944," 73.