Despite the urgent need for scientific research when the Second World War began, it did not immediately occur to the Australian government to turn to the universities for help. Universities and their scholars occupied a place in the nation’s high culture that seemed to preclude them from the pragmatic problems of wartime science. Professors seemed above such considerations, figures of public importance whose arrival, normally from Great Britain, was announced in the newspapers, as was their attendance at official functions, where their wives’ outfits were documented as items of public interest. Their standing enabled academic staff to promote the university and their disciplines in the public sphere. Within the institution, they protected truth by reading, teaching and by setting examinations that would test and assure the accuracy of their students’ learning. What they did not do, typically, was research.
Even in the 1940s, that was beginning to change as some academics, in the tradition of disinterested scholarship, pursued research with a determined independence from commercial interests. As the decades passed, research became more prominent, so that by the 1990s, it infused university life. Research seemed, by then, to define the very idea of the university, leading to a state where efficiency in the creation of new knowledge that was useful to others (even if only other scholars) was now the key source of academic distinction. Professors were not lauded as they had been, but many still had substantial standing in an industry to which their research contributed. Academics continued to promote their discipline, but their purpose, often, in doing so was to attract new research funding. New income was always needed to enable them (and, most probably, a whole team of collaborators) to keep developing new ideas and discovering new applications. The value of research would now often be described by the amount of funding it brought into the university, changing that institution’s sense of purpose. No longer a monument to the guardianship of truth, higher education was increasingly identified – particularly by government – as an industry, trading in the intellectual property that was the product of their work.
This transformation raises some important questions about the connections between university knowledge and the development of the nation’s identity and economy. The shift towards a substantial national investment in research assists in revealing the changing relationship between the government, public expectations, and Australia’s public universities. But what if academic staff and students did not wish to endorse government goals – what were the implications for academic freedom and institutional autonomy? Perhaps more to the point, as universities continued to change, what if they did seek to conform, assenting to a government imperative that they operate in an increasingly commercial manner? The commercialisation of higher education is a familiar story, but there are aspects that remain elusive. For while the character of the university as an institution and its importance to society and the economy have been frequently articulated, the ways the different parties characterised and sought to control university knowledge through research funding, teaching, examination and a trade in intellectual property is not as readily explained.
It is an important set of relationships, however, for in the twentieth century society grew to rely on university knowledge to a considerable degree. To be deemed the possessor of knowledge granted individuals access to professions and social standing: examining and legitimising knowledge conferred, then, considerable authority to the university over labour supply and social capital. Research fuelled economic growth, which in the second half of the twentieth century was underpinned by technological development, so that the control of research priorities became central to national economic management. Even parliamentary decision making was increasingly legitimised by expert opinion, making academic advice a key tool of modern democracy. Given this importance, was it really plausible in a capitalist democracy like Australia that research, education and the legitimation of expertise be left to the vagaries of an unelected, socially elite group of scholars?