This thesis traces transformations in the history of higher education in twentieth century Australia from the perspective of the ownership and regulation of knowledge. Using primarily archival and oral sources from universities and governments, I argue that after the Second World War, the university’s place in society and the economy was radically altered because of challenges to its authority over knowledge.
In the 1940s and 1950s, the Australian government increased its interest in research. Among political and tertiary leaders, this led to questions about the role of research and higher education for society, resulting in uncertainties about the ongoing independence – and thus reliability – of university knowledge. A growing reliance on higher education to support government aims linked the growth of universities in Australia to nation-building and the government’s economic strategies. But in the 1960s and 1970s, a small but influential group of university staff and students resisted the connection of higher education in Australia to established goals and values, exposing the university’s vested interests in society and its role in legitimising and perpetuating social and economic injustices. As a result of these questions about its integrity, in the 1980s, the university’s authority waned. This opened the door to increased control by government, who confronted changing economic priorities. Under new pressures, university leaders sought to regain their standing in society by reconfiguring their task in commercial terms. By the 1990s, the question about the role and autonomy of higher education had developed into a significant contest over the ownership and control of knowledge as a form of intellectual property. Unlike the public institutions they had been in the 1940s and 1950s, universities were treated as an industry, competing with others for government support and commercial revenue.