Sunday, 27 October 2013

Authority for Australian professionals

From the time that the first Australian universities were established, the structure of the economy and the nature of work were changing. The industrial revolution was in full swing when British colonists invaded Eora country. As the colony grew, ideas themselves industrialised, so that the new economic structures made some people rich and many people workers. The effect of this division between capital and labour shaped Australian history and is well known. But as the nineteenth century marched onwards, something else was happening too. A new role was developing for a group of people who did not produce anything but who nevertheless persuaded the public that their labour was of sufficient value to be given significant money to perform it. These people were the professionals.

Medical doctors and lawyers were the first to successfully make their case – and the new universities helped them to do so. Early on, medical practice in Australia was haphazard and unregulated so that consulting someone claiming to have medical expertise could be as risky as not doing so at all. Claims to knowledge in the field of human health were not always trusted (or trustworthy), so the establishment of formal courses at university offered a way of creating medical practitioners that the public could trust, thus also elevating the place of doctors from the ‘quacks’ they had been to a more privileged and dependable position in society. Similarly, lawyers found that a university degree not only gave a competitive advantage but also a respectability to their work, which in turn meant people would be prepared (if not exactly happy) to pay lawyers considerable sums for their services.
The value to the university of this ‘professionalisation’ of medicine and law was obvious and immediate. As Stuart Macintyre and Dick Selleck argue:
University education gave medical practitioners and lawyers…a magisterial and conveniently expensive preparation to mark their superiority over their jostling competitors. 
But as well as fee income, universities also gained a special foothold in the shifting labour market. Over the next century, nearly every occupation would require increased levels of education. Universities, often in an alliance with the professional associations (which were also created as occupations professionalised) appropriated the knowledge of many professions. Since the addition of medicine and law, engineering, veterinary science, architecture and accounting were added; later pharmacy, psychology and dentistry; more recently, teaching, nursing and journalism, with more occupations entering universities all the time. Such professionalisation is key theme throughout this book and in chapter two I discuss it at length. The place of the university in professionalisation is important, because it is what gave universities much of their power, authority and perceived value over the twentieth century.

It was not always easy for universities to gain authority in particular fields. Engineering, for example, was an extremely important profession to colonial Australia since roads, trains, bridges, buildings and machines that were the precondition to established settlement and ran the industrial economy.

Universities established engineering Faculties very early on. This profession, however, did not embrace the type of education or prestige that universities, until the 1950s. Most engineers preferred the workshop culture of the old pupillage system, which was translated better in technical colleges than in universities. From the mid-twentieth century, universities gained dominance over the technical colleges and university-educated engineers then literally built the technological society of the second half of the twentieth century. Even in the 1950s, however, the university’s ascendance was only achieved by a fairly sneaky move on the part of the Institute of Engineers, who changed their examination to prompt a new form of accreditation, formalising the alliance between the professional association and the universities in a way that is now common across many professions.

The development of professional education within the mission of higher education is a marker of the modern university. The process began in the 1870s and continued to the present. In the nineteenth century, professional education also demonstrated to all the colonies that a university was needed for more than self-government. As Federation loomed, those colonies that had not yet seen a university as a priority found that modern society needed higher education for practical reasons, not just to promote a luxury like ‘civilisation’.

--- This is a segment of my first draft of Chapter 1: Ideas of the the University in Australia, from the book I am writing Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press. ----

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