Sunday, 6 April 2014

Universities that help shore up structures of white supremacy


[This is a fragment from Chapter two: Universities make a grab for power, largely focused on the Columbo Plan]

Australia’s role in all this looks, on the surface, fairly peripheral. A key element of Australia’s Cold War foreign policy, however, deployed the universities in the task of preventing South and South East Asia from succumbing to the lures of communism. The ‘Colombo Plan’ was a foreign aid scheme intended to support increased living standards in Asia, which Australian foreign policy experts believed would help curb the spread of communism. They also believed that Australian commitment to economic development in Asia would encourage investment in the region by the United States. This would release Australia and Great Britain, both governments hoped, from some of their financial responsibilities in Asian countries whose infrastructure was affected during the Second World War – or (as in India) who lent Britain money to conduct it.  The plan worked, from that perspective anyway. Persuading nations, potentially over the course of decades, that communism was not the answer to their problems, needed more than some aid money, however, particularly in light of resentment through much of Asia about Australia’s White Australia Policy. Money was not enough: Asian nations needed to see and even feel that their big, capitalist neighbour was on their side (White Australia Policy notwithstanding, for Australian governments had no plan to dismantle that).  Designers of the Colombo Plan turned to higher education to help.

From 1951 to 1964, more than five thousand students from South and South East Asia studied at Australian universities, sponsored by the Colombo Plan.  The idea was that these students would return home, taking up jobs among Asia’s political and financial elite. Stories of their wonderful experience in Australia would inform the decisions they made in such roles. It did not quite work like that, for only a minority of Colombo Plan students took such leadership roles. Nevertheless, in the 1970s while Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister was a Colombo Plan graduate, so too were four cabinet ministers in Indonesia.

Ensuring that these students had an experience that contradicted the received wisdom across South and South East Asia that Australia was profoundly racist was an important task. The Commonwealth Office of Education made every effort to ensure they had a positive experience. Academically, they gave Colombo Plan students significant support: an education officer spoke regularly with them about their progress and, if need be, paid for extra tuition. This worked well – the pass and graduation rates of Colombo Plan students easily exceeded those for Australian-born students.

While a key aim of the Plan was to make Australia look less racist to Asian students, there was more to it than just giving them a brilliant Australian experience. The intention was also to assist in Asian economic development. The courses Colombo Plan students enrolled in were to be ‘useful’ at home (and they also needed to sign a guarantee that they would return home, too). Acceptance into the Colombo Plan’s scholarship scheme was dependent on approval by the Department of External Affairs whose criterion (for eligible countries) was whether the degree was in a priority area for growing the economy of the student’s home country.  

Colombo Plan students were not the only ones enrolled in Australian universities from Asia. Private overseas students also took places in Australian higher education institutions. Without the additional support of the Commonwealth Office of Education, these students did not have the same experience. Although they were very few indeed, proponents of the Colombo Plan nevertheless feared that they might return home with negative stories, undermining some of the Colombo Plan’s work. Results were mixed. Overall it appears the Colombo Plan succeeded in inclining well-supported students towards Australian people. But despite higher education doing its best to cover up the White Australian Policy’s claim to white superiority, no visitor was persuaded that the policy was anything other than an expression of racism, legitimised in immigration policy. 

The Cold War represents the height of this complex use of education for foreign policy objectives, but the idea did not come from thin air. The Carnegie Corporation, for example, funded educational research and libraries in Australia since the 1930s with a view to influencing Australian culture in ways that favoured the interests of the United States.  The pattern continued in the post-war period, with agreements brokered by Senator Fulbright executing the belief that sharing knowledge would engender greater understanding of other nations and cultures, ensuring peace and prosperity (especially for America).  The Rockefeller Foundation’s philanthropic activities in Australia were similarly focused to sharing knowledge, specifically in fostering the new research culture that became a significant weapon during the Second World War.  These schemes show us that universities, governments and wealthy philanthropists were aware of the role of higher education in influencing ideas and in shaping economies, labour markets and political frameworks, even in shoring up the structures of white supremacy. Moreover, they were not reluctant to develop or wield that power.

[There are lots of footnotes here, acknowledging the work of other historians who have researched this. They will be in the book]

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