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Wednesday, 9 March 2005
Page: 47


Senator BRANDIS (12:45 PM) —On 2 March the Minister for Education, Science and Training, the Hon. Brendan Nelson, released an issues paper entitled Building university diversity: future approval and accreditation processes for Australian higher education. The document framed several of the policy choices which the government will be required to make during the current parliament for tertiary education in Australia. I expect that the debate which Dr Nelson has initiated will be the most important reconsideration of the role of Australian universities since the Dawkins review.

A central issue in the debate will be the centrality of the role of research in universities. Under one option under active consideration, which is canvassed in the discussion paper, a class of institutions would be recognised which would be engaged in teaching only. Research would not be regarded as an important or even a necessary role for such institutions. A model for such institutions is said to be the so-called liberal arts colleges in the United States. I do not for a moment doubt that there is an important and valuable role in post-secondary education which perhaps teaching-only institutions could fulfil.

Such institutions would in some respects resemble the colleges or institutes of advanced education which existed pre-Dawkins and which one of the effects of the Dawkins ‘reforms’ was to convert into universities. I say ‘reforms’ because I think it is now widely recognised—and it is a view which I have had for a very long time—that the Dawkins model was a deeply flawed model. It was a model which, by subjecting some 38 institutions which differed fundamentally in character, size, capabilities, levels of expertise, student needs and academic priorities to the same template, created distortions and inefficiencies and in some cases—this is, of course, the old Labor Party trademark—resulted in a levelling down of standards.

The needs and priorities of an internationally acknowledged major research institution such as the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne or the University of Queensland and those of a small institution which serves a modest student population and, due to economies of scale, is unable to offer more than a small number of courses or to compete successfully for significant research funding, are very different. I do not want to see as one of the outcomes of the current debate repetition in a different form of the same error which Dawkins made—in other words, the imposition of a false uniformity upon institutions which are of a fundamentally different character. Teaching-only post-secondary colleges, in which research and advanced scholarship do not take place, are not the same as universities and, while they would no doubt fulfil a valuable and socially desirable role, we should not pretend that it is the same role which universities have traditionally fulfilled.

In saying that, I am very mindful of the fact that the reputation of a university is not a function of the number of students which it teaches or the number of degrees which it confers but the excellence of its scholarship and research. And, in that regard, Australians do ourselves no favours by depreciating the contribution our universities have made to higher learning. We Australians are very conscious of our country’s international competitiveness in so many fields: business, cinema and, most notably, sport. Last August, when Australia came fourth in the league table for medals at the Athens Olympics, that achievement was a source of justifiable pride and national celebration. But I wonder how many Australians are even aware of a much more important index of national excellence which was published only three months after that?

In November last year, the respected British educational journal the Times Higher Education Supplement published the World University Rankings, which listed the top 200 universities in the world. And do you know how many Australian universities were in the top 50? There were six: the Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland. We only have 38 universities in this country and six were assessed to be among the top 50 in the world! The best of them, the Australian National University, was ranked 16th—ahead of such internationally renowned universities as Columbia, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Toronto and the Sorbonne. Other league tables have also placed Australian universities among the world’s best—and, almost uniformly, it is the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne which are adjudged the two leading universities in the nation.

The reason Australian universities have achieved such international success—success which we celebrate in our sportsmen and our actors but not, sadly, in our professors—is the excellence of their standards of scholarship and research. Of all the things Australia does well, the field of endeavour in which the world rates us most highly is our intellectual achievement. Our universities are not elitist institutions—because entry to them is by ability. But they are elite institutions because they are among the world’s best.

So, in contributing to the public discussion of the future of Australia’s universities initiated by Dr Nelson, I want to make a plea for the rigorous maintenance of those high academic standards which have won for Australian universities such international renown. Those standards will only be maintained if universities continue to be devoted to research, scholarship and higher learning. And, at a time when so much of the focus of public debate is, for understandable reasons, upon vocational education, I also want to say a word in defence of pure learning—the pursuit and advancement of knowledge for its own sake—because, without a philosophical and institutional commitment to the advancement of learning as an end in itself, there will not be the beneficial application of that knowledge to the advancement of mankind, nor will there be the intellectual excellence for which Australia’s elite universities are internationally respected.

In making that case, I am in good company. My party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies, of all the Prime Ministers this country has had, was the one who valued scholarship most highly; who regarded the aspiration of people of modest background, such as his own parents, to see their offspring achieve a university education as one of the noblest aspirations which a parent can have for a child. During his first term as Prime Minister, Menzies made a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast, upon the occasion of receiving an honorary degree—a doctorate of laws—from that institution on 3 April 1941. In addressing the chancellor, he said:

I have a life-long interest in the work of universities. I have, Sir, and I say it without shame, an almost passionate belief in pure learning. I have never been able to accept the view that a university is a mere technical school. If time permitted … I should be prepared to discuss . . . the value of pure learning in a world in which too much applied, or misapplied, learning has brought humanity to a very strange pass.

Why, Sir, do I defend pure learning? Because to me pure learning, the freeing of the mind from the inhibitions of ignorance, is one of those great moving forces that distinguish the civilized world from the uncivilized world, one of those great underlying things for which this war is being fought. And because I believe that, because I believe that this precious thing, this scholarship for which universities stand, is an essential ingredient in the freedom not only of the human mind but of the human spirit …

In his second term in government, Menzies did more for Australian universities than any Prime Minister has done before or since. In a speech to the House of Representatives on 26 July 1945, Menzies set out his conception of what a university should be. He said:

The university is not a professional “shop”, though I confess that in my day we used to identify our own by that mercantile name. As the word implies, the university must not be narrow or unduly specialist in its outlook. It must teach and encourage the free search for the truth. That search must increasingly extend to, but is not to be confined to, the physical resources of the world or of space. The scientist is of great and growing importance, and what we propose to do will, I believe, enable many more scientists to be trained in proper circumstances …

                  …         …           …

Let us have more scientists, and more humanists. Let the scientists be touched and informed by the humanities. Let the humanists be touched and informed by science, so that they may not be lost in abstractions derived from out-dated knowledge or circumstances. That proposition underlines the whole university idea. It warrants and requires a great variety of faculties and the constant intermingling of those who engage in their disciplines. To perform those vital tasks our universities must be equipped . . . to meet the challenge which, both in quality and quantity, becomes more urgent and insistent every day.

Nearly 30 years later, on 31 March 1973, another Liberal leader of great intellectual distinction, Sir Paul Hasluck—by now Governor-General—gave an address at the opening of Mayne Hall at the University of Queensland. It was entitled simply ‘On Learning’. It was subsequently published by the University of Queensland Press, but it is little known today. Sir Paul Hasluck captured in that speech, better than any Australian I can think of, the point of university education: why universities are not, in Menzies’ phrase, ‘mere technical schools’.

Allow me to finish by quoting what he said and to express the hope that, when the current debate on Australian universities is conducted, it will be informed not merely by pragmatism, utilitarianism and functionalism but also by the ideals which Hasluck so well understood and so eloquently expressed:

We live in a period when all manner of men are expressing views about education and advancing ideas about the best ways of spending more money … on education. An industrial and commercial society is demanding that the education system be an assembly line to produce a regular supply of skilled hired hands. Various persons who customarily speak in the name of the nation talk of the nation’s need for this or that kind of expert or specialist.

It is a long time since I heard anyone make a speech about any need for learned men. I have an inkling that if our universities or any other tertiary institution or research centre did produce a few men and women of great learning, the nation would be proud of them just as it is proud if some other course of training, in which the nation has taken little part, produces a youngster who can swim a hundred metres faster than anyone else in the world . . .

Yet learning is important. It is important, not so that we can do some national boasting at the number of medals we get in some Olympic Games of scholarship, but so that we establish the quality of the whole of our educational endeavour in Australia. It is important, too, so that we shall have in Australia a body of learned men and women whose standards of judgment and level of knowledge will be such as to create an intellectual environment in which all that is cheap, shoddy, glib, ignorant, ill organized, and unverified will be revealed in its ugliness and pettiness and rejected and so that our people will become accustomed to and require a better level of learning from those who purport to instruct or to lead them. It is important, too, so that we shall be a country in which scholars in all disciplines will be recognized for their assiduous search for truth and that search will continue with constancy and faith.

How do we achieve this? I do not suggest that it can be done by selecting this or that educational institution and describing it as a hall of learning. I think rather that it can be done in all institutions and that the basic need is personal and group loyalty to the ideal of learning and devotion to the search for truth.