… we must preserve the unworldly space in which university teachers are able to reveal to their students what it means, mostly deeply, to devote one’s life to an academic vocation—to live an answer to Callicles. They will then reveal to their students, who will go into the world to live many kinds of lives, a value in their education that nourishes them more deeply than the kind of liberal education that many people praise.
So philosopher Raimond Gaita argued the case for the unworldly university in his lecture ‘To Civilise the City?’1 His deeply felt evocation of the purpose of a university proposed an institution that engages critically with the world, enriching students and their society. Pervading Professor Gaita’s lecture is a sense of loss; the life of the mind has been overwhelmed by ‘managerial newspeak’. The public duty of a university has surrendered to the pressures of the marketplace. The aspiration for an ‘unworldly space’, a community of scholars, is largely defunct.
Gaita’s analysis resonated deeply with his original audience, and publication in Meanjin provoked a lively public conversation.2 This rejoinder picks up just one point, offering not a critique of Gaita’s argument but a historical qualification: whatever the sins of a moment that turn students into customers, and a vocation into a profession, the Australian university has proved remarkably consistent over a century and a half. For most students and academics, the university has always primarily been concerned with preparation for the professions.
Gaita, of course, understands well the reality of contemporary campus life:
To avoid misunderstanding, I acknowledge without reluctance that vocational and professional courses have always been important to universities. Never before, however, have they determined the idiom, set so much of the tone, transformed the language and set the goals of the institutions to whose essential identity, if not to their attractions and prestige, they had previously been marginal.
Not quite, I will suggest. The unworldly university has always been rare. Professional training dominated Australian universities from their earliest expression. Students enrolled in the liberal arts, and academics engaged in public debate, have always been important voices on campus, but the dominant tradition is pragmatic and vocational. It was a path chosen early, and reinforced by national policy, student choice and academic values.
We choose a path and thereafter it shapes our choices—the ‘deep lane insists on the direction’, as T.S. Eliot wrote in ‘East Coker’. The further we go, the more we commit to this direction; the further behind fall the other choices, those paths not taken. Over time, this seems the only road possible. For universities in Australia, the path chosen early still guides our bearing. A distinctive Australian idea of a university, developed in colonial society, has influenced all universities created since 1850.
The pattern set by those original choices can be styled the autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter university. These founding institutions were built on the British tradition of operational independence from government. This was embraced in original legislation and has rarely proved a point of controversy. These new institutions focused overwhelmingly on professional degrees as a first qualification because expanding colonies needed lawyers, doctors and engineers. Despite gothic-revival stone architecture and solemn ceremonies, the original universities were practical exercises in higher education.
These first institutions were comprehensive because there was only one in each city. Denominational divisions precluded an established religion asserting control. They were public rather than privately owned, and commuter because Australians in general preferred not to live on campus.
Over time the institutional model chosen first in Sydney, and shortly after in Melbourne, became the standard Australian university. The model would extend from city to city, modified with experience and expanded as new professions emerged but essentially developing along the original path. When eventually legislators sought to break the mould in the 1940s and create new types of universities, with an explicit focus on research and science and technology, they found the original model was reinforced by regulation and community expectations. Status hierarchies and peer esteem served to narrow the range of acceptable possibilities.
An ideal type can shape public policy. Familiarity renders the alternatives invisible, because we see only what already exists. Once established in our minds, a model of what constitutes a public institution will make any alternative seem inadequate. The ideal type guides choices, encouraging us to create the same institution over and over, despite attempts to innovate. The Australian idea of a university has served the nation well—all the more reason it endures. Yet it encouraged a narrow range of choices, a singular understanding of a university.
This continuity of form can be hard to distinguish amid huge growth in scale. Universities were once small communities. They are now large organisations with standard rules and procedures to deal with complexity. In 1855 only around 1 in 23,000 Australians attended a university. By 1966 this had reached around 1 in 140. In 2013 it approaches 1 in 25, with many institutions educating more than 50,000 students each year.
This step-change has altered once-familiar features of older universities—an end to the single cafeteria where everyone ate and conversed, student centres rather than departmental advisers, a campus with the features of a small city. Growth has introduced the language of management and the deployment of administrative processes once the preserve of commerce. But has form really overwhelmed substance? The Australian university remains overwhelmingly autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter. The institutional model, the mode of instruction and even the pattern of enrolments indicate considerable continuity. The Australian idea of a university, developed in the 1850s, remains the dominant approach.
The influence of founders
Why have Australian universities retained so many founding characteristics? An answer is suggested in the concept of ‘path dependency’, developed in economic and historical analysis. The creation of new universities is a rare and expensive act. The first institutions drew on prevailing British views of the university and the needs of their colonial settings. In the following decades this original model, now well established and perceived as successful, influenced all subsequent developments.
Path dependency explores the lasting influence of founding ideas, as initial choices shape subsequent options.3Models of path dependency often focus on a ‘critical juncture’ that has a lasting power over institutions, reinforcing patterns of behaviour and understanding of purpose.4 Once the key features of an institution are established, the organisation has committed to a particular model. It becomes expensive to contemplate major change in direction—and may be conceptually challenging because the original form and mission of the organisation have become so familiar, comfortable and apparently logical.
The power of a starting point to shape an outcome is often illustrated by the QWERTY keyboard.5 This was developed in the nineteenth century to overcome jamming in typewriters. The design separated commonly used letters, so keys struck in close succession are less likely to cause mechanical failure.6 This requirement is now obsolete, yet QWERTY remains the standard, transposed from typewriters to computer keyboards and mobile phones. An early decision in design to address mechanical failure influences the technological path long after the initial reason fades.
There are limits to path dependency arguments, which might otherwise say little more than ‘history matters’. Not every starting point becomes a set pattern, just as not every current practice is simply the inevitable next step of an original set of decisions. The business literature is flooded with case studies of conscious innovation in companies, as markets change and companies transform or vanish. American political scientist Herman Schwartz has argued that if small ‘contingent causes at the beginning of a path’ are to shape long-term consequences, there must be ‘increasing returns’ to political and social institutions to explain reticence about changing those institutions. The original reasons for the path must be compelling, and remain advantageous over time.7
For Australian universities, the founding ideas made sense in context, and remain compelling. The choices made in 1850 were understandable and intelligent responses to local needs and understanding. Because they were good choices at the time, they endured. Over time, the original model shaped expectations about the role of a university and a hierarchy of status that favours conformity over experimentation. The history of failed Australian attempts to create new styles of universities indicates the power of convention, pushing always towards the single idea of a university in Australia. The dominant model makes it likely that any new university will resemble those already operating.
Origins of an ‘Australian’ university
Along with parliaments and police, the idea of a university was imported with European settlers. This colonial inheritance was expressly British in character. Colonial records suggest little interest in developments such as the new research universities of Germany or the land-grant institutions of the United States. Instead, local debate circled around a smaller set of concerns—which British traditions would work best for an Australian university?
There were relatively few graduates in the colonies to guide discussion, and much scepticism about whether a university was required. People could always sail home to England for higher learning, as William Charles Wentworth did in 1816 to attend Cambridge. Yet practical considerations pressed as the prosperous new colonies faced shortages of trained professionals in engineering, law, medicine and other specialist fields.
From the 1840s a group of Sydney notables, largely organised by Wentworth, pressed for a campus. The model they proposed reflected British arguments of the era. The ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, with their focus on literary, philosophical and mathematical ‘Greats’ of the Western canon, argued for a liberal education.8 Yet the Oxbridge ideal held significant drawbacks: it would not provide the professionals required in the colonies, while the close links between the ancient universities and the established church made the model unacceptable in a colonial society riven by tension between Protestants and Catholics.9
There were other models to consider. British debate about higher education focused on expanding the subjects offered in universities and opening the institutions to a broader spectrum of society. As John Stuart Mill would tell graduates at Scotland’s University of St Andrews in 1867, until recently the old English universities ‘seemed to exist mainly for the repression of independent thought, and the chaining up of the individual intellect and conscience’. Yet within a few years, noted Mill (in language idiomatic of the times), these universities had been transformed into ‘the great foci of free and manly inquiry’.10
This transformation was led by the establishment in 1826 of London University, under the intellectual influence of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. London University offered higher education to those excluded from Oxbridge by faith or low income, particularly non-conformists, Catholics and Jews. The new institution taught in fields other than classics and ancient languages, and stressed the importance of education for the legal and medical professions. It broadened the traditional formulations of a liberal education by allowing female students to study ‘modern science, modern languages, the major branches of philosophy, and political economy’.11 In addition, the university taught engineering, mechanics and chemistry. Only one popular branch of higher learning was excluded: there would be no classes in theology.
Soon enough, London University spawned a competitor, set up by dignitaries, such as the Duke of Wellington, who opposed the idea of a ‘godless university’. Established in 1829 as an Anglican institution, King’s College London accepted the logic of a broader curriculum, but not one that excluded religion. The rivalry did not last long; in 1836 London and King’s joined under the umbrella of University College London to offer a wider variety of instruction, with a prominent role for professional education in a largely secular setting.
The example of University College London would influence Australian practice. Developments in Scotland and Ireland also mattered. In Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment crafted universities as non-residential and non-sectarian institutions, with provision of education on merit. The Scottish universities differed from their English counterparts with large classes rather than the individual teaching provided at Oxford and Cambridge, and attention to a broader group of disciplines than the classics. Scottish innovations such as the honours year would be adopted in Australia.
In Ireland, three new institutions were created in 1845 as Queen’s College Belfast, Queen’s College Cork and Queen’s College Galway: all were established as secular institutions with a strong focus on the professions. Though Catholic and Protestant leaders condemned these ‘godless colleges’, the institutions drew enthusiastic students from across Irish society.
For Irish Catholics, long excluded from Trinity College in Dublin, the new institutions provided opportunity and new intellectual horizons. However, not all Catholic academics welcomed the development. In 1852 John Henry Newman published his The Idea of a University. Newman’s ideal institution is collegiate, literary, residential and liberal. It is a vision hostile to the new Irish and British universities, and opposed to research as an element of higher learning, as embodied by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s University of Berlin.12
Newman spoke against the spirit of his times. The college Newman established to implement his ideas proved a financial failure and was eventually absorbed into University College Dublin. More influential voices of the era were pressing hard the case for expanding access and curriculum, and for introducing research into higher education. Herbert Spencer published Education in 1861, and F.W. Farrar his Essays on a Liberal Education in 1867, the year John Stuart Mill presented the inaugural address at the University of St Andrews.
In 1868 Thomas Huxley produced his essay A Liberal Education, and where to Find It. Not at Oxford and Cambridge apparently. Huxley dismissed both as ‘simply “boarding schools” for bigger boys’. British universities, he argued, must embrace research as the basis of great university education. At present, he lamented, ‘a third rate German university turns out more produce of that kind … in one year, than our vast and wealthy foundations elaborate in ten’.13
Colonial legislators in New South Wales framed local proposals for a university in the mould of liberal reformers such as Spencer and Mill. William Charles Wentworth, now a barrister, newspaper proprietor and politician, pressed the case in the Legislative Council. He and his allies conceived of a local university as a secular institution outside the direct control of both the colonial state and the church. It would be a public institution, established by government and funded with state money and through private donation, charging fees but offering scholarships for deserving candidates who could not afford a place on campus.14
Proponents were optimistic the fledgling university could produce ‘a long line of illustrious names, of statesmen, of patriots, of philanthropists, of philosophers, of poets, and of heroes, who would shed a deathless halo, not only on their country, but upon the University which brought them into being’.15
Legislation creating the University of Sydney was passed in 1850. It adopted the principle of institutional autonomy. A senate would govern the institution, initially with sixteen appointed fellows. All were men, and their educational background was richly suggestive of the mix of influences underpinning the first Australian university: five foundation fellows had no university education, five were Cambridge graduates and one, Oxford. Three had attended Trinity College Dublin and two Edinburgh.16
From its inception the University of Sydney borrowed from across British tertiary practice. In appearance the influence of Oxford and Cambridge was clear. Yet Sydney drew also from the newer universities of Britain in curriculum and aspiration. The university offered entry without religious qualification to those who passed an examination.17 Classes were organised around the lecture and tutorial model familiar in Scotland and Ireland, with professors rather than tutors as the principal teachers. As in Scotland, the university opened admission to a wider social demographic, typically living at home and travelling to campus for classes. As in Ireland, the new institution would develop in time strong professional programs in medicine, law and engineering.
The model informing the University of Sydney offers an amalgam of universities from Edinburgh and London to Dublin, with architectural hints of Oxford and Cambridge in its design and a motto (sidere mens eadem mutato) to stress continuity with British origins.18 This new institution would become the model for all later Australian higher education—an autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter university.
In 1853 the University of Melbourne followed Sydney. The idea for a second university on the Australian continent grew in part from inter-colonial rivalry. Victoria had just separated from New South Wales, as Melbourne boomed following the discovery of gold.19 Championed by Redmond Barry, a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and a leading member of fledgling Melbourne society, the new university would add to the esteem and civility of a newly wealthy colony.
The university was established without much pomp or procession. A Bill was drawn up for the Legislative Council in January 1853 and received royal assent within weeks of drafting. The foundation council for the university, announced by Governor La Trobe in April 1853, was populated with graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity and Edinburgh. Again, university governance emphasised professional skills found among the local political and social elite. Clerics were few, though the council adopted an ecumenical approach to governance by inviting the Anglican and Catholic bishops of Melbourne to join the governing body. As at London University, religious instruction was excluded. The Act to establish the University of Melbourne required the institution be ‘open to all classes and denominations of Her Majesty’s subjects’. The university would be a state-initiated entity, required to report to parliament each year.20
There were some differences between the new institutions. The University of Melbourne’s founders would choose more austere architecture—sombre Scottish ecclesiastical stonework against the exuberant gothic revival of Sydney’s original building. Legislation differed in detail, and while both universities quickly embraced professional studies, Melbourne moved with greater speed to create vocational faculties, with law (1857), engineering (1861) and medicine (1862) all operating within a decade of foundation.
Yet taken overall, the governance, funding and role in society of the two institutions were strikingly similar. The new universities reflected analogous influences and adopted a similar organisational form and mission. In turn, they would influence the next generation of institutions. The Province of South Australia established the University of Adelaide in 1874 using the same model. The Act of Incorporation for the University of Adelaide mimicked key tenets from legislation in Sydney and Melbourne, creating a non-sectarian institution governed by an independent council empowered to award degrees. Hobart gained a university in 1890, Brisbane in 1909 and Perth in 1911.
Each university was established by legislation based on the now dominant Australian model. The new university would be given land and funding by the state to support a non-sectarian and self-governing institution. Though residential colleges would be established in time, most students would commute to campus, complete an undergraduate degree and leave for a life in the professions.
A standard model does not imply a static, stable world. On the contrary, universities proved lively places. Arguments on governing boards found their way into the metropolitan media. The role and rights of professors provided rich copy; an exasperated Sir John Monash, after serving as vice-chancellor at Melbourne, declared bitterly that he found it easier to organise an army on the western front than to run a university.21 Through their first century, Australian universities grew as new disciplines joined the curriculum. This was often a controversial journey, with long arguments about whether dentistry or nursing, media studies or creative writing deserved a place on campus.
From the late nineteenth century, research became an established part of the university mission. Australia may have adopted British notions of a university, with an academic career focused on teaching, but in time the important technological innovations of German and American institutions, and a rising international interest in scientific research, proved influential. Laboratories appeared around campus from the 1870s. Research would become universal, adopted by every institution as part of the standard Australian model.
Difficulties leaving the path
As the first Australian universities approached their centenary, diversity emerged as an issue. There were calls for further institutions in Sydney and Melbourne, a growing interest in creating regional universities, and advocates for a national university based in Canberra.
Argument for a federal university began in the 1920s, influenced by American institutions such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, which did not teach but focused on high-quality research. Implementation would be delayed by economic depression and war, but by 1944 a substantive proposal for the university was complete. This called for a disciplinary focus on government and policy studies, history and literature. A concurrent proposal for a national medical research institute was championed by Nobel laureate Howard Florey.22
In 1946 the Commonwealth legislated to create the Australian National University (ANU). The new institution would be very different from existing universities, with a specific mission to ‘encourage, and provide facilities for, post-graduate research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia’.23The founding Act established research schools in medicine, physical sciences, social sciences and Pacific studies.
While the ANU achieved much of its original mission, a distinctive character eroded over time. Within a decade the ANU merged with the Canberra University College, an undergraduate institution tied to the University of Melbourne. It acquired the familiar arts, science and professional programs of other Australian universities. Subsequent national policy choices diminished further the unique status of the ANU. It surrendered dedicated funding to compete for national research schemes and became subject to the same federal government rules and regimes governing other Australian universities. The ANU is no longer a non-teaching research institution but instead, following the familiar model, became an excellent autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter university.
The ANU was the first of several attempts to create new institutions with a unique mission. During the long boom following the Second World War, science and technology became policy priorities. Politicians talked of new universities specialising in research and training of scientists, technicians and engineers.
The New South Wales University of Technology was the first commitment to a tertiary institution with an explicit science and technology character. Technical education had flourished since the foundation of the Sydney Mechanics Institute in 1843 and the formation of the Sydney Technical College in 1878. A new institution would develop this tradition in the eastern suburbs of Sydney—even if a patronising editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested the new university take on extensive teaching so the University of Sydney could better focus on original research.
The Technical Education and New South Wales University of Technology Act 1949 established a new institution to provide specialist training ‘in the various branches of technology and science’, paying attention to ‘their application to industry and commerce’. Research likewise would have an industrial focus.24 This would be a new model of university for Australia, carefully guided by its long-standing first vice-chancellor, Sir Philip Baxter.
As with the ANU, the new institution retained many of its founding features but moved towards the wider Australian university tradition. The exclusive focus on science and technology lasted only a few years. A Faculty of Arts and a Faculty of Medicine began in 1960 following recommendations in the Commonwealth government’s Murray Report, which observed that ‘it must be expected that the NSW University of Technology will assume many of the features of a traditional university’.25 With a new name (the University of New South Wales, or UNSW) and a faculty complement that now included law, a distinctive original mission was replaced with a more comprehensive, traditional profile.26
A similar story played out in Victoria. Again, the state government embraced the idea of a new technically focused institution, with proposals to convert the long-established Royal Melbourne Technical College into a university. The idea faced both political and bureaucratic opposition. As the member for Albert Park, Mr Sutton, told the Victorian Parliament: ‘I could never quite rid my mind of the disturbing thought that the words “University of Technology” or “Technical University” involved a contradiction in terms.’ He urged instead the establishment of an institution focused on ‘the pursuit and passing on of wide general knowledge and for research animated by a passion for truth’.27
More tellingly, the Victorian department with control of technical education had no interest in surrendering its flagship institution. Attention then shifted to the idea of a new university, located on a greenfield site south-east of the city. The Victorian government proposed this second university in Melbourne be organised around science and technology, though the Murray Report disagreed, arguing a wider offering was more desirable because the incorporation of arts, law and psychology ‘would be essential for the intellectual health of the new institution’.28
On 13 March 1961 the first 347 students commenced studies at the Monash University campus in suburban Clayton. The institution grew quickly, adding those professional faculties found in longer established universities. By 1966 Monash was teaching more than 6000 students across a wide array of disciplines. Though strong in science and engineering, as originally promised, Monash had become another comprehensive institution in the Australian mould.
The lack of genuine differentiation disappointed many. At a 1965 seminar on the future of higher education, the first vice-chancellor of Monash, J.A.L. Matheson, was reported saying, ‘I speak … as one who has tried—who indeed came to this country with the avowed intention of trying—to produce a university different in character from the other university in the city in which Monash is located. Instead of this I now find myself Vice-Chancellor of a University that is disappointingly like the University of Melbourne.’ There are, of course, worse disappointments in life.
At both UNSW and Monash, plans for specialisation were overtaken by increasing demand for the array of professional faculties found in existing universities. The process took longer at ANU, but ultimately all three institutions resembled the established archetype of organisation, courses and academic mission found at Sydney and Melbourne. Only the architecture was genuinely different. The 1960s provided further opportunities to challenge the Australian idea of a university. A sustained period of founding new universities began with Macquarie in 1964, and within twenty years included La Trobe, Newcastle, Griffith, Deakin and Murdoch. Once again the intention was to counter existing institutional forms by offering real choice, this time around interdisciplinary study.
Flinders University in South Australia provides an example of the new wave of universities founded on aspirations to cross disciplinary boundaries.29 As foundation vice-chancellor Peter Karmel told a meeting at the Adelaide Town Hall, ‘we want to experiment and experiment bravely’.30 Traditional academic structures of faculties and departments were replaced by large schools; students, it was hoped, would seek a liberal education by drawing together knowledge from many fields of study, in a university committed to a coherent intellectual and social experience rather than traditional professional courses. Even when Flinders began to teach medicine in 1975, the course was designed so students would take majors in other faculties.
Innovation extended from subject matter to teaching method. The School of Language and Literature introduced the novel practice of continuous assessment. Flinders students could take Australia’s first undergraduate course in Spanish, as the institution emphasised its difference from the nearby University of Adelaide—the lively voice in the suburbs taking on the city-based sandstone.
Over time, the familiar pattern returned. What began as a radical departure began to take on the degree structures, teaching practice and governance structures of Australian orthodoxy. Flinders developed a comprehensive range of disciplines and responded to student preferences by offering professional qualifications. Interdisciplinarity became an aspiration rather than a thorough-going point of difference. What began as a bold experiment is now an institution firmly within the Australian norm.
The imperative to standardisation
What drove this tendency to the centre, towards homogeneity of offerings and mission? Path dependency emphasises the influence of founding ideas, but it requires constant reinforcement so the logic of the original course remains more compelling than the pursuit of difference. For Australian universities three factors have kept the system on a single path: national policy, the aspirations of students, and an ‘empire of the mind’ among academics.
Originally universities worked with local state and territory legislatures, each with their own aspirations and funding arrangements. The local university operated alongside other post-school-education organisations, including art schools, technical colleges, teacher training institutes and colleges of advanced education.
Under Prime Minister Robert Menzies, the Commonwealth began to develop a national policy agenda for higher education. The Murray Report of 1957 identified many shortcomings of the current system, while the Martin Report of 1964 introduced new Commonwealth-supported colleges and expanded federal influence over higher education. In 1974, under Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, the Commonwealth assumed sole responsibility for funding tertiary education.
In 1988 federal Education Minister John Dawkins exercised the authority available to the Commonwealth. Dawkins sought to solve several problems simultaneously: the shortage of university places as school completion rates rose, the aspirations of non-university institutions to university status, and the problems of paying for system expansion. His solution was the largest policy change in a generation. Though the minister talked about diversity as an important system aspiration, he announced a regime known as the Unified National System.
In essence, Dawkins adopted the familiar template of an Australian university, and compelled all institutions to conform. There would only be a single set of funding rates and no small players, because the Commonwealth would only support institutions with a minimum of 2000 full-time students. In the round of amalgamations that followed, a distinctive group of technical and training institutions were merged or transformed into universities. The nineteen universities at the start of the Dawkins era became thirty-six, each committed to research, to professional programs, to the titles, nomenclature and operating procedures of the nation’s founding institutions.
By remaking a range of institutions as universities, Dawkins created many more student places to meet aspirations for a university experience. By introducing a deferred student loan system he offset the cost of system expansion. And by creating a common funding rate for universities, he could argue that Australia’s many tertiary institutions were broadly similar in standards and offerings. It was a clever solution to a number of policy pressures. The Unified National System accepted only one idea of a university and made it the national standard. The Dawkins policy framework still defines much of Australia’s higher education system and so reinforces the idea of a single pathway.
The university system has grown dramatically in recent decades, but the pattern of student preferences shifts more slowly. The number of undergraduates enrolling in business studies, for example, has increased from around 18 to 27 per cent of total commencements over the past three decades. During the same period, students choosing education as their field of study fell from 23 to 11 per cent.31
Yet one pattern remains remarkably stable: the overwhelming student preference for professional programs. Around 70 per cent of students enrol in a degree with a clear professional outcome. This figure has not changed greatly over generations. While students may look forward to the broader opportunities of tertiary education and embrace campus life in all its variety, for many university remains a means to a vocation.
In the hierarchy of degree choices, students make clear through their applications a preference for established professions such as medicine and law. The need to attract students explains why universities that start outside the dominant tradition tend over time to embrace the same array of professional programs and comprehensive academic offerings. Student preferences reinforce the standard profile of institutions. ‘Rumour has it that a Federal Education Minister once claimed the country had just one university with around 220 campuses,’ noted a recent survey of university profiles.32 This is, of course, an exaggeration—history, economies of scale, location and strategy all matter in explaining the disciplinary mix of any single institution. Yet student incentives encourage convergence around a single Australian idea of the university.
To endure over generations, organisations must employ people with a commitment to their mission and a clear sense of what matters. They become the bearers of the tradition. The Australian idea of the university has been carried forward by academics and professional staff within institutions. A shared set of professional norms tallies closely with institutional practice. Academic judgement is the basis of curriculum quality control, of access and appointment, of promotion and reward. Professors advance their own disciplines as suitable subjects for teaching, and resist encroachment from fields they consider unsuitable for a university. The university is not separate from its staff, but reflects the interaction of an institutional form with the values and priorities of those who work within the gates.
The composition of staff in turn can be changed by national policy. When minister Dawkins required research to be part of every university’s mission, he narrowed the academic basis. Teaching staff lost out to those who combine teaching with research. A 1965 survey found that around 21 per cent of academic staff in Australia were focused principally on teaching. By the 1990s this number had declined to just 3.5 per cent.33
Just as universities have been standardised by national policy and student preferences, so the academic workforce has lost diversity. This reinforces the existing pathway. Legendary Californian university president Clark Kerr observed that attempts at academic reform illustrate how ‘radical some professors can be when they look at the external world and how conservative when they look inwardly at themselves’.34 As bearers of a tradition, university staff do their job well.
A personal account may illustrate how the ‘empire of the mind’ tends to reinforce the dominant model. My first academic job was teaching public policy in the School of Social and Industrial Administration at Griffith University, then a small, single-campus institution in a forest south of Brisbane. Griffith began with a fierce commitment to interdisciplinary education. Like Flinders it embraced schools not faculties, concentration areas rather than disciplinary departments, and degree structures that emphasised knowledge across domains. There were no professional degrees. Academic decisions were made in consultative committees, by a young and enthusiastic staff.
But where to hire people for such an enterprise? The university recruited some superb international academics, a sprinkling of new doctoral graduates such as myself, and many local academics from existing institutions. For some recruits Griffith was a chance to experiment, but for others it proved a disappointing shadow of the ‘real university’ just across the river. For at the nearby University of Queensland could be found comforting tradition: sandstone buildings housing professional faculties and disciplinary departments, recognisable degree structures, and a decision-making structure easier to navigate than the baffling democratic collective at Griffith.
As a young academic I watched with fascination the battles that followed between those committed to the Griffith mission and those anxious (even if unconsciously) to re-create the University of Queensland in this strange new setting. The touch points were the radical edges of the institution, those features designed to emphasise difference. Staff wanted more conventional names for the schools—so Social and Industrial Administration became Commerce and Administration (and in time schools became faculties). The interdisciplinary design of degrees was pegged back, as disciplines such as accounting and economics demanded sufficient compulsory subjects so their programs could achieve professional accreditation. Law and engineering found their way to campus, followed eventually by medicine and dentistry. With amalgamations during the Dawkins era, Griffith incorporated colleges of advanced education and needed to adopt more conventional management apparatus to handle increased size and complexity.
By its 25th anniversary, Griffith was firmly in the mainstream of Australian universities, with a mission that honours its origins but reflects present aspirations. Its professional schools are strong and its research impressive. Change has allowed the institution to build a viable local student base and to attract large international cohorts. Some pioneering original degrees in Asian Studies and Environmental Science survive, but the substantial student growth has been in conventional professional programs.
Such changes were perhaps inevitable—a university is a community, so the choices of students and staff should shape institutional choices. Still, it is hard not to recall the frustration of the original Griffith visionaries as they watched their innovations in pedagogy and governance quietly replaced by more conventional practices. They experienced firsthand the hold of the Australian idea of a university over the academic imagination.
The past and the future of Australian universities This essay offers a historical note about the narrative of decline and loss in universities that Raimond Gaita observed. It suggests significant continuity in Australian tertiary institutions, and argues the power of foundation ideas in shaping that pattern. Institutional choices adopted by the founding communities are reinforced by policy, by student preferences and by academic values. This is no comfort to Gaita, since it does not address his fundamental concern about what happens on campus, and why. To hear that Australian institutions have long been dominated by professional faculties only suggests that Callicles will long await his answer.
Yet the analysis does open up some interesting speculations. The concept of path dependency helps explain the consistent choices of Australian universities. Choices made in the middle of the nineteenth century have endured, in part because universities did their job well, in part because the direction of travel was reinforced over a century and a half by legislation, public expectations and academic culture. The incentive to remain close to the original idea has proven compelling, defeating even legislated initiatives to create diversity. As a result, Australian higher education is dominated by autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter universities sharing very similar missions. More than 150 years in the making, this model has a powerful hold on the public imagination. Yet we may be approaching the end of its influence.
In path-dependency accounts, original choice and continuing incentives propel institutions in a particular direction. Should those incentives change, the familiar path may suddenly seem less compelling. For universities, not every element of the model is under threat. There is no challenge to institutional autonomy, nor to the student preference for professional programs. But other elements of the familiar idea of an Australian university may no longer compel.
The new element is the market—exactly the pervasive influence that Gaita fears, turning students into customers, universities into enterprises. For the Australian model to date has relied on public funding to sustain institutions. As student contributions rise and government funding falls as a percentage of overall income, so universities are forced to make market decisions. This introduces a new logic into the choice of disciplines, selection criteria for entry, even the economics of commuter versus residential students. In a market, increased numbers of private players can open campuses, some with an explicitly religious character.
For twenty years Australian universities have worked simultaneously in two worlds—one public, highly regulated, and deeply constrained, the other international and more like a private market. The first is the world of domestic undergraduates, where Canberra sets strict rules about price and entry. The second is the market for international students, where universities can make choices about where to recruit, what to charge, whether to operate in Australia or set up offshore. Not surprisingly, the world of domestic students remains largely undifferentiated. Australian universities offer a very similar array of programs to domestic students, with no price competition allowed. Only in the global market has real and important difference emerged. Required to make independent strategic choices, universities differ greatly in their approach. A number prefer large offshore operations, teaching programs or an overseas campus that reproduces the ambiance and values of the home institution. Others run an onshore strategy, working with feeder schools, international agencies, foundation colleges and other players to build significant international revenue. A few universities have changed their entire curriculum to orientate towards graduate education for Australian and global students.
Pressures for change should make urgent reflection on the role and purpose of a university. Gaita has expressed eloquently his concerns about the trajectory of Australian institutions. His call to argument is timely. For though the Australian tradition has endured with little change to date, stately progression along a deep path may halt abruptly under commercial pressures. Markets end the incentives to uniformity. They require diversity, since not every institution can occupy the same niche. Markets reward innovation and punish the slow-moving. They destroy and build simultaneously. On current Commonwealth funding rates, no Australian public university can survive without a strong international cohort. As a result, innovation is transforming the singular Australian idea of a university. As the market approaches, the familiar road comes to an end.
- Raimond Gaita, “To Civilise the City?”, Dean’s Lecture Series, 29 September 2011, <www.sustainable.unimelb.edu.au/content/pages/deans-lecture-series-professor-raimond-gaita-civilise-city>.
- Universities, Challenged, Wheeler Centre, Melbourne, 11 October 2012, <www.wheelercentre.com/events/event/universities-challenged>
- A. Stinchcombe, quoted in Herman Schwartz, ‘Down the Wrong Path: Path Dependence, Increasing Returns, and Historical Institutionalism’, Department of Politics, University of Virginia, 2004, <www.people.virginia.edu/~hms2f/Path.pdf>, accessed September 2012.
- Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2004.
- P.A. David, ‘Clio and the Economics of QWERTY’, American Economic Review, vol. 75, no. 2 (1985), pp. 332–7.
- Stan J. Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis, ‘The Fable of the Keys’, in Dan Spulber (ed.), Famous Fables of Economics, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2002.
- Schwartz, ‘Down the Wrong Path,’ pp. 4-5.
- Clifford Turney, Ursula Bygott and Peter Chippendale, Australia’s First: A History of the University of Sydney, Volume 1, 1850–1939, University of Sydney and Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1991, p. 6.
- As Turney and his colleagues argue, ‘A university education, or at least a university degree, was the prerogative of those, and only those, who subscribed to the established religion’: Turney, Bygott and Chippendale, Australia’s First, p. 6.
- John Stuart Mill, ‘Inaugural Address to the University of St Andrews’ (1867), reproduced in J.M. Robson (ed.), The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXI—Essays on Equality, Law, and Education, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1984.
- Turney’s Bygott and Chippendale, Australia’s First, pp. 7-8.
- S. Rothblatt, The Modern University and its Discontents, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1997, p. 13.
- Thomas Huxley, A Liberal Education, and where to Find It (1868), http://aleph0.clarku.edu/huxley/CE3/LibEd.html, accessed May 2013.
- Rothblatt, The Modern University, p. 27.
- Debate after the second reading of Sydney University Bill, 4 October 1849, the Colony of New South Wales Legislative Council, Thursday 5 October 1849.
- Turney, Bygott and Chippendale, Australia’s First, p. 15.
- Alas, this excluded all those without access to reasonable secondary education, such as most indigenous people. See Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherrington, Sydney: The Making of the Public University, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2012, p. 54.
- ‘Though the constellation is changed, the disposition is the same.’ Clive James humorously renders the motto as: ‘Sydney University is really Oxford or Cambridge laterally displaced approximately 12,000 miles’: Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs, Picador, Sydney, 1981, p. 161.
- R.J.W. Selleck, The Shop: The University of Melbourne 1850–1939, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 15.
- Selleck, The Shop, pp. 23, 20.
- Geoffrey Serle, John Monash: A Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1982, p. 479.
- S.G. Foster and M.M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University, 1946 to 1996, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1996, p. 13.
- The Australian National University Act 1946, s. 6.
- Technical Education and New South Wales University of Technology Act 1949, s. 18.
- Report of the Committee on Australian Universities (The Murray Report), AGPS, Melbourne, 1957, p. 88.
- History of UNSW, <www.unsw.edu.au/about-us/university/history>, accessed May 2013.
- Mr Sutton, Debate over Monash University Bill, Victorian Parliamentary Debates, 1 April 1958, p. 3935.
- Report of the Committee on Australian Universities, p. 87.
- Here I draw on Glyn Davis, ‘Making the World Safe for Diversity: Forty Years of Higher Education’, Australian Book Review, March 2007, pp. 28–34, which is an expanded version of the inaugural ABR/Flinders University Annual Lecture, delivered in 2006.
- Flinders University, Emeritus Professor Peter Karmel, <issuu.com/flindersuniversity/docs/karmel_memorial_booklet>, accessed May 2013.
- DIICCSRTE historical time series; this includes data for CAEs and universities prior to the creation of the unified national systems.
- Hamish Coates, Daniel Edwards, Leo Goedegebuure, Marian Thakur, Eva van der Brugge and Frans van Vught, Profiling Diversity of Australian Universities, Research Briefing, LH Martin Institute and ACER, June 2013.
- D. Macmillan, Australian Universities: A Descriptive Sketch, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1968, p. 85; DEETYA, Selected Higher Education Staff Statistics, 1997.
- Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University, Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass., 5th edn, p. viii.