NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The power of a policy

The Dawkins moment began outside the university sector. For while diversity was hard to find among the traditional universities, it could be found in many other post-school education institutions.

By Professor Glyn Davis

Melbourne University Vice Chancellor Glyn Davis has been Vice Chancellor for two universities with strong creative arts faculties and is aware of the particular issues that arose for creative disciplines after the Dawkins reforms. Here he shares observations from his book ‘The Australian Idea of a University’, published by Melbourne University Press in 2017.

The Dawkins moment began outside the university sector. For while diversity was hard to find among the traditional universities, it could be found in many other post-school education institutions. From the nineteenth century Australia supported an array of technical and further education colleges, institutes, colleges of divinity, art schools and conservatoria in fields such as nursing, teaching, agriculture and the arts. This lively sector ranged from small colleges with just a few hundred students to large institutes of technology in capital cities. Ownership and governance proved equally diverse, from autonomous institutions to units within state education departments. Here was the variety of missions and forms not found among universities.

Minister Dawkins understood the power of policy to remake a system. The ministerial title he adopted – placing ‘education’ after ‘employment’- underlined that university reform would focus on human capital, with explicit economic objectives.

This plurality reflected different histories and purposes. In the university sector, governmental and community expectations weighed heavily on a small number of institutions, each obliged to be all things to all people in their state. In contrast, the non-university higher education sector could occupy many niches. Without research as a primary requirement, the post-school sector employed a diverse array of teachers, including many who combined professional practice with instruction. Artists taught students such as painter Margaret Preston and writers the novelist Joan Lindsay, who both attended the National Gallery School of Victoria Art School. Margaret Olley spent time at Brisbane Central Technical College before transferring to East Sydney Technical College, where Charles Blackman also took classes.

These autonomous institutions would not survive the decision by Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training John Dawkins to open up the sector by combining a diversity of institutions into just a few standardised universities.

Minister Dawkins understood the power of policy to remake a system. The ministerial title he adopted – placing ‘education’ after ‘employment’ – underlined that university reform would focus on human capital, with explicit economic objectives. Higher education, he argued, must be ‘more responsive to the needs of industry, more flexible, more consistent with “national interests and objectives”’

To expand enrolments he abolished the binary divide, and extended university status to a wider array of institutions. National protocols would define a university and regulate its operations, creating what the minister called a ‘unified national system’ of higher education.

The Commonwealth would only support research institutions with at least 8,000 full-time students. This meant an end to the independent art schools and music conservatoria, along with the rural and fashion colleges surviving on the periphery of tertiary education.

The Dawkins reforms adopted the familiar template of an Australian metropolitan university and compelled all institutions to conform. The loss of small specialist colleges accentuated similarities. Henceforth Australian higher education would operate with a single set of funding rates and a preference for three-year undergraduate degrees, using the programs, titles, nomenclature, and operating procedures of the nation’s founding institutions.

The unified national system accepted only one idea of a university and made it the national standard. Minister Dawkins stressed efficiency, and imposed a new minimum size requirement. The Commonwealth would only support research institutions with at least 8,000 full-time students. This meant an end to the independent art schools and music conservatoria, along with the rural and fashion colleges surviving on the periphery of tertiary education. Their demise ended the distinctive educational experience possible only in a small and specialised institution. Some became part of TAFE, but those aspiring to university status faced a difficult decision. Twenty-one institutions failed to meet the size threshold. Their arguments for continued independence were rejected, and so small specialised teaching colleges were absorbed into larger institutions. In the process Australia lost a diverse set of institutions, even as it gained new universities.

 

Reproduced with the kind permission of Melbourne University Press.


Glyn Davis is Professor of Political Science, and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne. He has written extensively on policy making, universities and media, including a doctorate from the ANU on the political independence of the ABC.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — Thirty years ago, in July 1988, the Commonwealth Government introduced a policy paper that was to reshape the Australian Higher Education landscape and introduce concepts and ideas that were to influence university operations over the following three decades.

The changes brought by Minister John Dawkins refashioned Australian higher education and its institutions. Over the course of a few years, the government ended free education and introduced HECS, turned an elite education system into mass education, made vice-chancellors into CEOs, and turned higher education teachers into both teachers and researchers.

Let me begin with a claim some will find problematic: creative disciplines have been wildly successful within the structure of a unified Higher Education sector. As counterintuitive as this sounds, it has to be admitted that the post-Dawkins reforms era has clearly demonstrated their value to the Australian university.

In the late 1990s I wrote about various directions of music institutions post Dawkins reforms … the main changes have been funding clusters, increased student contributions and the sector opening up to include more private providers … 30 years on since Dawkins, the tertiary music environment now involves many stakeholders (old and new), one in which total deregulation seems inevitable.

The very phrase “The Dawkins Reforms” evokes an image of Minister John Dawkins adding the flourishing touches to a paper that was, overnight, to disrupt the settled and contented life in Australia’s art and music schools, and send tertiary creative artists trudging in Lowryesque procession to the university ‘factories and mills’.

The 1998 Strand Report on Research in the Creative Arts was triggered by a decision of the then Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs to shrink the 22 categories in the national data collection, that determined the allocation of research quantum funds to individual universities, to just the “big four” and wiping the short-lived Design and Creative Arts research categories, “H” and “J”, respectively.

By Professor Jen Webb — I arrived in Australia in the midst of the Dawkins Revolution – a revolution that was the product of bureaucratic imperatives rather than community demand, and one that has radically transformed the culture of Australian higher education.

Going to Art School at the in the early months of 1980 was a shock. My previous life had to become over-ridden in order to embrace the new languages involved in manifesting and understanding art through many forms.

The period up to the mid-1980s was, for the technical and further education (TAFE) sector in Australia, a time of relative stability and consolidation. A national TAFE ethos began to emerge, with state TAFE systems working together to develop national consistency on curricula, statistics and credentials. At a Commonwealth level, education under the ministership of Susan Ryan remained relatively unaffected by economic rationalism. This was to change with the appointment of John Dawkins as Minister for Employment, Education and Training in 1987.

The British Empire mandated the export of a democratic concept of the nation that made laws on the basis of voting or counting and suppressed forms of customary governance that operated across the planet. For the descendants of empire in the settler colony, the mechanism of “nation-building” suppressed our memories of global colonisation that established our economic and social structures.

In July 2018, DDCA Board Member Professor Kit Wise moved from Head of the School of Creative Arts at the University of Tasmania to take up the role of Professor of Art and Associate Dean of Art at RMIT. NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson spoke to Kit about his move to Australia in 2002, his time at the Tasmanian College of the Arts and on the changes he has observed in Australian tertiary arts education.