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May 01st 2014 print

Christopher Pyne

The Return of the Menzies Tradition in Australian Higher Education

Classical values will guide the federal government’s approach as we encourage universities to embrace this century’s new frontiers of opportunity. It is my goal to promote the development in Australia of the best higher education system in the world, including some of the best universities in the world.

I especially want to encourage our universities to embrace with enthusiasm the new freedom that this government plans for the university sector. Freedom and autonomy will be the hallmarks of the government’s approach to universities. As we reduce the burden of regulation on universities, I urge universities to grasp their destinies in their own hands.

We must escape the self-restricting psychology of looking always to government. I say to universities: Do not look to Canberra to be told what to do. Be clear about the mission of your university, identify how that mission can be pursued to the highest international standards, and get on with it as well as you are able.

Some universities, perhaps the only higher education provider in their jurisdiction or region, need simultaneously to be research-intensive, to provide comprehensive education, to offer pathways for “second chance learners”, and to service a number of locations. Other universities will have more narrowly defined goals. Whatever the goals at their university, I ask university leaders to be clear about those goals and to pursue them as well as they can.

In his address to the Universities Australia conference last year, Tony Abbott said that “good universities deserve … as much freedom to run their own affairs as can reasonably be managed”. This is what we are committed to ensuring.

Mr Abbott also laid down seven principles and policy directions that the Coalition would follow if elected to government. He promised that we will be a stable and consultative government; we will encourage universities to protect their academic standing so people can have confidence in the quality of their degrees; in line with the commitment to freedom and autonomy, we will reduce universities’ regulatory and compliance burden; we will establish the New Colombo Plan; we will work with universities to expand their share of the international higher education market; we will encourage universities to deliver world-class research; and we will encourage universities to take advantage of opportunities for online learning.

In his speech, Mr Abbott quoted Sir Robert Menzies, as I and other members of the government have done on many occasions. In discharging our commitments we will be guided by enduring values about universities that Menzies espoused, in words and actions, throughout his long tenure as Prime Minister.

So I will here consider some core principles, including autonomy, and current issues through reference to the Menzies tradition. Indeed, I put it to you that Sir Robert Menzies was the father of modern higher education in Australia.

When Menzies first became Prime Minister in 1939, there were six universities and 14,236 higher education students in a population of seven million. By the time he retired in 1966 there were sixteen universities and 91,272 higher education students. Lest you think this is a mere function of population growth and the baby boom, let me share with you some of Menzies’s achievements in higher education.

On winning office after the war, he initiated the first inquiry into university funding—the Mills Committee in 1950—and initiated block grants for state-funded universities. He introduced Commonwealth scholarships—undergraduate in 1951; postgraduate in 1959. He promoted educational opportunities for non-school-leavers—including the allocation of specific Commonwealth scholarships for students over the age of twenty-five (known as “Mature Age Scholarships”). He brought in taxation allowances for education expenses.

In 1956 Menzies appointed a committee to undertake the first full-scale review of Australian university education. He sought out Sir Keith Murray, Chairman of the British University Grants Committee, to lead the committee. Menzies regarded the UK system, with its long history and traditions and reputation for excellence, as one of the best in the world, and had strong aspirations for Australia to have universities that were among the world’s best.

Menzies championed further increases to Commonwealth funding, understanding that state governments were unable to increase their investment adequately. He knew that if Australian universities were ever to be the kinds of institutions he thought they should be, the Commonwealth would need to step in. And so it did.

In the ten years following his appointment of the Murray Committee, Menzies established an Australian Universities Commission, increased Common­wealth recurrent funding, and provided funding for infrastructure and research. In 1961, he commissioned Sir Leslie Martin to devise a plan for the future of tertiary education, which resulted in the creation of colleges of advanced education.

Menzies considered his reforms in higher education as his finest achievements in domestic policy. Towards the end of his long tenure he said, “My life has devoted itself for years to the development of education in this country. Nothing old-fashioned about it. It’s mostly brand new.” He also said his government sparked the “beginning of a revolution in the university world”.

Quite simply, Menzies laid the foundations for the university system we have today.

Menzies’s interest in higher education long preceded his appointment as Prime Minister, and endured until his death. He wrote about the “place of the university in the life of the state” as a twenty-two-year-old law student at the University of Melbourne. Half a century later, after his retirement as Prime Minister, he served as Chancellor of his alma mater, and also—for example—helped in fundraising for the Academy of the Humanities, of which he had been a champion as Prime Minister.

In an address on his first day as Prime Minister in 1939, he asked, “What are we to look for in a true university? What causes should it serve?”, and put forward seven answers in response. In his words, the university must be a place of pure culture and learning, a training school for the professions, a liaison between the academician and the “good practical man” (what we might call a bridge between pure learning and its application), the home of research, a trainer of character, a training ground for leaders, and a custodian of the unfettered search for truth.

Menzies believed that universities should provide their students with a broad or liberal education, to develop in them broad knowledge, general skills and a strong sense of values, ethics and civic engagement. He understood that the university’s role in developing an “educated personality”, as he would later describe it, had benefits for the individual, who stood to gain not only from the technical skills he or she learned, but also from the formation of an inquiring mind.

Menzies reasoned that these individual benefits would, on a large scale, accrue to the nation. So, if many more Australians could participate in higher education, not only would Australia have a highly skilled workforce that would enable it to thrive in the nascent scientific age, but we would have the makings of a more robust democracy and a more civilised society.

Menzies believed in opening wide the opportunity for a university education. In responding to the Murray report in 1957 he said:

It is not yet adequately understood that a university education is not, and certainly should not be, the perquisite of a privileged few … We must, on a broad basis, become a more and more educated democracy if we are to raise our spiritual, intellectual and material living standards.

This is as true today as it was then. Higher education is almost essential for individual prosperity and social mobility. Given the primacy of knowledge in the modern economy, it is also increasingly a significant source of economic growth. As the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, said in 2010, the university is a “paramount player in a global system increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas”. Higher education and research develop skills and fuel innovation, lifting Australia’s productivity and competitiveness in a globally competitive economy. These things are particularly critical now, at a time when our economy is undergoing great change, and higher education is crucial in grasping the opportunities of new industries.

The government recognises universities for all they contribute to this country, and this is why they enjoy our enthusiastic support, and our encouragement to explore the outer reaches of this knowledge-based new frontier.

In wanting to see Australian universities flourish, Menzies was also utterly committed to their autonomy. He was clear, in his words, that it was “utterly undesirable that any government in a free country should tell a university what and how it is to teach”.

His views, perhaps, stem from his belief in the notion of academic freedom, responsibly exercised. Giving the inaugural Wallace Wurth Memorial Lecture at the University of New South Wales in 1964, he said:

I prefer to think of academic freedom as a precious and shining example of that kind of freedom which all thinking men and women want for themselves, and will not abandon without a struggle.

He quoted “with warm approval” these words of the Murray Committee report:

Universities … are accorded a high degree of autonomy and self-determination on the ground that the particular services which they render, both to their country and to mankind in general, cannot be rendered without such freedom.

Menzies knew that the way to a strong higher education system was to create the conditions that allow universities to thrive, and to give them the freedom to chart their own course and get on with it. This view was reinforced recently by, for example, the work of Ross Williams and colleagues on “The Determinants of Quality National Higher Education Systems”, which stressed the importance of institutional autonomy to the success of higher education systems.

Accountability for public and private funds is entirely compatible with autonomy. Indeed, accountability for public funds is essential to continuing public support for the substantial investment of public money in a system of essentially autonomous universities.

The demand-driven system has afforded universities a measure of freedom to run their affairs unprecedented in recent history, and allowed universities increasingly to determine their own directions and priorities. Universities have responded to this freedom with imagination and energy. But paradoxically that new freedom was combined in recent years with the growth of over-regulation. We are determined to remove the dead hand of excessive reporting and regulation that stifles universities’ productivity and capacity to innovate. This is why, last year, in line with the government’s broader deregulation agenda, I accepted the recommendations of the Lee Dow–Braithwaite Review of Higher Education Regulation and the PhillipsKPA Review of University Reporting Requirements.

We are acting on these recommendations already. One of my first actions as Minister for Education was to direct the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) to consult with higher education providers, including through the soon-to-be-established TEQSA Advisory Council; to deregulate; and to report to me on progress.

No university was ever regulated into excellence. Only through respecting the autonomy of universities can we have the competition that drives the excellence, diversity and innovation that we need. The implementation of the Lee Dow–Braithwaite and PhillipsKPA recommendations will lead to a more streamlined approach to reporting and regulation, ultimately (and I hope quickly) saving universities time and money.

These are first steps, and there is more to be done in widening the scope of institutional freedom—done together, in consultation between government and universities. The TEQSA Advisory Council will be asked to advise generally on all that is needed to ensure the minimum regulatory intervention consistent with accountability for quality. The input of Universities Australia and of individual universities will be crucial in this work of eliminating the needless constraints and burdens on our universities. In an old phrase, “only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches”.

Universities must be free to innovate—to try out new approaches to teaching and learning, and to research, untrammelled by excessive regulation or other burdens. This may be nowhere more important than in the emergence of online education. The potential of online education was carefully examined last year by a committee of Coalition parliamentarians, chaired by Alan Tudge MP, with input from many university leaders, and I am grateful to that committee for their excellent report.

Government cannot provide universities with a map of this new territory, and nor should they unduly control what universities may do. We will be here to support universities, particularly in the maintenance of quality in the digital environment. As with any new frontier, they will need to find their own way forward, to seize opportunities, be bold, be wary of fads, keep quality at their core, and defend their brands as they enter the unknown. I am optimistic about Australian universities’ ability to take advantage of online opportunities because I have seen how they have seized the opportunities of international education when freed to do so.

In my Ministerial Direction to TEQSA in October, I spoke of the need for a “deregulatory and quality enhancement philosophy”. As we encourage universities to shape their own destinies, we also encourage them in their efforts to enhance quality.

Menzies said:

The essential nature of a university [is] to maintain and improve the standards of teaching, of research and of intellectual leadership … Standards ought to rise and rise all the time.

While enormously proud of the expansion of the higher education system, on occasion he expressed concern about the potential for this to affect quality. In 1964, he said:

We have occurring under our eyes a tremendous explosion in the numbers of those who seek tertiary education. Our task is to see that they get it without lowering standards.

Menzies exhorted universities to “produce an increasing percentage of university students who aim at higher degrees and research work”. This was partly to produce what he called the university “teachers of the future, without whom all the money in the world and all the bricks and mortar will never give us the universities that we need”. Menzies also saw that increasing numbers of research students were essential to the future of research.

In these days of flexible learning and online education, a focus on quality is, arguably, more important than ever. The Howard government recognised this when, in 2004, it established the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching (now the Office for Learning and Teaching). Hitherto the “quality conversation” had too often been only about research. The Carrick Institute created a national focus for the enhancement of university learning and teaching.

Learning and teaching indicators are also important to help us focus on quality. I am grateful for the work of the Reference Group on Advancing Quality in Higher Education, chaired by Professor Ian O’Connor, whose report is based on extensive consultation. I am giving active consideration to the group’s recommendations.

In line with the liberal tradition, I regard higher education as a profoundly transformative force in the life of an individual. Menzies’s belief in the transforming power of higher education no doubt stemmed from his own experience. He was from a modest home, and his education, as much as his obvious intellect, opened doors that would otherwise have been closed to him. He also recognised that education fundamentally changed him, and made him (to his mind) a better person, with much more to offer the world. I am reminded of Mr Abbott’s words from last year, “Not everyone needs a university education, but everyone benefits from one.” Personally, I am deeply grateful for the education I received in two of our universities—and concur entirely with these sentiments.

In 1945, looking ahead to postwar Australia and its educational needs, Menzies said:

I foresee a very large increase of the university population … Therefore it may well be … that the time has come for … the establishment of new universities … If a new university is to be created, it should be created on a first-class scale with such financial foundation as will enable it to attract the highest talent to the teaching staffs and make the degrees granted … recognised and reputable.

Menzies took the lead in establishing new universities, and later colleges of advanced education, to expand opportunity for Australians of all backgrounds. Recently, I had the good fortune to open the University of Western Sydney College at Bankstown. UWS College is an inspiring example of a program for students from diverse backgrounds that helps to create aspiration, to provide a pathway to university, and to provide individual support for students through to success in graduation from university.

Menzies understood that most families were not in a position to pay for their children to go to university without assistance from government, and this drove him more than once to make a case to his parliamentary colleagues for funding to enable more people to participate in higher education—Commonwealth scholarships, tax breaks for education expenses, and living allowances.

He stressed that “finance should not be the limiting factor where the intellectual capacity and the ambition are adequately high”. By the time Menzies left office in 1966, around three-quarters of all university students were receiving Commonwealth assistance.

Menzies’s times saw the beginning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in higher education. Margaret Williams, Australia’s first indigenous graduate, graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1959. Charlie Perkins, the first male indigenous graduate, graduated from the University of Sydney in 1966. Like Menzies, this government is committed to providing opportunities for talented individuals from all parts of the community. As Mr Abbott has shown in words and deeds, we are deeply committed to closing the gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians in education, not least as a key to closing the gap more generally.

In November, I announced the allocation of additional Commonwealth-supported places for enabling courses and sub-bachelor qualifications, as well as places for postgraduate courses. In December, I announced seventeen projects selected to receive a total of $50 million in funding under the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program—projects particularly focused on outreach and support for indigenous people and people from lower socio-economic communities. It was in part because of the importance of higher education in creating opportunities for individuals that the Coalition was, like Universities Australia, so committed to eliminating Labor’s $2000 cap on tax deductibility for self-education expenses.

We should not forget the significance of the demand-driven system and the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) in creating opportunities for people to study at university. In 2014, the government’s combined outlay on the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP is more than $12 billion. There are an estimated 600,000 Commonwealth-supported higher education students, and many fee-paying students who have been able to defer payment of their tuition fees through HELP.

In Opposition in 1945, Menzies said that “the research aspect of university work needs to be brought into the very forefront of our educational thinking”. He recognised that good research took time, and that its value to the world was not always immediately apparent. He said:

It is of the most vital importance for human progress in all fields of knowledge that the highest encouragement should be given to untrammelled research, to the vigorous pursuit of truth, no matter how unorthodox it may seem.

This government is a strong supporter of research in both the sciences and the humanities. As Tony Abbott observed last year:

Almost everything that distinguishes today from times past—much higher population, much greater material abundance, much improved technical capacity, even, perhaps, somewhat deeper moral insight—depends upon the understandings of the natural and the human world that universities have fostered.

The previous government took some deeply regrettable decisions about research funding. Sustainable Research Excellence was cut by $500 million, and there is no provision in the forward estimates they left for either the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy or the Australian Research Council’s Future Fellowships beyond 2015.

Since September, I have approved grants, fellowships and centres across all disciplines worth over $833 million through the ARC and accepted all of its recommendations to me—approximately 1200 of them. Within the ARC, the government has committed more than $103 million over four years to research in dementia, diabetes and tropical medicine, to build research capacity in these areas for the health of the nation.

As Mr Abbott said last year, this government will support universities and institutes to ensure that their research work is world-class, effectively delivered and well-targeted.

In this global age, deep international engagement in higher education—in student and staff mobility, in research linkages, in alumni engagement, in the seemingly unlimited expansion of digital teaching and learning—offers profound opportunities for our universities. Australian universities are up to the challenge. They are adept at change and are accomplished entrepreneurs—when given the chance. The building of the international education industry in Australia, the work largely of its universities, is living proof that what begins modestly in Australia can become an exemplar for the world.

Our universities—and government in the Menzies era—began that international adventure with modest exchange arrangements. Universities and others went on to create an industry that, at its peak, was delivering up to $19 billion in export income to our economy. There have been challenges and difficulties not of universities’ making, but our international education effort is recovering. Universities still lead our fourth-largest export industry, standing with the best in the world, and in many ways have shown the others how to do it. This is an outstanding achievement, one that almost certainly owes its success to the freedom universities were given to chart their own course—perhaps because nobody in Canberra fully understood where it would lead. I credit the Howard government with being the first to truly come to grips with its achievements and potential.

The Menzies government played a key role in establishing the original Colombo Plan in 1951. Under the Plan, Australian universities welcomed tens of thousands of students from the developing nations of our region. The people who came developed professional and technical skills, but they also took away with them a profound appreciation of our country, our way of life and our values. They made lifelong friends. In more ways than anyone could have imagined, the Colombo Plan strengthened Australia’s engagement with Asia.

This government is implementing the New Colombo Plan. We see it as essential for deepening people-to-people links between Australia and our Asia-Pacific neighbours and developing future generations of “Asia-literate” graduates—a symbol of all that is good in international exchange.

The New Colombo Plan offers Australian undergraduates new opportunities for scholarships and grants for study and internships and mentorships in the Asia-Pacific region. The Plan will take Australian students into our region, promoting greater understanding and awareness among a new generation of future leaders, and opening up new networks that Australia can draw upon in the future.

Our universities’ commitment to international education has not diminished in recent years, despite the previous government’s neglect of it—neglect that saw international student enrolments fall by 130,000 between 2009 and 2012, and billions of dollars wiped off export earnings in Australia, including for our universities.

In February last year, the International Education Advisory Council, led by Michael Chaney, delivered a report on the challenges and opportunities for international education. The report identified seven key issues for the sustainability and quality of Australian international education. We welcomed the Chaney report. Since coming to office we have taken steps to expand international education by improving the international student visa regime through simplifying the assessment-level framework and extending streamlined visa processing.

We will soon respond more fully to the Chaney report. I am attracted to the thrust of its recommendations, including the recommendations to establish a co-ordinating council and develop a comprehensive strategy for Australian international education. In the spirit of consultation, we will in coming months release a draft national strategy on international education for discussion and input.

Menzies had what he called “a genuine consciousness of the needs of the universities”, and the resolve to translate this consciousness into action. Referring to Menzies in 1964, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Professor Philip Baxter, said:

 We [the universities] are … creating an investment for the future, an investment in young people’s minds and abilities which will mean more for Australia in the next fifty years, and beyond, than anything else we could do. We owe it largely to one man, the man who saw our needs, realised the importance of our problems and took the action required to solve them.

But then, as now, quality higher education was expensive, and there were ever-increasing demands on the Commonwealth’s resources. In 1965, Menzies observed:

If I have one complaint that I can make about my academic friends, it is that some of them—not all of them but some of them—appear to think that there is no limit to what can be produced financially. I’ve even known one or two like that in Canberra. The sky is the limit, they think. The sky isn’t the limit. Considerable financial power doesn’t mean inexhaustible financial resources, and that is not to be forgotten … The task of a Commonwealth Government in economic and financial policy is to preserve a good economic climate in which growth can proceed from a stable foundation …

This government takes its responsibility to manage the budget very seriously. We inherited massive and rapidly rising deficits and a ballooning public debt, and need to take strong measures to restore the public finances to good health. When we do that, we can support universities as much as we would like.

Since coming to office, we have removed the cap on the tax deductibility of education expenses. But, given the diabolical fiscal challenge before us, there has been no realistic alternative but to proceed with savings measures announced by the previous government—Labor measures which Labor now, hypocritically and irresponsibly, opposes. We need to fix the budget for the long term, and only by doing so will we ensure the sustainability of university funding.

I have also recently received the Kemp–Norton review of the demand-driven system. I am grateful for it, and for universities’ input to it. The government will consider the report in the budget alongside the report of the Commission of Audit.

Menzies recognised that government could not be expected to provide all the resources needed for high-quality higher education and research. He was a strong advocate of philanthropy towards our universities. In the future I hope to see increasing support and encouragement from business and the wider community, in the form of philanthropy, research partnerships and commercial ventures. We have seen some inspiring donations in recent years. Our universities are again developing the art of forming relationships, and learning how to engage others in the excitement of their endeavours. Every university can work with their domestic and international alumni communities and with their other potential friends to help gather the resources needed for truly world-class universities.

In 1945, Menzies concluded a visionary speech in the House of Representatives on the educational needs of postwar Australia, using words which, though of his time, I’m sure express widely shared sentiments today:

As a nation we cannot afford to do anything less than our best—in a campaign the result of which will be to determine whether … we are to be a nation of strong, self-reliant, trained and civilised people, or whether we are to be content with second-rate standards, and more devoted to the pursuits of material advantage than to the achievement of a genuine humane community spirit.

This is the spirit that this government brings to our support of universities.

This is an edited version of a speech by the Hon. Christopher Pyne MP, Minister for Education, at the Universities Australia conference, Canberra, on February 26. References may be found in the full version at http://ministers.education.gov.au/pyne/embracing-new-freedom-classical-values-and-new-frontiers-australias-universities .