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Book review: The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On

You might have never heard of them but the Dawkins reforms changed pretty much everything about higher education in Australia. AAP Image/National Archives of Australia

Why is Australian higher education the way it is today? To answer this we must go back to Labor minister John Dawkins, who initiated a radical suite of reforms a quarter of a century ago.

His impact on the sector is hard to overstate. In a new book, The Dawkins Revolution, 25 Years On, launched by Chief Scientist and former ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb in Melbourne last week, the book’s editors Gwilym Croucher, Simon Marginson, Andrew Norton and Julie Wells put it this way:

Dawkins…turned colleges into universities, free education into HECS, elite education into mass education, local focuses into international outlooks, vice-chancellors into corporate leaders, teachers into teachers and researchers …He remodelled higher education and how it was funded in only a few years.

Remarkably comprehensive in scope, the reforms were notable for the speed and skill with which Dawkins handled the fraught politics of getting key features accepted. The editors note that he “outmanoeuvred vice-chancellors, academic staff, and student groups” while “changing the Australian Labor Party platform and overcoming opposition within the ALP caucus”.

Road to a revolution

In the opening chapter, historian Stuart Macintyre presents a vivid, forensic and urbanely barbed account of the process by which Dawkins secured consent to his plans, against the odds.

Expanding the sector was essential, since the nation’s economy would need a more highly skilled workforce. But public funds were tight: to finance the expansion, students would have to contribute. This meant changing the ALP’s iconic Whitlam-era commitment to “free tertiary education”. Chairing the committee expected to render this move palatable, former NSW premier Neville Wran labelled the task a “shit sandwich”. At the 1988 ALP conference the revised formula, “access to tertiary education regardless of means” was denounced by many as a “sell-out”. In the end, this crucial decision turned on a handful of votes.

Later chapters chart the many strands of consequence from the reforms: the introduction of HECS loans; the move from a two-tier sector with 19 universities and 46 colleges to a “unified” one with 36 public universities, many born of merger; the big lift in domestic enrolments; the rise of postgraduate study and the widening spread of research; the entrepreneurial turn toward international full-fee enrolments, creating a whole new export industry; a competitive regime for funding research effort; and the mixed effects of all this on institutions, staff and students.

University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis remarks in the book’s Foreword that:

The end of the Dawkins era has been often predicted. Yet Coalition and Labor governments have stayed within the essential elements of the Dawkins design… Against expectations, the Dawkins reforms have endured with remarkably modest change.

And so they have. A two-tier sector has not been reinstated. The HECS innovation has been modified and extended, but not replaced. Competitive research funding, designed to allocate funds across a larger sector, yet linked to national priorities, remains. The relative funding model, devised in 1990 to reflect the varying costs of different modes of teaching and research, continues. Today’s mission based “compacts” – the agreements between universities and government that specify goals and funding – echo the “profiles” of the early 1990s.

Vision to reality?

Did the Dawkins reforms meet their aims? Not entirely. The Melbourne Institute’s Ross Williams notes that attempts to base funding on performance indicators for teaching have not worked.

The reforms built new regional capacity for degree level study. However, Monash’s Catherine Burnheim and La Trobe’s Andrew Harvey argue that regional participation is still low compared to metro, while regional campuses remain hard to sustain. Dawkins hoped that joint programs and facilities would emerge between TAFE colleges and universities in the regions. The policy goal, still unrealised, would reappear in the 2008 Bradley review.

In their chapter on participation, equity experts Richard James, Tom Karmel and Emmaline Bexley reach a “glass half full” conclusion. Enrolment growth gave access to many more students from under-represented groups, as a “tide of expanded participation lifted all boats”. But their relatively low share of all places, while not falling, has not risen.

Other effects of the reforms remain contested. Has a “unified” system with common policy and funding settings fostered diversity, or imposed uniformity? In their chapter, Melbourne University’s Simon Marginson and Ian Marshman describe Australia as having one of the most “vanilla” systems in the developed world. Yet other contributors such as RMIT Vice-Chancellor Margaret Gardner see this differently:

…an expanded higher education system has developed with a mix of private and public higher education institutions …we see greater diversity than was evident in pre-Dawkins higher education. Yet even if we contain our focus to the public higher education institutions…there is greater diversity in their international education profile and their international strategies than in many other aspects of their activities.

What might have been…

In the penultimate chapter, the Grattan Institute’s Andrew Norton outlines how policy might have changed had Labor lost the 1993 election and how Coalition policy fared later, in the Howard era. A leaked Cabinet submission in 1999, fuelling alarmist media reports, scuttled PM support for plans to extend HECS loans to private providers in an uncapped system with deregulated prices.

In the final chapter, Australian Catholic University Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven explains - in entertaining fashion - why the sector seems incapable of ever speaking with one voice, and routinely inflicts self-harm in its efforts to influence policy.

Blessed are the policymakers?

Speaking in Melbourne two years ago, former British prime minister Tony Blair offered this reflection on big policy reform:

My experience of change-making is that when you first propose a change people tell you it’s a disaster. When you’re making it, it’s absolute hell; and after you’ve made it, most people assume life was always like that.

Dawkins’ own brief account in his Preface to the book echoes this rueful observation:

The crucial formative years of the Unified National System…were for me both fulfilling and starkly disappointing. Fulfilling because much was achieved in a short time, and the foundations for an expanded higher education system were laid down. My disappointment was not due to any regret on my part, but rather due to the unedifying response to many of the proposals…I cannot indeed remember re-reading the Green Paper and the White Paper until asked to participate in this project, and when I did, I found it hard to understand what all the fuss was about.

At the launch, Ian Chubb read the book as a corrective to the impulse to view all such change as loss, not progress. Citing major increases in research funding, research training places and enrolments in the decades since Dawkins, he concluded that “the sector hasn’t done too badly”. In reply, John Dawkins recalled how as Minister, an earlier invitation to visit the University of Melbourne had ended with a Coke bottle hurled at his head in the car park. (Things went better this time.)

History is said to be “written by the victors”. Yet, with Dawkins the “rancour of the victims” is writ large in earlier accounts, tagging his reforms as unforgivably “neoliberal”.

This book brings fresh realism to our sense of the Dawkins legacy, and the sector as it stands today. It highlights the challenges for policy makers who dare to reinvent our approach to nation-building, remake our institutions, or reconstruct the Australian idea of a fair go.

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