Vice-Chancellor delivers 2012 Sir Robert Menzies Oration on Higher Education

Professor Janice Reid

Professor Janice Reid AM, Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Sydney, delivered the 2012 Sir Robert Menzies Oration on Higher Education at the University of Melbourne on Tuesday 24 October 2012.

The full 2012 Menzies Oration is available to download (opens in a new window)

The following is an edited version of the speech:

Menzies, Whitlam, and Social Justice: A View from The AcademyChancellor, Vice-Chancellor, distinguished guests. To be invited to give this oration is a great honour and I thank the University and the Board for this privilege. I begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, the traditional owners of the land on which this oration and ceremony are being held.  I also acknowledge all Aboriginal people here today, and the ancestors who cared for this land for countless millennia.

Comment has been made on my professional longevity – 14 years in my current role. I'm not sure that the accretion of years is especially noteworthy but it did bring to mind Gough Whitlam who, when in his mid-80s, was the guest speaker at a commemorative event in western Sydney. He said by way of introduction, "I expect you're all rather surprised to see me here today". A long pause.  "You probably expected me to have been taken up by now". He gazed at his bemused audience and continued, "Frankly, I think the Almighty doesn't want the competition". With masterful timing he waited until the mirth had subsided and added ponderously, "Personally I'd have thought He'd enjoy the conversation".

The Commanding Heights

I should declare that the title of my talk today, Menzies, Whitlam, and Social Justice is respectfully appropriated from the 1999 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture by Petro Georgiou, entitled Menzies, Liberalism and Social Justice. I shall return to this theme but first a word on the legacy of another Prime Minister, who was an articulate adversary of Menzies in the parliamentary chamber and in partisan political oratory. Gough Whitlam not only respected Menzies, but I would argue built several of the monumental reforms for which he is remembered on the bedrock of a political consensus which Menzies had in part laid and without question considerably strengthened. After the 1972 election Menzies wrote a gracious note of congratulations to Whitlam; saying

You have been emphatically called to an office of great power and great responsibility. Nobody knows better than I do what demands will be made upon your mental vigour and physical health. I hope that you will be able to maintain both and send you my personal congratulations (Hocking 2012: 9)

Whitlam replied:

I was profoundly moved by your magnanimous message on my election to this great office. No Australian is more conscious than I how much the lustre, honour and authority of that office owe to the manner in which you held it with such distinction for so long . . . You would, I think, be surprised to know how much I feel indebted to your example, despite the great differences in our philosophies (Hocking 2012: 9)

This afternoon, I want to address most specifically the influences these two individuals had on higher education in Australia. I will trace the threads which linked their visions for the nation's universities and venture some thoughts on their salience for higher education todayLet me begin with the man whose political vision was so greatly shaped over the years from 1952 to 1978 when he was Federal Member for the seat of Werriwa in western Sydney. When Whitlam and his family lived in Cabramatta, the electorate encompassed a vast portion of south-western Sydney, which now takes in no less than seven Federal electorates. The electorate had no high school, no hospital and, as Whitlam regularly recalled, no reticulated sewerage. Werriwa was in a sense "the orphan child of the constitutional division process, ever following the edge of metropolitan population growth and so underservicing"[1]. It was from this "rough and tumble electorate" that Whitlam fought two elections as Prime Minister, and cemented his place in the affections of "westies" and much of the nation.

Twelve years ago the University of Western Sydney entered an agreement with Gough Whitlam to establish The Whitlam Institute (opens in a new window). Subsequently, through a Deed of Gift, he entrusted the Institute with the Prime Ministerial Collection (opens in a new window): all of his personal papers, letters, books and memorabilia.  These meticulously annotated and obsessively archived papers are being progressively gifted to the University.

Whitlam's own instructions for the Institute were unambiguous. It should not be a mausoleum but a lively place of ideas and debate and a source of non-partisan analysis and advocacy in the contested and complex domain of public policy.

Commemorative institutions gain character and definition through their programs, events and, especially, memorable moments. High on the list for the University would be the first two Whitlam Orations (opens in a new window) delivered by the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard (opens in a new window), and former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (opens in a new window).

Perhaps the most indelible memory of my own was when Gough, Margaret and family came to sign the Deed of Gift for his papers (hers later to follow). He brought with him a battered manila folder containing the first of the endowments under the Deed, the original Dismissal letter. The Institute archivist turned white, clasping the folder with an anxious reverence and locked it in the Institute safe where it sits today.

On the face of it, Whitlam, a passionate Labor social reformer, and Menzies, a patriotic, deeply conservative son of the British Empire, were in time and tradition cut from very different cloth. But the personal, political and historical threads that entwine them are surprisingly alike.

On matters of national interest and policy both men could be each other's trenchant critic: of Menzies' attachment to Britain, commitment to the American alliance, opposition to all things nominally communist; or of Whitlam's prescient embrace of China and his socialist and republican convictions. However, a steadfast commitment and unshakeable belief in the value of "common humanity" permeated the parliamentary tone set by both Menzies and Whitlam. Their ideological differences notwithstanding, both men also placed great value on the appurtenances of respect and civility, wonderfully tempered by wit, eloquence and good humour.

Many of us old enough can recall our parents' and grandparents' admiration of Menzies, assuming Liberal sympathies. With two grandfathers who were Liberal politicians and with parents who met and courted at Young Liberals events, one can assume such sympathies in my lineage.

Some of us also remember Menzies' oft-quoted quips; for instance, to the woman who at Williamstown in 1954 heckled him with, "I wouldn't vote for you if you were the Archangel Gabriel", his supposed riposte, "Madam, if I were the Archangel Gabriel I'm afraid you wouldn't be in my constituency".

This was a time in Australian political life when passions and prejudices ran strong but wit, reason, purpose and clarity of expression were at least acknowledged for their value in tempering the language and posturing of political contest. Unlike the divisive hardening of political rhetoric, the retreat of civility and the ideological polarities of our time, Australian post-war politics at its best was memorably human.

Menzies, for instance, wrote to Whitlam in 1974 thanking him for his "thoughtful and kind act" in offering his daughter Heather a place on the Prime Ministerial plane from Manila to Canberra. "It is indeed a pleasant thing" he wrote "that at a time when political feelings (including, of course, my own) run high you should have given us the opportunity of a family reunion"[2].

Menzies' political feelings, on the other hand, were amply expressed. In his letters to his daughter (Henderson 2011) in 1973 he deplored Whitlam's "carrying out a purely communist policy" (2011: 243) and despaired of "the incompetence and the lack of courage of my successors in the Federal Parliament" (2011: 250). (It wasn't clear whether he meant by this the incumbents or his own party, the Opposition). And his recently released letters of reassurance to John Kerr after the dismissal suggest a personal dislike of Whitlam verging on the contemptuous.

Whatever the perceived failings of Whitlam's Government and parliamentary comrades, Gough is remembered as the Prime Minister who won government for Labor after 26 years in opposition. He was the leader who gave form and voice to the sometimes inchoate frustrations and aspirations of a generation born at War's end.

Over and over I have heard the same refrains from the men and women who approach him with reverence at Institute functions to say, "Mr Whitlam, if it wasn't for you I would never have gone to University". I have seen first generation immigrants living in western Sydney hovering at Institute events awed by his very presence and high school students speechless at meeting the living embodiment of their modern history lessons.

This intense personalisation of Whitlam's reforms is not something felt only now with the passing of time. In 1974, as the fledgling outstation movement gained pace, I was at Yirrkala with Gawarrin Gumana, one of the great Yolngu leaders of the Dhalwangu clan who said to me with heartfelt conviction, "If it wasn't for Mr Whitlam we couldn't have gone home".

And, of course, it was the Whitlam Government which "ended the final legal remnants of the White Australia Policy", already eroded but yet to be renounced when he took office (Fraser 2012: 2-3).

But Whitlam is undoubtedly best remembered by the post-War generation for making a university education free. This reform was not, however, conceived in the flush of prime ministerial incumbency.  In 1965, addressing the Government's response to the Martin Report on tertiary education, as Deputy Leader of the Opposition, Whitlam sought to characterise Menzies' attitude as a belief in "higher education for an elite based on competition".

Not only was this socially abhorrent to Whitlam, he could find little economic justification for the continuation of restrictive policies when, as he observed "to give a free place . . . to every student at present in a university would cost only slightly more than £3M a year".  

Education was also central to Whitlam's 1972 policy speech, and to his aspiration "to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people . . ." (1972: 2). Forty years ago this November, at a little heralded but landmark speech in Western Sydney, he made a resounding social, economic and personal case for his long held ambition of abolishing fees. "We believe", he said

that a student's merit rather than a parent's wealth should decide who should benefit from (p.2) the community's vast financial commitment to tertiary education . . . it's time to strike a blow for the ideal that education should be free . . . We will reassert that principle at the commanding heights of education, at the level of the university itself (1972: 3).

In the well-honed tradition of parliamentary hyperbole, Whitlam opined, "There is a sedulously fostered legend that education will be the Menzies Government's greatest monument. It could not possibly have done less than it has done" (Whitlam 1965: 1). Although fit for the purpose of adversarial rhetoric, Whitlam would have known this assertion was far from the truth.

Menzies was, in the words of his biographer, Allan Martin, "a university man of the old school, a graduate devoted to his own alma mater, the University of Melbourne, and by sentiment and tradition a believer in liberal studies and university autonomy" (1999: 390). Murray himself observed that Menzies had "a deep seated devotion to universities' welfare and to scholarship in general" (Martin 1999: 399).

In an early speech on the place of a university in the modern community given in 1939, when "barbaric philosophies of blood and iron [were] resurgent" throughout Europe and the Pacific, Menzies asked what we should expect of a true university. His answers, seven in number, were that the university must:

* be a home of pure culture and learning (p.11);

* serve as a training school for the professions (p.19) . . . (leavened by) . . . scholarship and sensibility (p.21);

* [ensure] mutuality between the theory and the practice (p.22);

* be the home of research . . . [requiring] . . . infinite patience, precise observation, an objective mind and unclouded honesty (p.25);

* be a trainer of character (p.26);

* be a training ground for leaders (p.27); and

* be a custodian of mental liberty, and the unfettered search for truth (p.30).

In response to the pleadings of Vice-Chancellors, Menzies commissioned the 1957 Murray Report on universities and later the 1965 Martin Inquiry into the future of tertiary education in Australia, which led to the establishment of the colleges of advanced education.

The Murray Report (Commonwealth of Australia 1957) was to be a turning point, leading to the commitment of the Commonwealth to much more expansive support of the States' universities. In his response to the Report in Parliament, Menzies announced an immediate increase in Commonwealth grants for academic salary increases and a capital program for both universities and residential colleges. Funding was to increase from £6M in the period 1955-57 to £22M in 1958-60 (Menzies 1957). In concluding his response, Menzies said:

Mr Speaker, if I may confess it, this is rather a special night in my political life . . . It is not yet adequately understood that a university education is not, and certainly should not be, the perquisite of a privileged few . . .

The new charter for the universities, as I believe it to be, should serve to open many doors and to give opportunity and advantage to many students . . .(p.2701)

Given the extent and scope of Menzies' reformist agenda, it may seem a curious oversight that this aspect of his prime ministership is not more broadly acknowledged. This is most likely a symptom of the man's manner rather than his vision.

Notwithstanding their jousting in public and on the floor of the House, both Menzies and Whitlam, each legally trained and classically schooled in the Scots Christian humanist tradition, expressed a reverence for the transformative power of university education and of its central role in national prosperity, civic inclusion and social stability.

Menzies' creation of the Australian Universities Commission in 1959 was, for Whitlam, a template and precedent for the creation of a Schools Commission and needs-based Federal funding support for public and Catholic schools.  For Whitlam this was an instrument advancing his goal of creating equality. The "archetypal humanist" was in effect inspired by the example of the "simple Presbyterian".[3]

UWS historian Mark Hutchinson suggests that for Menzies, a university education was a privilege to be afforded to as many as had the aptitude for tertiary study. It should be blind to background and buffered by the means-tested Commonwealth Scholarship Scheme to support those for whom the cost was prohibitive (and I was one).  His was a "patrician view of the world"[4]. For Whitlam, on the other hand, Hutchinson argues higher education was the "spear point" for equality of opportunity, a right to be unencumbered by happenstance of birth or fortune.

Just as for Menzies, who regarded education as his own major domestic achievement (Freudenberg 1977), Whitlam was later to say that "the most enduring single achievement of my Government was the transformation of education in Australia" (1985: 315).

The threads of history which connected Whitlam and Menzies were those of social justice. They converged on the role of the State in creating the grounds for equality. They were both driven by a determination to remove barriers to access to university. Both were committed to the underpinning of practical knowledge with intellectual honesty.  They championed and exemplified the formation of moral sensibilities.  Both leaders saw universities as central in driving economic advancement and social transformation. Those threads spun out through the generations and, though rediscovered and reworked in policy reforms every decade or so, can still be traced back to these figures.

Legacy or Loss? A Question of Values

One does not have to be immersed in the world of universities to know that tertiary education has been transformed in the years since Menzies and Whitlam held office. The scale and rate of change in Australia has been unremitting.  The university sector doubled in size following the Dawkins reforms of 1989-90 and has had an unbroken growth trajectory ever since. We have seen the rise and rise of private providers and the re-introduction of course fees and intermittent increases in their level.  We are all subject to the codification of research performance and formula-driven methods of funding. More recently, we have been adapting to the demands of a new higher education regulator and the lifting of quotas on enrolments. The on-line and open access revolution is bearing down on us so rapidly that its implications are as yet hazy. But they will be profound.

Woven through policy debates about the funding, form and future of higher education institutions are enduring tensions: between the private and public value of a university education (Norton 2012), between autonomy and accountability, between universities' social and economic value, between state control and institutional freedom, and between universal access and selectivity.

Even so, Menzies' and Whitlam's proclamations on the centrality of education to national prosperity, personal transformation and equality of life chances resonate today with the charter of every Australian university. These values, however, are thrown into particularly high relief for those universities in relatively disadvantaged and neglected rural and metropolitan regions; those institutions that arose as the third wave of university establishment 25 years ago.  More than ever before, these universities, of which UWS with its six campuses and 40,000 students is one, brought higher education within the reach of communities for whom it had been both unimagined and unimaginable.

For many of those of us educated in the nineteenth century universities of our capital cities, the nature and mandates of the third wave institutions are still seen through a glass darkly. They are in fact a highly diverse institutional cohort, in part because of their locations and the demography of their catchments, in part because of their disciplinary inheritances.

Like all Australian universities, institutions in this third cohort aspire and strive to be locally relevant, nationally competitive, internationally referenced, and shaped by and shaping their communities. We all seek to foster the values and critical conversations that form the bedrock of an educated, civic-minded, diverse and tolerant populace.

But are universities today succeeding in this quest?

First, although we embrace the notions of opportunity and access, the number of students of low socio-economic status going to university has barely shifted over several decades despite a plethora of programs and strategies.  Only in the last three years with the lifting of the caps on undergraduate places has the number of disadvantaged students begun to rise.

For many students, university would be a bridge too far were it not for the encouragement and support to cross it. But in the spirit of our dictum at UWS that the best predictor of success at university is success at university, providing the ways and means to achieve this is a critical part of our mandate. As Andrew Delbanco of Columbia University has written, ". . . it is often students of lesser means for whom college means the most – not just in . . . improving their economic competitiveness, but in the intellectual and imaginative enlargement it makes possible" (2012: 172).

Second, as universities we formulate the ideal attributes of a graduate, and endeavour to embed their development in our teaching. We promote and defend intellectual exploration and the freedom to speak truth to authority.  But are our graduates literate, numerate and capable of bringing a critical imagination and moral sensibility to their professional worlds? And what of an authentic understanding of the forces that drive inequality, poverty and ill health? What of a commitment to public service, in the old fashioned meaning of the term? What of the values both Menzies and Whitlam espoused?

Questions such as these have seized the public imagination in America which has seen a recent torrent of publications, media commentary and political debate on higher education. Many authors fret eloquently about the state of higher education: about standards, about funding, about academic honesty, about purpose, about pedagogy and about the perceived shortcomings of today's students. Of particular concern is the impact of debt on individual prospects, social mobility and national prosperity, especially for low income families and students. In the words of educationalist Richard Kahlenberg, "Instead of counteracting the inequalities they inherit, colleges and universities magnify them" (Kahlenberg 2012).

The burden of graduate debt – a consequence of upwardly spiralling university fees and retreating government appropriations – has seized the attention of even the President, Barack Obama. In his State of the Union address this year he put higher education institutions on notice: "If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down". But the reality is that fees already have gone up. College appropriations have declined and the total student debt in the U.S. is now reckoned to be one trillion dollars. Many young people as a result are, as Kim Beazley said to me recently, "crippled by joblessness and deeply in debt".

In the United Kingdom, concerns about student debt have risen in volume with the effective deregulation of fees through the almost trebling of the cap. Criticisms and concerns include the longer-term inflationary effects of higher tuition fees, the risk of future fee increases, and changes to loan conditions. Others include the risk of the sale of the loan book to the private sector or the failure of the market in the absence of robust legislative protection (Burns 2012).

We in Australia would be well-advised to watch carefully the fates of our overseas cousins. Australia has an enlightened loan repayment model, but we are not immune from some future government decision in economically straitened times to securitise this asset (the national HECS debt) and sell it off. An even greater potential threat is the progressive withdrawal by government of its own funds as has happened so starkly in the U.K. and even more in the U.S. where students are "swimming in a sea of debt".

Third, as fees rise and government allocations recede, the quality of contemporary American higher education is being questioned.  A book entitled Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by two well-credentialed sociologists, created much wringing of hands when it was released in the United States a year or so ago. Some methodological criticisms notwithstanding, the book became one of the rare pieces of serious scholarship that, as one commentator put it, "jumps the fence and roams free into the larger culture": the New Yorker, Vanity Fair and even Doonesbury.

It was based on the testing and retesting of 2,300 students using the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) test. The authors' "gloomy" conclusion was that 45% "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" over two years of college, a third over four years of college and those who did improve only showed "modest" gains. In response to the question, "how much do students learn in contemporary higher education?" the authors' answer is "not much".  

Moreover after graduation those scoring in the bottom 20% were three times more likely to be unemployed, living at home or receiving financial help from their parents, and burdened by credit-card and college loan debt (Arum et al 2012).

The sheer size and diversity of the American system eclipses that in Australia but the competition for resources and recognition, esteem and purpose, if not on the same scale, is familiar to us all.

But while we are accustomed to the form and functions of our sector, into this field of forces are coming other players and strategems. Every issue of the U.S. Chronicle of Higher Education contains breathless accounts of the inventive inroads of online providers. These include both the hopeful entrepreneurs and emerging education companies who may be inflating the next bubble. Blue ribbon universities are now making their content freely available on the web (beginning with MIT in 2002) and looking at how reliably to assess and certify units of study.

To the extent that we value the integrity and excellence of an Australian system of higher education it behoves us to look beyond our own borders and the dictums of the market and to recognise that we are in a global field of forces that are sweeping universities along an unchartered path.

The strength of Australia's universities will lie in our collective capacity to forge, project and protect a nationally and internationally respected identity that transcends the interests of old and young, rural and urban, sandstones and red bricks.

The Vice-Chancellor (Davis, 2010) has said, "Our universities compete and connect, collaborate and vigorously contend, but each makes Australia a better place" (p.123). I would add that as the international currents of innovation, enterprise and experimentation in higher education eddy around us, our greatest strengths lie in unity, mutuality, and national clarity of purpose. There are some interests common to us all and they go to a question posed by Menzies in his 1939 speech:

For, after all, I have touched upon the great problem of Universities, one upon which many a hard-pressed Vice-Chancellor broods long and late – How can my University adequately influence the world?  How can the world be brought adequately to influence my University? (p.24).

Our best influence, I suggest, is in our capacity to embed in the fabric of our institutions those values which he and Whitlam invoked, however different and distant their times: the duty to use knowledge for social benefit, to strive to remove barriers to equality of opportunity, to create the grounds for productive engagement with our communities and to pass the baton of responsible citizenship to the generations which follow us.  This, I believe, is what makes a higher education higher.

[1] Mark Hutchinson, personal communication , June 2012
[2] Personal letter, unpublished, Whitlam to Menzies, 15 February 1974
[3] Graham Freudenberg's characterisations, personal communication
[4] The Hon. Kim Beazley, personal communication

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