Ralph W. Rawlinson, Planner


Educational researcher; Chair, Higher Education Commission; founding Planning Vice-Chancellor, Chifley University Interim Council; consultant.


A country boy born in Mudgee, Rawlinson was ‘first in family’ to undertake both secondary education and, when he went as part of the first intake into the Bathurst Teachers College in 1951, tertiary education. After a series of country then Western Sydney school postings, he enrolled at the University of Sydney to finish his degree. After returning to teaching he was suddenly left as a single father by the death of his wife. Study became therapy for him and resulted in him achieving first-class honours and the University Medal for Education. In 1961 he transferred to the head office of the Department of Education in a research position, which enabled him to study at night, specialising in Piaget’s educational psychology. By 1963 he was Acting Chief Curriculum Officer, Division of Research and Planning, working mainly on curriculum and policy development. He finished a PhD at the University of Birmingham in only 18 months, and used his time in Europe and Canada to gain exposure to new approaches to education. Returning to Australia, he served under Harold Wyndham and David Verco as Head of the Department’s Research Centre on Teaching and Learning. In 1973, he was Deputy Principal at Cumberland College of Health Sciences, and then (after 12 months) Principal at Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education. While there he chaired the Rawlinson Inquiry into religious education in schools, which would remain the standard for NSW schools for the next three decades. In 1980, he was appointed Chair of the NSW Government’s representative Education Commission, where he gained a reputation for seriousness and formality. (Paul Landa referred to him as ‘The Bishop’ because of his serious demeanour.) When the Wran government commenced procedures around the establishment of a new university in Western Sydney, the Minister for Education (Rodney Cavalier) asked Rawlinson first to sit on the statutory Advisory Committee formed in 1986 to lay the basis for the university, and then to act as Planning Vice-Chancellor of the Interim Council (CUIC). He was given a blank sheet of paper to set up ‘Chifley University’ (a name agreed on by Cavalier, Hawke, Unsworth and Hugh Hudson of the CTEC), working as interim CEO for the Chifley Interim University Council.

The boy from the farm saw education as ’the light on the hill‘, something that Western Sydney needed. The ‘hill’ at the single campus at Werrington, with its view of the railway line, seemed to resonate in an appropriate way with Chifley’s heritage. He took advice from former Vice-Chancellors Alex Mitchell (a fellow Rotarian) and Bruce Williams. ‘Alex said you need a core of internationally selected professors... At the end of the day you want to have people coming to your university because of the research and the leadership, as well as your people going to other universities.’

As a student of technology, Williams was far more sanguine about the possibility of a ‘multi-campus university which was based from the start on the use of ‘state of art’ information technologies, a subject on which he had written for the Parry Committee. ‘We had a common goal: we were all on about a greenfields, autonomous, quality institution. And I set down the principles which would underlie that.’

With little money, and state wrangling with federal funding agencies, Rawlinson put together a team from the Higher Education Board (Peter Martin), the Education Commission (Miriam Mikol), and a professional administrator seconded from the Higher Education Board, though originally from the University of Sydney, (Robert Stead). He negotiated support from the Premier (Unsworth) and the transfer of the site from John Aquilina’s Department of Youth and Community Services, and established a CUIC office in Parramatta, the ‘epicentre’ of Sydney.

The new institution could resist the pressure from Nepean CAE and Hawkesbury while Cavalier ran the Education Department, but made a not insubstantial number of enemies through its breaking of the rules, and its association with internal Labor politics. Rawlinson’s diary is full of meetings with educational institutions, local organisations such as WSROC and Penrith City Council, business and industry groups, politicians such as Ron Mulock and John Books, and university figures such as Bruce Williams. He had no desire to be appointed first Vice-Chancellor: his role was to plan, marshal support and establish structures that would be handed over the foundation Vice-Chancellor on full promulgation. He did not consider himself to be an academic, and when he went to the western suburbs, he did “not consider myself to be someone who was on the privileged side of the tracks”.

When CUIC suffered opposition from CTEC or the University of Sydney, he agreed with Jack Ferguson, who, when he reported Hugh Hudson’s continued foot-dragging, exploded: “That’s a bloody cake walk, we’re not going down that track!” … You knew where you stood with Jack; he called a spade a spade. If he respected your judgment, he would go along with you.’

In 1988, the catastrophe happened. Labor was roundly defeated at the ballot box, the government changed, and Rawlinson’s political protection was stripped away. The new minister, Terry Metherell, was energetically opposed to the Chifley idea and to all appointees of the previous Labor government. While Rawlinson did not see himself as politically aligned, the effect of having been close to Cavalier was the same. He also stood in the way of Metherell’s desire to be seen as responsible for reforming the education system and planting a new university in Western Sydney. The University would now be ‘unified’ along the lines of the Dawkins Green Paper, and Option 5 of the Joint Working Party’s Report. Rawlinson protested against the name change in particular: the Western Suburbs wanted a name which elicited its history and did not entrench the social bias inherent in its geographical name. He could not accept Metherell’s plans, and could not work with a minister he did not respect – as he was turning 55 in December of 1988, he was essentially in a ‘dead position’ until he could retire at the end of the year.

Taking a three-month holiday, he then (ironically) assisted with the writing of a course in ‘Disaster Management’ at Cumberland College. This commenced his career as an educational consultant, building on his curriculum development expertise. Projects included working through the training requirements for registration of overseas trained doctors, and then international work with the World Bank and AusAid. The latter would see him visit Papua New Guinea some 53 times, and the Solomon Islands over 20 times, with other contracts in the Maldives, Kiribas, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. This work would include cooperation with Neil Baumgart, foundation Professor of Education at the University of Western Sydney, and honorary professorships at Macquarie University and Charles Sturt University. As a former head of a CAE, and member of the HEB, Rawlinson was able to bring to bear many of the lessons he had learned to high change, globalising environments in developing countries. An award named in his honour is given annually by The Inner Sydney Region of the Australian College of Educators.

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Clive Lucas, Stapleton & Partners Pty. Ltd, (2005) Woollahra Contemporary Buildings Heritage Study, prepared for: Woollahra Municipal Council, 19 May 2005.

Davis, Denis J. (1988), ‘Technology and deskilling: the case of five principal trade areas in New South Wales’, New Technology, Work and Employment, vol. 3, no. 1 (March 1988), pp. 47–55.

Davis, Denis J. (ed.), (1989), ‘Australian skill shortages : papers from conference on Australian skill shortages and labour market data’, 12-13 May, 1988,  [Sydney]: Centre for Research in Education and Work (CREW), School of Education, Macquarie University, 1989.

Mulock, Ronald Joseph, Interview with Mark Hutchinson, 14 March 2011, UWS Archives.

Rawlinson, Ralph W. (1967) “Some Significant Research in Educational Administration”, Journal of Educational Administration, vol. 5, no. 1, pp.50 – 65.

Rawlinson, Ralph W., ‘An assessment of the Cuisenaire-Gattegno approach to the teaching of number in the first year at school’, Melbourne : Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), 1965. (Research series / Australian Council for Educational Research ; n.78).

Rawlinson, Ralph W., Interview with Mark Hutchinson, 1 March 2011, UWS Archives.

Uniwest Bulletin/ Chifley Bulletin, nos. 1-8 (1987-1988).

Williams, Bruce (2005), Making and Breaking Universities: Memoirs of Academic Life in Australia and Britain, 1936–2004 (Sydney: Macleay Press, 2005).