Ronald E. Parry, On Her Majesty's Public Service

Ron Parry was born in Auburn, then an outer western suburb of Sydney. After education in Beverly Hills schools, he attended Sydney Teachers College and emerged as a Maths and Science teacher, with a first posting to rural Young High School. He was disappointed by the mismatch between his training and the classroom: ‘Sydney University did not teach you anything about science ... It was just theoretical abstraction.’ Inspired by the ‘virus of ambition’, he extended his qualifications and sought experience in an ANU research laboratory as a Technical Officer. Parry was also disappointed with this experience, as he felt they were not doing real science. As ANU did not at the time offer flexible education, he took up a position in the Department of Technical Education, the bastion of practical education in the New South Wales government. Completing a Bachelor of Education from Melbourne, Parry entered his new duties in the Education Research Section with a greater understanding of theory and history of education. There, he came under the mentorship of Hugh King, who taught him how to develop policy logically, consistently and consultatively, and how to win policy battles.

His philosophy transferred to me. That’s where I became imbued with the idea that you must find out what the community needs, and what people need, and find out about the background of your potential students so that you can construct courses appropriately. You do not do it top down by getting a group of academically qualified people to sit around a board table and design a course or whole program that they think is right, because they are motivated by their own intellectual ideas, and then put that downwards and say ‘implement it.’ This was an entirely different philosophy. It was bottom up. And that’s the philosophy that has carried me through until now. It is still my philosophy. (Interview, with Mark Hutchinson, 9 June 2011, Oral History Collection, UWS Archives)

The early 1960s was a period of rapid change, with the Martin Report proposing the reorganisation of post-secondary education into three articulated levels. This would eventually emerge as the binary system. Present through the DTE's anguish over losing the New South Wales Institute of Technology when it became the University of New South Wales, Parry would spend the rest of his career trying to ensure that the practical tradition of post-secondary education remained a vibrant alternative in New South Wales. Having risen to the position of assistant to the Director of DTE, Parry then sought opportunities further afield. Responding to an advertisement for the Registrar's position at the Victorian Institute of Colleges (VIC), he spent the next nine 'marvellous years' working with the remarkable Phillip Law. They were ‘a most unlikely couple’, the careful administrator balancing the aggressive public campaigner and former polar explorer. When Law retired, Parry knew that he would not see his like again, and so he applied for the position of Undersecretary to the Ministry of Education in New South Wales.

Even as he drove north in 1976, the government changed in New South Wales and he arrived just as the Wran reform agenda was beginning to swing through the education sector. While he remained under Secretary, a review sparked by the demands of the teacher education unions effectively kept him from doing anything for nearly three years. With Jim Pratt retiring, he became part-time Chair of the Higher Education Authority and then the new Higher Education Board (HEB). The HEB swallowed his time, but he was now in a position to begin to apply his philosophy of practical education.

New South Wales higher education was under considerable pressure at the time, attempting to deal with population growth from below and Commonwealth budget restraint from above. The years 1979 through 1994 were tense ones between the NSW HEB and the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC). The Wran government argued that New South Wales was proportionally underfunded compared to the rest of the country, a debate made all the more bitter by the intransigent nature of the CTEC chair, Hugh Hudson. Hudson saw his role as restricting state claims upon the Commonwealth purse, bringing into his role as a federal public servant the public personae of his former roles as Deputy Premier and state politician in South Australia. This was not at all acceptable to Parry, who was aware of the limitations of public servants, who thought that Hudson had undue influence over the federal Minister (Susan Ryan), and who was not prepared to cede the fact that -- for all its funding -- the Commonwealth had any superiority with regard to institutions over which the State had legislative responsibility. Not that it was all Hudson's fault -- even Parry considered Whitlam's national education reforms as to be non-fundable. His continual insistence upon the binary system, however, placed Hudson on the wrong side of history -- as early as the early 1980s leaders such as Bruce Williams and John M Ward were pointing out the system's crumbling walls. The Colleges of Advanced Education (CAE) were growing, the universities were static, and in Victoria the fourth university debate began to push towards the system’s abolition. Western Sydney and Western Melbourne in particular had very low participation rates, which were unlikely ameliorated with either the available funding or existing elite university models.

In 1984, Susan Ryan wrote to Neville Wran suggesting that the lack of representation in universities of people living in Western Sydney could be ameliorated by establishing a technical institute of higher education. It was a low cost and geographically limited solution. Wran felt that this was yet another Commonwealth trespass upon States rights, and rejected the offer, demanding instead a Western Sydney university. CTEC refused, but Wran proceeded, instituting an enquiry under Parry's Higher Education Board as to the most expeditious means for achieving his ends. Parry suggested a federated institution absorbing existing Colleges of Advanced Education, which would give the 'Western Sydney State University' both geographical reach and financial rationality. The first Parry Report (1985) which resulted was critical of CTEC, and the CTEC response loud and unmeasured. The second Parry Report supported the NSW government's determination to proceed to legislation. An advisory committee on a university for Western Sydney was established (1986), and Parry headed the New South Wales response to CTEC's refusal to fund the institution. After lengthy negotiations, in which community protest saw the Ryan Ministry back off its opposition, in the next year the Wran-Unsworth government passed legislation establishing an Interim Council for a projected Chifley University (1987). Its head (Peter Wilenski) was also a senior public servant who had had a run-in with Hugh Hudson.

With the collapse of the Wran - Unsworth government in 1988 (Wran himself had stepped down in 1986) it was clear that the new Greiner government would be dissolving many of the government agencies which supported the Chifley enterprise. Parry himself found the new education minister Terry Metherell difficult to work with, and supportive of the sort of university vision which he rejected. While he, at his Minister's direction, established and staffed the fourth joint ministerial inquiry which resulted in the dissolution of Chifley and the establishment of UWS, by the time the legislation was ready to go forward Parry was already considering retirement.  At the end of the year, he did retire, and after some consultancy (in particular several years working with New South Wales Police Education and the establishment of continuing education for the Corrective Services Department), he retired to the country to run a cherry farm near Young.

Parry’s strong representation of the need for a direct higher education presence in the western suburbs, and his articulation of the practical education tradition, would remain entrenched in the University of Western Sydney, as it did in the state-wide network of technical and further education colleges which interacted heavily with the University’s birth and growth. Parry personally oversaw the professionalisation of training for the former sub-professions: teacher education, nurse education, and degree-level studies for Police and Corrective Services Officers.  All of these were the ‘core business’ of the new universities, and it was from this core that UWS would grow into the comprehensive university that it is today. With that, Ron Parry was no doubt very pleased.