05/07/2005 - 22:00

Joe Poprzeczny: State Scene - Failure to learn uni lessons

05/07/2005 - 22:00


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As federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson attempts to gain even greater control over Western Australia’s tertiary education sector, thereby satisfying his Canberra-based bureaucrats’ thirst for greater control, our state politicians sit about looking b

As federal Education Minister Brendan Nelson attempts to gain even greater control over Western Australia’s tertiary education sector, thereby satisfying his Canberra-based bureaucrats’ thirst for greater control, our state politicians sit about looking baffled.

And that’s how it was in the 1980s, when then Fremantle MHR and Hawke government education minister, John Dawkins, moved to merge some of Perth’s tertiary institutions.

A series of what were called Colleges of Advanced Education (CAE) nationwide were told by Canberra to amalgamate, some with established universities, and the new larger entities were themselves called universities.

Whether all their teaching divisions qualified for university status, however, is quite another matter.

In Perth, the already merged Churchlands and Mt Lawley CAEs did as told and formed, with Nedlands and Claremont teacher training institutions, what was named Edith Cowan University (ECU).

Today, ECU’s Churchlands campus is set to become a housing subdivision.

ECU has now sold its Nedlands and historic Claremont campuses to the University of Western Australia (UWA) – the state’s wealthiest institution because of its huge 1920s Hackett and state government endowments that students attending other campuses cannot benefit from – something that’s a major and rarely discussed institutional inequity.

However, ECU retains its Joondalup and Mt Lawley campuses plus one in Bunbury.

Murdoch University, which emerged in 1975, has been intermittently targeted for take-over, initially by UWA and later by Curtin University of Technology, formerly the WA Institute of Technology.

Because of the Canberra-initiated mergers Perth, by the mid-1990s, had four public universities – UWA, Curtin, Murdoch, and ECU.

And influential Catholic elements, after considerable financial angst for that church’s hierarchy, created the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, not Alkimos to the north of Perth as planned.

Perth could thus boast five universities. Too many? Almost certainly yes.

Today’s movers and shakers within Murdoch and Curtin certainly think so, which is why they’ve again been negotiating a merger.

And ECU’s movers and shakers seem to share that view since they moved belatedly last month to join the Curtin/Murdoch bonding moves.

It’s worth noting that Murdoch was built on UWA-owned land, which meant UWA for years believed Murdoch was a natural takeover target if Murdoch failed to grow, as now seems to be the case.

Incidentally, this constant threat of takeover has severely hindered Murdoch’s bid to become a mature, stand-alone institution.

UWA even attempted to acquire it but failed because of moves by the legislative council.

Put bluntly, all this shuffling of campuses – like deck chairs on a liner – has been with us for decades.

What’s not widely realised is that several farsighted individuals as long ago as the late 1960s sought to devise a plan to preclude such ad hoc and ongoing manoeuvrings emerging.

State Scene still knows one of these visionaries well. He set out to ensure an orderly expansion of WA’s post-secondary education to, among other things, spare the state of wasteful deck chair shuffling.

The plan was to model WA’s then growing tertiary sector on California’s, which would have meant the creation of a single state university of Western Australia.

He and several others suggested this to government and industry – to the Brand Liberal government and Perth Chamber of Commerce – to ensure the state’s limited resources were wisely and purposively used.

The suggestion was that the single state university would be a multi-campus, multi-focused institution.

The single state university would have steadily, and as required, created new campuses, each offering if not vastly different disciplines then certainly a different emphasis or focus.

So the present UWA Crawley campus could have emerged to be a research-oriented institution focusing upon the theoretical sides of the sciences, on medicine, engineering, and so on. It could eventually have even led to the creation of specialist graduate schools, thereby helping WA to emerge as a recognised world leader in particular areas, like, for instance, the $1.7 billion international deep space radio telescope project Australia is lobbying for.

Another campus of the single state university could have emerged, perhaps on the present Murdoch site, emphasising many of the biological, veterinary and agriculture sciences plus disciplines linked to mineral extraction.

Another could have been based on the present Curtin site, emphasising a wide range of courses in commerce, economics, law and the many related ancillary disciplines but with a utilitarian orientation, so looking towards industry, somewhat like a post-Napoleonic European polytechnic.

And another within this orbit could have arisen to emphasise teacher training, all the paramedical disciplines, the arts, including theatre, music, design, and related cultural disciplines.

And so on.

Nor was Perth the inevitable venue for all ancillary campuses, since one or more regional centres, such as Albany or Geraldton, may have been selected.

But this approach never eventuated.


Surely the answer is because parliament lacked, and still lacks, men and women of foresight and vision.

Probably also significant is the fact that the tertiary education sector is so well endowed with bureaucratic and academic empire builders who never cease calling (harping may be more appropriate) for more taxpayer funding.

Last month’s apparently unsuccessful bid by ECU to be swept up in the on-again-off-again Curtin/Murdoch merger talks was yet another instance of the ad hocery we’ve seen in this costly sector over the past few decades.

What’s therefore needed is for government to tell Curtin and Murdoch to put their merger moves on hold.

And a state parliamentary committee of inquiry – somewhat like the Beazley inquiry of 1983-4 into pre-tertiary education – should launch a full-scale investigation into the tertiary education sector.

That committee should report and recommend, within two years, how costly ad hocery can forever be purged.

And a hard-headed, practical, and visionary plan should be of devised for at least the next 50 or so years.

That inquiry should focus on several issues, including the asset base of each campus, the respective sizes of managerialist bureaucracies, and duplication of courses.

A detailed analysis should be made of the financial contribution of the sale by WA of educational services to overseas students and what the future holds with the likely emergence of Singapore and Dubai, which wish to become major educational centers.

In addition, adoption of a California-style single state campus (excluding Notre Dame, of course, though if it chose to closely co-operate it should be permitted) after a 40-year delay, should receive attention.

And finally, the inquirers should consider how to ensure that distant Canberra bureaucrats are forever expunged from this sector since their activities, as much as the lack of vision in Perth, are responsible for the wasteful and futile path taken to date.

After that, legislation should be drawn-up to eliminate deck chair shuffling and WA’s tertiary education sector should be made to cut its cloth to the resources at hand.


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