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Education

Michael Wesley is an academic and deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne. During the Covid lockdowns, while the rest of us were baking sourdough, he pulled together several related strands of thought about universities and Australia’s complicated relationship with them. Mind of the Nation, the result, offers a survey of where we are and how we arrived here, looked at from a number of different but intersecting angles.

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One of the most durable myths about education is that it can be separated from politics. It is a myth which has allowed people to believe that education in general and schools in particular can and should be insulated from that unpleasant world in which people disagree violently about human rights and needs and social values and just about everything else. Perhaps – but one cannot be sure – the seventies will mark the death of this myth. If Ted D’Urso and Richard Smith’s collection of readings does, as the authors believe, indicate the kind of problem which will be significant in education for some time to come, then its publication is a further recognition not merely that issues in education should be considered in a social context but rather that they are themselves political and social issues. In fact, the education system seems to provide one of the principal theatres in which the central conflicts of a society are played out.

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Chalkface 

by
11 August 2022

Every other day there seems to be a news story about the largesse with which public money is dispensed to private schools while the public education system falls further into disrepair and dysfunction. As reported in February 2022 by the Guardian, recent analysis by Save Our Schools shows that between 2009 and 2020 government funding for independent schools increased by $3,338 a student compared with just $703 more per student for public schools.

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Australia’s new Commonwealth government has pledged to initiate a ‘universities accord’ and build consensus on higher education policy questions. This follows a period of torrid relations between universities and the government where constructive dialogue was patchy at best. We may have heard little from Labor about universities over the course of the past nine years, but its ‘universities accord’ election pledge at least recognises that, for the good of Australia and its people, it’s time to reopen constructive channels of communication.

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In 2011, when businessman David Gonski was reviewing education funding in Australia, he visited two primary schools in Sydney’s west. At the first, he found the principal dealing with glass from a break-in the night before. As he sat in the school’s reception, he observed that the children arriving for school were from non-English-speaking migrant backgrounds. When they toured the school, the principal told him of the challenges he faced: homes without books; scant parental involvement. The second school, just a few minutes by car down the road, seemed a world away. The children were in school uniform, Gonski was greeted by a concert of beautiful singing, the buildings were perfect. The school served a different group of students. Truancy was not a problem.

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The Gough Whitlam and Malcom Fraser Chair of Australian Studies was established at Harvard University in 1976 as a diplomatic gift marking the bicentenary of the American Revolution. It was also part of a global strategic initiative that saw Australian Studies visiting professorships spring up in places from Dublin and Copenhagen to Tokyo and Beijing. While not all such professorships have fared equally well, the Harvard Chair of Australian Studies has been bolstered by the financial largesse of its host institution as well as by its record of strong recruitment. In this episode of The ABR Podcast, Joan Beaumont reflects on the history of this unique institutional arrangement ...

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In 1976, the Australian government signed an agreement with one of the leading universities in the world, Harvard, to fund a visiting professorial position in Australian Studies. Originally conceived by the government of Gough Whitlam, the gift of US$1 million was a token of Australian goodwill to the United States on the bicentennial celebration of the American Revolution. Its purpose was to promote increased awareness and understanding of Australia by supporting teaching, research, and publication.

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No one can doubt the combined impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and Australian policy responses to mitigate its effects, over the past few years. While assessing which groups or sectors suffered more than others will only lead to an invidious victimological contest, we can agree that Australia’s thirty-seven public universities took a number of heavy hits after March 2020. In the year to May 2021, senior managers in Australian universities shed 40,000 jobs, most of them casual teachers, and sixty per cent of them were positions held by women. Unsurprisingly, many inside those universities, along with commentators outside, concluded that the federal government’s decision not to offer JobKeeper payments to public universities reflected a deep animus against and fear of universities. Some reflected on the hostility directed towards the ‘cultural Marxists’ who, it is fantasised in some quarters, still exercise their hegemony in these ‘ivory towers’, notwithstanding the fact that the 2019 report by former High Court Justice Robert French definitively scotched allegations about a rampant ‘woke left’ ruthlessly crushing dissident voices in the academy.

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Kim Rubenstein’s biography of Joan Montgomery, the venerable former principal of Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies’ College (PLC), has been thirty years in the making and is the definition of a labour of love. It involves Rubenstein, a distinguished and worldly legal scholar and human rights campaigner, revisiting scenes from her own life. She was a pupil at Montgomery’s PLC. As a first-year law student, she addressed the remarkable public meeting in April 1984 that opposed Montgomery’s defenestration by Presbyterian reactionaries, who were avenging the formation of the Uniting Church seven years earlier by asserting control over the school. Rubenstein’s subsequent career has been that of a distinguished old girl following the tenets of a liberal education.

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International education, we are told, is Australia’s third-largest export industry; in 2019 it was valued at more than $32 billion annually. But it is now also one of the hardest hit by the pandemic. The publication of Gwilym Croucher and James Waghorne’s history of Australia’s universities, one of the principal institutional drivers and beneficiaries of that industry, is thus timely, even if it went to press before Covid-19 was detected. Government policymakers and higher-education institutions alike will need to respond to the present crisis not only with fresh thinking but also with a clear understanding of how the university sector got itself into such a vulnerable position in the first place.

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