Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

History revisited - College culture shapes shapes university

Continuing my story of UNE’s Vice Chancellors, in my last column I spoke of the very different cultures of the University and the Armidale and Northern Rivers Colleges of Advanced Education. Those differing cultures would be central to the perfect storm that now engulfed the University.

In December 1987, Professor Laurie Nichol (1985-1988) resigned as Vice ChanJohn Dawkins 1984cellor to take up the same position at the Australian National University. His place would be taken by Professor Don McNicol (1988-1990). That December, too, Commonwealth Education Minister John Dawkins released the Green Paper that would form the core of what became known as the Dawkins Revolution in Higher Education. 

The concept of education for national efficiency, for economic development, was central to the Dawkin’s reforms. To achieve this, universities, must become more business like, adopt new corporate models, find new sources of funding.

There were too many higher education institutions, too many small institutions. To be efficient,. they must merge. A stick and carrot approach was adopted. If you didn’t participate, Commonwealth funding would be contracted. If you did participate, then more funding would be provided.

Don McNicol, UNE’s new VC, was a former Chairman of the University Advisory Council of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, the body that had long pressed for a merger between UNE and the Armidale CAE. He fully supported the Dawkins reforms, arguing that they provided exciting opportunities.

Armidale and Northern Rivers CAEs were too small to attract funding as independent institutions, while the University was too small to join the top level of universities as defined. A sometimes frantic round of discussions began.

The end result was the creation of a new networked university incorporating not just UNE and the two colleges, but also, at its request, the Orange Agricultural College. The new university was the third biggest in NSW.

Amalgamation complete, McNicol departed to become VC at his old University, Sydney. He had been at UNE just two years.

The new Vice Chancellor, Professor Robert Smith (1990-1994), was Walcha born and a UNE graduate. He was also, like McNicol, deeply committed too and involved in the Dawkin’s reforms as a former head of the National Board of Employment, Education and Training. Now, under his leadership, the new networked university imploded.

Professor Smith was in a difficult position. Professor McNicol may have achieved amalgamation, but he had left differences in culture and strategy that had just been papered over. Northern Rivers in particular had a very clear objective, seeing the networked university as a path to ultimate full autonomy, while the old university was left without direction and increasingly resentful.

In trying to balance the various conflicts, the networked UNE developed complicated administrative structures that were the very antithesis of the original idea of a united consolidated university. Divorce became inevitable.

Importantly, during the final break-up the Armidale leadership under Principal Cliff Hawkins alienated both Orange and the Coffs Harbour University movement. Both opted for other arrangements. When, on 1 December 1994, the Armidale campus was reconstituted as an independent entity with all executive positions vacated, it was a much diminished institution.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 26 February 2014. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014.


Anonymous said...

Bought Cliff Hawkins' house; very few bookshelves (um, like none) for an academic's abode. How very different from people like JS Ryan and Prof! Haven't heard from JS for a while. Is he OK?

Jim Belshaw said...

Cliff sounds very different indeed, from then or indeed me. I haven't heard from JSR for a little while. I know that he was sick earlier this year, but a month back he was back at work.Must follow up with him again. We were in constant contact when the content for the UNE 75th anniversary book was being prepared. Frustrated that that book is still not out; I have two chapters in it.