July 1986

Dawkin's Reforms and Amalgamations

From: Preparing for the Future 

In July 1986 the Australian Committee of Directors and Principals in Advanced Education claimed that the 21-year-old binary system was outdated, increasingly irrelevant and inefficient. They proposed that future arrangements should be based upon a single higher education sector comprising the entire range of higher education institutions. By August 1987 John Dawkins had replaced Susan Ryan as Minister in charge of an expanded "super department" of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). A Policy Discussion Paper on Higher Education (Green Paper) was released in December 1987 as a basis for consultation and community comment. It was anticipated that a policy document (White Paper) would be issued in 1988. The rationale for a comprehensive review of higher education was based in part on the need for a more highly trained and better-educated workforce for the Australian economy which would have less dependence on traditional primary product exports in the future and more on higher value-added production. This drew attention to a need for concomitant and coordinated spending on research, development, education and training.

The Green Paper proposed a "Unified National System" which would combine the university and college sectors with the aim of increasing graduate levels and developing a more skilled population to meet foreseeable economic needs. It also meant a high degree of centralisation and control of higher education in the interests of national economic priorities. The Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee expressed concern at the increased scope for political influence in the higher education sector through the establishment of the proposed National Board of Employment Education and Training which would answer to the Minister and recommend policy.  It was feared this would considerably reduce the policy-making independence of the universities.

Funding for institutions within the Unified National System was dependent on where the institution ranged within particular criteria. At least 2000 EFTSUs were needed to become part of the system. 5000 EFTSUs would "justify a broad teaching profile" and some specialised research activity. 8000 EFTSUs were regarded as a base for a relatively comprehensive involvement in teaching and research. Institutions which fell short of these criteria would have to consider strategies to achieve minimum EFTSUs or consider amalgamation with other institutions. Institutions were given until 1991 to achieve their target ranges. Griffith had just under 4500 students in 1987. It was in a similar position to Flinders University, in Adelaide, and Murdoch University in Western Australia.

It became clear to the Vice-Chancellor that "Griffith's position depended very much on growing as rapidly as possible. With the arrival of the Green Paper this need has been underlined dramatically". He invited input from the University community to a Working Party, chaired by himself, to devise Griffith's response to the Green paper. By 1991 Griffith was expected to be very close to the 5000 EFTSU cut-off point and had a broader research base than required for that profile. The Vice-Chancellor invited the various University Divisions to consider the advantages that might be gained from amalgamation with smaller institutions.  In an assessment of the Dawkins Green Paper, Professor Webb wrote that "Without the artificial barriers of the previous binary system, there is no longer any structural reason for universities and CAEs in close proximity to remain as separate entities, particularly where existing facilities are contiguous". 

The Griffith response to the Green paper recognised the need for higher education to contribute to the social and economic welfare of the nation and to the development of a more skilled and flexible workforce, but identified as a weakness the over-reliance in the Dawkins proposals on education as a tool to solve economic ills. Griffith also did not accept the proposition that quality of research was necessarily linked to institutional size. 

The Vice-Chancellor initiated discussions with the State Education Minister, Brian Littleproud. He suggested discussions with other local institutions with a view to developing formal links with such institutions. Professor Webb wrote that "the University believes strongly that the consolidation and development of regional affiliations and loyalties should underpin any moves towards rationalisation of the higher education system in Queensland to produce a smaller number of larger institutions".  The future profile of Griffith, and even its survival, could depend on how the University Council and the Vice-Chancellor reacted to the Dawkins plan. The new directions in teaching and research which Professor Webb had initiated or encouraged placed Griffith in a better position to move within the criteria set by the Commonwealth Government.

The release of the White Paper in July 1987 held few surprises. Griffith deplored the absence in the White Paper of the earlier Dawkins commitment to specific student growth targets and there was concern within the Council and the academic ranks of the University about the implications for research of possible mergers with CAEs. Griffith applied to join the new Unified National System.

Despite the Dawkins White Paper provisions, there were those who argued for a smaller "boutique" university profile which might have been able to maintain a greater individuality and separate vision than would be possible if amalgamation with other institutions took place. Sir Theodor Bray was just one of a number of people, academic and non-academic, who publicly took this view.  However, it was also realised that once the Dawkins plan was implemented, amalgamations were inevitable for some institutions.

After the introduction of the Unified National System, higher education became even more competitive in its approach to attracting the best students and research funds. This required strategic planning and a clear vision of the direction the University should take to be in a position to compete successfully in the future. With the support of the Chancellor and the Council, the Vice-Chancellor had positioned the University to be able to grow in this new environment. Professor Webb also saw the need for locational commitment and support in the future and the Brisbane-Gold Coast Corridor became Griffith's natural demographic territory. Coincidentally, one of the items in the Vice-Chancellor's earliest Council meetings was bringing to Council's notice strong support on the Gold Coast for a College of Advanced Education (CAE). The Gold Coast CAE opened in 1986. As early as March 1985, Professor Webb indicated to the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission and the State authorities that Griffith had an interest in participating in planning for the facility at the Gold Coast.