by Francesca Beddie,
Francesca Beddie is an author at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER)
Contact: TBA
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Executive summary

  • Debates arising out of the Martin Committee’s inquiry into the future of tertiary education in the 1960s prompt the question: will the present target to have 40 per cent of all 25-34 year olds with at least a bachelor degree by 2025 result in credentialism rather than a well-skilled workforce and thoughtful citizenry?
  • Arguably, these targets may not be affordable.
  • As the boundaries between higher education and the training system blur, it is important to decide what distinctive features in each are worth preserving and to encourage excellence over uniformity.

The history of adult education suggests we must think differently about the benefits of education and not assume that more and higher qualifications for our people is the progressive way.

While there are similarities between current approaches to education and the mix of the liberal and the vocational in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there are no easy solutions offered by the past. There are, however, lessons to be learned as we try to find the best way to nurture the innovative and creative workers for whom our economy and society is calling.

The temporary omission from the new federal minister’s title of any mention of education underlines that, for the state, the vocational goals of post-compulsory education are always front of mind. Today the preoccupation with high-level skills leading to greater productivity threatens the homogenisation of our educational system, especially at the tertiary level. The danger is that this push will result in mere credentialism rather than a well skilled workforce and thoughtful citizenry.

The official target – recommended by the Review of Australian Higher Education, or the so-called Bradley Report, released in December 2008 – is for 40 per cent of all 25-34 year olds to hold a qualification at bachelor level or above by 2025. To put this in perspective, at the time of Federation in 1901, fewer than 0.07 per cent of the population attended university; and by the outbreak of the Second World War the figure was 0.2 per cent.

The first major expansion of higher education in Australia came in the 1940s in response to the demands of a war economy and then the push for post-war reconstruction. One long-time observer and player in Australian education, P.H. Partridge, reflected – it seems with some regret – on the character of Australian higher education:

If Australian universities have appeared to be exceptionally utilitarian or vocational in spirit, this is mainly due to the character of the society they served. It is a society lacking a wealthy class with a background of education or culture; hence few students have entered the universities for the sake of the intellectual life they could live there. It is a society which has been on the whole anti-intellectual; not able to see clearly the value of thought or scholarship or scientific enquiry unconnected with concrete social and economic advantages, nervous about argument and speculation which seemed to clash with moral, religious and social orthodoxies, quick to resent professional pronouncements which question vested group interests; and generally inclined to regard the intellectual as a creature apart.

The point Partridge was making still needs to be made: the Australian public has never been particularly receptive to slogans about learning for learning’s sake; it expects a concrete return on its investment in education, a sentiment our politicians must heed.

From 1956 to 1966 the number of universities in Australia grew from nine to fourteen; the student population in universities trebled, and the proportion of the gross domestic product allocated to universities by governments in the form of grants doubled. By the sixties, however, this expenditure caused a rethink, as articulated by Prime Minister Menzies to the Chairman of the Australian Universities Commission, L.H. Martin, in November 1960:

The Government is by no means sure that this state of things – more and more students requiring proportionately more and more outlay – can proceed indefinitely… the commission will [have to] …find solutions to the problems of providing the necessary amount of tertiary education within financial limits which are very much more modest than under our present university system.

One has to wonder if a similar rethink may take place when the implications of the entitlement system put forward in the Bradley Report and accepted by the government become clear.

Martin’s Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education presented its final report to parliament in 1965. It proffered the view that tertiary education should be available to all who had the capacity to undertake it, and suggested three distinct categories be developed: universities; colleges or institutes; and teacher training facilities.

These would cater to different groups of students, preserving the elite nature of university, while meeting the needs of the business. The government did not agree to separate teacher training facilities but did support the establishment of non-university tertiary institutions that were to be known as Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs). This was the first binary system of tertiary education.

It was an approach that did not prevail last century – the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s replaced it with ‘a unified national system’. Even so, it may be worth reconsidering today as we think again about the place of non-university institutions in the tertiary education sector.

At a seminar on higher and technical education at the University of NSW in 1964, Sol Encel regretted the vocationalism of higher education, which he thought detracted from the generation of new knowledge. He dubbed universities the ‘service stations’ for government, saying they had become mere training schools for public servants. In response to Encel, Partridge counselled realism:

The democratisation of the universities is surely bound to accentuate the vocationalist spirit… [and] the policy of encouraging a steadily growing proportion of the young to enter universities … means… that the university is the gateway to a better sort of job.

Analysis of 25 years of ABS census data confirms that a four-year degree brings the promise of higher income. For a man graduating in 1981 it was a return on investment of 13 per cent a year; for a woman 18 per cent. By 2001, a fresh graduate could expect even more: a lifetime rate of return of 20 per cent a year for men and 19 per cent for women. In the boom years in the mid-2000s the rate dropped, but nonetheless remained significant: 15 per cent for men and 17 per cent for women.

Such returns underwrite a policy that encourages more people to get the sort of education they need in order to compete in the labour market. The question we now face is how that education is best organised. Here, Partridge had advice that bears repeating today. In 1965, he thought he was on dangerous ground when offering a view that might offend ‘the love of uniformity and of equality which all of us Australians hold so dear’.

It still may be a touchy subject but we should contemplate his point that higher education needs much greater diversity of character, organisation and aims. Partridge wanted to see institutions that gained a national reputation for doing one or a few things ‘supremely’ well: to become the best liberal arts college or a dedicated undergraduate teaching university or a specialist institute of technology. He went on to argue it would ‘very foolish indeed for all our universities, old and new, to aspire to be eminent either for their post-graduate schools or as centres for research’. Striving for diversity and excellence perhaps still might be a recipe for success in a single tertiary education sector.

Selected Further Reading

ABS 1351.0.55.032 – Research Paper: Measuring Economic Returns to Post-School Education in Australia, Aug 2010 available at <>.

Davies, S. (1989) The Martin Committee and the Binary Policy of Higher Education in Australia. Ashwood House. Melbourne.

Gallagher, M (1993). National report on Australia’s higher education sector DEET, Commonwealth of Australia

Hyde, J., 1982 ‘The development of Australian tertiary education to 1939′, Critical Studies in Education, Vol 24, 1 1982 105-140

Laming, M. 2001′Seven Key Turning Points in Australian Higher Education Policy 1943 – 1999′, Post-Script, Volume 2 Number 2, April 2001 available at < 240-273>.

Martin, A.W. 1962 ‘Henry Parkes: man and politician’ in Melbourne Studies in Education 1960-1961 ed by E.L French  MUP

Partridge, P, Society, 1968, Schools and Progress in Australia, Pergamon, Sydney

Wheelwright, EL (ed) 1965, Higher Education in Australia, Cheshire, Melbourne

Citation: Francesca Beddie, Diversity and Excellence: Prompts from the History of the Tertiary Education Sector. Australian Policy and History. October 2010.


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