Release type: Speech


Embracing the new freedom: Classical values and new frontiers for Australia’s universities


The Hon Christopher Pyne MP
Minister for Education
Leader of the House

Address to the Universities Australia conference dinner
Wednesday 26 February 2014

It is a pleasure to be with you tonight at the Universities Australia conference dinner.

I join you in welcoming to Australia the Director-General Designate for Education and Culture at the European Commission, Mr Xavier Prats Monné.

I value the ability to consult and work closely with Universities Australia, and I pay tribute especially to the work of the Chair, Professor Sandra Harding, and of the CEO, Belinda Robinson.

Just to give two of the many examples of our work together: Universities Australia put forward a compelling case for the removal of the cap on tax deductibility for self-education expenses, which was one of our first priorities in coming to office. UA has also worked closely with us on reducing reporting requirements and we have asked it to report on progress in this area in December 2014. I warmly welcome today’s announcement of an agreement between UA and business groups to promote the work-readiness and career prospects of graduates through work-integrated learning.

In preparing for this evening, I came to the conclusion that as Minister for Education, it is important to give you a sense of the vision and values that guide my approach to universities. These are classical values that guide us, as we encourage you to embrace the new frontiers of opportunity that the 21st century presents.

It is my goal to do all I can to make a good university system even better, and indeed to promote the development in Australia of the best higher education system in the world, including some of the best universities in the world.

The single most important thing I want to say tonight is to encourage you to embrace with enthusiasm the new freedom that this Government plans for the university sector.

Freedom and autonomy will be the hallmarks of this Government’s approach to universities. As we reduce the burden of regulation on universities, I would urge you to grasp your destiny into your own hands. Each institution should be clear about its purpose and its goals, and pursue its own goals as well, as distinctively, and as innovatively as it can – and for this, I provide my strong support.

We must escape the self-restricting psychology of looking always to government for what can or cannot be done, while claiming to want freedom. Do not look to Canberra to be told what to do. Be clear about the mission of your university, identify how that mission can be pursued to the highest international standards, and get on with it as well as you are able.

In saying this, I recognise that some universities, perhaps the only higher education provider in their jurisdiction or region, need simultaneously to be research intensive, to provide comprehensive education, to offer pathways for ‘second chance learners’, and to service a number of locations.  Other universities will have more narrowly defined goals than this full spectrum.  Whatever the goals at your university, I again ask you to be clear about them and to pursue them as well as you possibly can.  I will do all I can to support you as you embrace this new freedom.

In his address to the UA conference last year, Tony Abbott said that ‘good universities deserve… as much freedom to run their own affairs as can reasonably be managed’. This is what we are committed to ensuring. The Prime Minister also laid down seven principles and policy directions that the Coalition would follow if elected to government.

He promised that:

  • we will be a stable and consultative government
  • we will encourage universities to protect their academic standing so people can have confidence in the quality of their degrees
  • in line with the commitment to freedom and autonomy, we will reduce universities’ regulatory and compliance burden
  • we will establish the New Colombo Plan
  • we will work with universities to expand their share of the international higher education market
  • we will encourage universities to deliver world-class research, and
  • we will encourage universities to take advantage of opportunities for online learning.

In his speech, the Prime Minister quoted Sir Robert Menzies, as I and other members of the Government have done on many occasions.

In discharging our commitments, including in our emphasis on the freedom or autonomy of universities, we will be guided by enduring values about universities that Menzies espoused, in words and actions, throughout his long tenure as Prime Minister.

So tonight I will consider some core principles, including autonomy, through reference to the tradition of Menzies regarding universities, surveying what we have already done to help our universities in the less-than-six months since the Coalition Government came to office, and making some brief remarks on future policy challenges and opportunities.

I will consider the guiding principles which Menzies expounded so brilliantly and the direction of the present Government under seven headings:

  • why universities are so important for Australia, in teaching and in research, both for ensuring a civilised society and a competitive economy, and so why this Government is committed to being the friend of universities
  • the importance of the autonomy of universities – what I call the frontier of freedom
  • the importance of quality, both in teaching and in research
  • the crucial role of universities in creating opportunity for individuals from all parts of our community
  • the importance of research, be it in science or the humanities or other disciplines
  • the need for deep international engagement for our universities, and
  • the vital challenge of adequately resourcing our universities, through both public and private means.

The Menzies tradition on universities

Before I consider these principles, I want to introduce what I consider to be the Menzies tradition on universities. Indeed, I want to put to you that Sir Robert Menzies was the father of modern higher education in Australia.

When Menzies first became Prime Minister in 1939, there were six universities in Australia and 14,236 higher education students in a population of seven million.

By the time he retired in 1966 there were 16 universities and 91,272 higher education students.

Lest you think this is a mere function of population growth and the baby boom, let me share with you some of Menzies’ achievements in higher education.

On winning office after the war, he initiated the first inquiry into university funding – the Mills Committee in 1950 – and initiated block grants for state-funded universities.

He introduced Commonwealth scholarships – undergraduate in 1951; postgraduate in 1959.

He promoted educational opportunities for non-school leavers – including the allocation of specific Commonwealth scholarships for students over the age of 25 years (known as ‘Mature Age Scholarships’).

He brought in taxation allowances for education expenses.

In 1956 he appointed a Committee, to undertake the first full-scale national review of Australian university education (the first of many, you might say!).  In doing so, he sought out Sir Keith Murray, Chairman of the British University Grants Committee, to lead the Committee.   He regarded the UK system, with its long history and traditions and reputation of excellence, as one of the best in the world, and had strong aspirations for Australia to have universities that were among the world’s best.

Menzies championed further increases to Commonwealth funding, understanding that State Governments were unable to increase their investment adequately.

He knew that if Australian universities were ever to be the kinds of institutions he thought they should be – if Australia were to have a higher education system that would allow us to take our place fully in the world – the Commonwealth would need to step in.

And so it did.

In the ten years following his appointment of the Murray Committee, Menzies quickly established an Australian Universities Commission, increased Commonwealth recurrent funding, and provided funding for infrastructure and research.

In 1961, he commissioned Sir Leslie Martin to devise a plan for the future of tertiary education, which resulted in the creation of colleges of advanced education.

Menzies considered his reforms in higher education as his finest achievements in domestic policy.
Toward the end of his long tenure he said, ‘My life has devoted itself for years to the development of education in this country.  Nothing old-fashioned about it.  It’s mostly brand new’ .

He also said his Government sparked the ‘beginning of a revolution in the university world’.

Quite simply, Menzies laid the foundations for the university system we have today.

Why universities are so important for Australia

Menzies’ interest in higher education long preceded his appointment as Prime Minister, and endured until his death.  He wrote about the ‘place of the university in the life of the state’ as a 22 year old law student at the University of Melbourne.  Half a century later, after his retirement as Prime Minister, he served as Chancellor of his alma mater, and also – for example – helped in fundraising for the Academy of the Humanities, of which he had been a champion as Prime Minister.

In an address on his first day as Prime Minister in 1939, he asked the questions, ‘What are we to look for in a true university? What causes should it serve?’, and put forward seven answers in response to these questions.

In his words, the university must be:

  • a place of pure culture and learning
  • a training school for the professions
  • a liaison between the academician and the ‘good practical man’ (what we might call a bridge between pure learning and its application)
  • the home of research
  • a trainer of character
  • a training ground for leaders, and
  • a custodian of the unfettered search for truth.

Menzies believed that universities should provide their students with a broad or liberal education, to develop in them broad knowledge, general skills and a strong sense of values, ethics and civic engagement.

He understood that the universities role in developing an ‘educated personality’ , as he would later describe it, had benefits for the individual, who stood to gain not only from the technical skills he or she learned, but also from the formation of an inquiring mind.

He reasoned that these individual benefits would, on a large scale, accrue to the nation.

So, if many more Australians could participate in higher education, not only would Australia have a highly skilled workforce that would enable it to thrive in the nascent scientific age, but we would have the makings of a more robust democracy and a more civilised society.

Menzies believed in opening wide the opportunity for a university education.  In responding to the Murray report in 1957 he said:

It is not yet adequately understood that a university education is not, and certainly should not be, the perquisite of a privileged few…We must, on a broad basis, become a more and more educated democracy if we are to raise our spiritual, intellectual, and material living standards.

This is as true today as it was 50 or 60 years ago. Higher education is almost essential for individual prosperity and social mobility.  And, given the primacy of knowledge in the modern economy, it is increasingly a significant source of economic growth. As the President of Harvard University, Drew Faust, said in 2010, the university is a ‘paramount player in a global system increasingly driven by knowledge, information and ideas’.  Higher education and research develop skills and fuel innovation, lifting Australia’s productivity and competitiveness in a globally competitive economy.  These things are particularly critical now, at a time when our economy is undergoing great change, and higher education is crucial in grasping the opportunities of new industries.
This Government recognises universities for all they contribute to this country, and this is why they enjoy our enthusiastic support, and our encouragement to explore the outer reaches of this knowledge-based new frontier.

The importance of the autonomy of universities – the new freedom

In wanting to see Australian universities flourish, Menzies was also utterly committed to the autonomy of universities. He was clear, in his words, that it was ‘utterly undesirable that any government in a free country should tell a university what and how it is to teach’. He also said that ‘the greater the university’s dependence upon Government finance, the more becomes the importance of this principle’.

His views, perhaps, stem from his belief in the notion of academic freedom, responsibly exercised.  Giving the inaugural Wallace Wurth Memorial Lecture at the University of New South Wales in 1964, he said:

I prefer to think of academic freedom as a precious and shining example of that kind of freedom which all thinking men and women want for themselves, and will not abandon without a struggle.

In that same address, he quoted ‘with warm approval’ these words of the Murray Committee report:

Universities … are accorded a high degree of autonomy and self-determination on the ground that the particular services which they render, both to their country and to mankind in general, cannot be rendered without such freedom.

Menzies knew the way to a strong higher education system was to create the conditions that allow universities to thrive, and to give them the freedom to chart their own course and get on with it.

In similar spirit, when Tony Abbott spoke to the Universities Australia conference last year, he said that ‘good universities deserve… as much freedom to run their own affairs as can reasonably be managed’.

This view was reinforced recently by, for example, the work of Ross Williams and colleagues on ‘The determinants of quality national higher education systems’, which stressed the importance of institutional autonomy to the success of higher education systems.

I hasten to mention that accountability for public and private funds is entirely compatible with autonomy. Indeed, accountability for public funds is essential to continuing public support for the substantial investment of public money in a system of essentially autonomous universities.

The demand driven system has afforded universities a measure of ‘freedom to run their affairs’ unprecedented in recent history, and allowed universities increasingly to determine their own strategic directions and priorities. I am delighted that universities have responded to this freedom with imagination and energy.

But paradoxically that new freedom was combined in recent years with the growth of over-regulation in other ways. We are determined to remove the dead hand of excessive reporting and regulation that stifles universities’ productivity and capacity to innovate. This is why, last year, in line with the Government’s broader deregulation agenda, I accepted the recommendations of the Lee Dow-Braithwaite Review of Higher Education Regulation and the PhillipsKPA Review of University Reporting Requirements.

We are acting on these already. One of my first actions as Minister for Education was to direct TEQSA to consult with higher education providers, including through the soon-to-be established TEQSA Advisory Council; to deregulate; and to report to me on progress.

No university was ever regulated into excellence. It is only through respecting the autonomy of universities that we can have the competition that drives the excellence, diversity and innovation that we need.

The implementation of the Lee Dow-Braithwaite and PhillipsKPA recommendations will provide for a stronger, simpler, more streamlined approach to reporting and regulation, ultimately (and I hope quickly) saving universities time and money.

These are first steps, and there is more to be done in widening the scope of institutional freedom – done together, in consultation between government and universities. The TEQSA Advisory Council will be asked to advise generally on all that is needed to ensure the minimum regulatory intervention consistent with accountability for quality. The input of Universities Australia and of individual universities will be crucial in this ongoing work of eliminating the needless constraints and burdens on our universities. In an old phrase, ‘only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches’.

By reducing reporting requirements and reducing regulation and in other ways, our aim is to give the most practical expression to our respect for university autonomy – our commitment to the new freedom – and to support universities and other higher education providers to deliver teaching, learning and research of the highest quality.

Part of the reason for emphasising the importance of institutional freedom is that universities must be free to innovate – to try out new approaches to teaching and learning, and to research, untrammelled by excessive regulation or other burdens. It may be that this is nowhere more important than in the emergence of online education. The potential of online education was carefully examined last year by a committee of Coalition parliamentarians, chaired by Alan Tudge MP, with input from many in this room, and I am very grateful to that committee for their excellent report.

None of us here, of course, can reasonably claim we have all the answers for online education. While some of our universities have made bold, in some cases outstanding, ventures into the digital environment, this remains truly a frontier-like space, a space not only where everything seems possible, but where risks, both reputational and financial, abound. It is a space that both excites and threatens; one that challenges all our decisions, and moves faster than we can make them. It is great change. But with great change of this nature comes great freedom and great opportunity.

The expansion of the digital space appears daunting. So many things are being turned on their head. You need to know what to build, whether to do it with bricks or clicks, to reconsider existing and future infrastructure plans, assess your workforce, weigh your partnerships and collaborations, survey your potential share of the international and domestic markets, and last but not least, be mindful of the impact on your students and communities.

Government cannot provide you with a map of this new territory, and nor should they unduly control what you may do. We will be here to support you, particularly in the maintenance of quality in the digital environment. But as with any new frontier, you will need to find your own way forward, you will need to seize opportunities, be bold, be wary of fads, keep quality at your core, and defend your brands as they enter the unknown.

I am optimistic about your ability to take advantage of online opportunities because I have seen how you have seized the opportunities of international education when freed to do so – to which I will return later.

Any acceptance of mediocrity must be a thing of the past. Our future must be anchored in excellence.

In my Ministerial Direction to TEQSA, I spoke of the need for a ‘deregulatory and quality enhancement philosophy’. As we increasingly respect the autonomy of universities, and encourage you to shape your own destinies, we also increasingly encourage you in your efforts to enhance quality.

Any acceptance of mediocrity must be a thing of the past. Our future must be anchored in excellence.

Menzies said:

The essential nature of a university [is] to maintain and improve the standards of teaching, of research and of intellectual leadership…Standards ought to rise and rise all the time.

While enormously proud of the expansion of the higher education system, on occasion he expressed concern about the potential for this to affect quality.  In 1964, he said:

We have occurring under our eyes a tremendous explosion in the numbers of those who seek tertiary education.  Our task is to see that they get it without lowering standards.

Menzies saw this challenge in terms of his ideal university. To his mind, universities had a responsibility to exercise a duty of care in the formation of each student. They had to select students with the ability and the ambition to succeed in higher education, and then to provide those students with the best possible educational experience.

Menzies exhorted universities to ‘produce an increasing percentage of university students who aim at higher degrees and research work’.  This was partly to produce what he called the university ‘teachers of the future, without whom all the money in the world and all the bricks and mortar will never give us the universities that we need’.  Menzies also saw that increasing numbers of research students were essential to the future of research.

In these days of flexible learning and online education, a focus on quality is, arguably, more important than ever.  The Howard Government recognised this when, in 2004, it established the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching (now the Office for Learning and Teaching).  Hitherto the ‘quality conversation’ had too often been only about research.  The Carrick Institute created a national focus for the enhancement of university learning and teaching.  This was one of a number of initiatives of the Howard Government to promote quality in learning and teaching in our universities.

Though grateful for the good work of the Office for Learning and Teaching and its engagement with universities, I regret that the previous government reduced a stand-alone body focused on quality enhancement into a branch within the Department with diminished scope for action.

Learning and teaching indicators are important to help us focus on quality. I am grateful for the work of the Reference Group on Advancing Quality in Higher Education, chaired by Professor Ian O’Connor, whose report is based on extensive consultation.  I am giving active consideration to the group’s recommendations.

The crucial role of universities in creating opportunity for individuals from all parts of our community

In line with the liberal tradition, I regard higher education as a profoundly transformative force in the life of an individual.

Menzies’ belief in the transforming power of higher education no doubt stemmed from his own ‘lived experience’.  He was from a modest home, and his education, as much as his obvious intellect, opened doors that would otherwise have been closed to him. He also recognised that education fundamentally changed him, and made him (to his mind) a better person, with much more to offer the world.

I am reminded of Prime Minister Abbott’s words from last year:

Not everyone needs a university education, but everyone benefits from one.

Personally, I am deeply grateful for the education I received in two of our universities – and concur entirely with these sentiments.

In 1945, looking ahead to post-war Australia and its educational needs, Menzies said:

I foresee a very large increase of the university population... Therefore it may well be… that the time has come for… the establishment of new universities. … If a new university is to be created, it should be created on a first-class scale with such financial foundation as will enable it to attract the highest talent to the teaching staffs and make the degrees granted… recognised and reputable.

Menzies took the lead in establishing new universities, and later colleges of advanced education, to expand opportunity for Australians of all backgrounds – opportunities for access to excellence.

Last week, I had the good fortune to open the University of Western Sydney College at Bankstown. UWS College is an inspiring example of a programme for students from diverse backgrounds that helps to create aspiration, to provide a pathway to university, and to provide individual support for students through to success in graduation from university. It is through the innovative efforts of universities, supported by government, that such aspirations are raised, opportunities created, and lives transformed.

Menzies also understood that most families were not in a position to pay for their children to go to university without assistance from government, and this drove him more than once to make a case to his parliamentary colleagues for funding to support more people to participate in higher education - Commonwealth scholarships, tax breaks for education expenses, and living allowances.

He stressed that ‘finance should not be the limiting factor where the intellectual capacity and the ambition are adequately high’.  By the time Menzies left office in 1966, around three-quarters of all university students were receiving Commonwealth assistance.

Menzies’ times saw the beginning of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ participation in higher education. Margaret Williams, Australia’s first Indigenous graduate, graduated from the University of Melbourne in 1959.  Charlie Perkins, the first male Indigenous graduate, graduated from the University of Sydney in 1966.  Like Menzies, this Government is also committed to providing opportunities for talented individuals from all parts of the community.  As the Prime Minister has shown in words and deeds, we are deeply committed to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in education, not least as a key to closing the gap more generally.

In November, I announced the allocation of additional Commonwealth supported places for enabling courses and sub-bachelor qualifications, as well as places for postgraduate courses.

In December, I announced 17 projects selected to receive a total of $50 million in funding under the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program – projects particularly focused on outreach and support for people from low SES communities and Indigenous people.

It was in part because of the importance of higher education in creating opportunities for individuals that the Coalition was, like UA, so committed to eliminating the $2,000 cap on tax deductibility for self-education expenses.

We should not forget the significance of the demand driven system and the Higher Education Loan Program in creating opportunities for people to study at university. In 2014, the Government’s combined outlay on the Commonwealth Grant Scheme and HELP is more than $12 billion – there are an estimated 600,000 Commonwealth-supported higher education students, and many fee-paying students who have been able to defer payment of their tuition fees through HELP.

The importance of research, be it in science or the humanities or other disciplines

In Opposition in 1945, Menzies said that ‘the research aspect of university work needs to be brought into the very forefront of our educational thinking’. He recognised that good research took time, and that its value to the world was not always immediately apparent to wider society.  He said:

It is of the most vital importance for human progress in all fields of knowledge that the highest encouragement should be given to untrammeled research, to the vigorous pursuit of truth, no matter how unorthodox it may seem.

This Government is a strong supporter of research in both the sciences and the humanities.  As Tony Abbott observed last year:

Almost everything that distinguishes today from times past – much higher population, much greater material abundance, much improved technical capacity, even, perhaps, somewhat deeper moral insight – depends upon the understandings of the natural and the human world that universities have fostered.

The previous government took some deeply regrettable decisions about research funding.  Sustainable Research Excellence was cut by $500 million, and there is no provision in the forward estimates for either NCRIS – the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy – or the Australian Research Council’s Future Fellowships beyond 2015.

Since September, I have approved grants, fellowships and centres across all disciplines worth over $833 million through the ARC and accepted all of its recommendations to me – approximately 1,200 of them. Within the ARC, the Government has committed more than $103 million over four years to research in dementia, diabetes, and tropical medicine, to build research capacity in these areas for the health of the nation.

In 2013-14 the Government will invest $2.9 billion to support high-quality research in our universities and research institutes. Just last week, Minister Macfarlane, who as you know is the minister responsible for science, announced almost $186 million in support for Cooperative Research Centres.

As Prime Minister Abbott said last year, this Government will support universities and institutes to ensure that their research work is world class, effectively delivered and well-targeted.


The need for deep international engagement

Universities have long sought to connect with people and organisations around the world who offer opportunities to further their aims in learning, teaching and research. In this global age, deep international engagement in higher education – in student and staff mobility, in research linkages, in alumni engagement, in the seemingly unlimited expansion of digital teaching and learning – offers profound opportunities for our universities.

The good news is that Australian universities are up to the challenge. You are adept at change and you are by any measure, accomplished entrepreneurs – when given the chance.

The building of the international education industry in Australia, the work largely of its universities, is living proof that what begins modestly in Australia can become an exemplar for the world. Our universities – and government in the Menzies era – began that international adventure with modest exchange arrangements. You went on to create an industry that, at its peak, was delivering up to $19 billion in export income to our economy. There have been challenges and difficulties not of your making but you are recovering. You still lead our fourth largest export industry, you stand with the best in the world and in many ways have shown the others how to do it. This is an outstanding achievement, one that almost certainly owes its success to the freedom universities were given to chart their own course – perhaps because nobody in Canberra fully understood where it would lead. I credit the Howard Government with being the first to truly come to grips with its achievements and potential.

Perhaps the most remarkable, under-the-radar achievement of international education is not the billions that it has brought to our economy – and with the changes this Government is making, will continue to flow – but the extraordinary people-to-people, cultural and bilateral benefits between Australia and neighbouring countries that have been created.

The Menzies Government played a key role in establishing the original Colombo Plan in 1951. Under this Plan, Australian universities welcomed tens of thousands of students from the developing nations of our region. The people who came developed professional and technical skills, but they also took away with them a profound appreciation of our country, our way of life and our values. They made lifelong friends.

It was an eminently practical idea, targeted, as it was, to developing our neighbours’ technical expertise so they could develop self-sufficiency and prosper into the future.  But, powered by the human spirit, it took on a life of its own.  In more ways that anyone could have imagined, it strengthened Australia’s engagement with Asia.

This Government is implementing the New Colombo Plan. We see it as essential for deepening people-to-people links between Australia and our Asia-Pacific neighbours and developing future generations of ‘Asia-literate’ graduates – a symbol of all that is good in international exchange.

The New Colombo Plan offers Australian undergraduates new opportunities for prestigious scholarships and grants for study and internships and mentorships in the Asia-Pacific region. The Plan will take Australian students to our region, promoting greater understanding and awareness among a new generation of future leaders, and opening up new networks that Australia can draw upon in the future.

We have already launched the pilot phase of the New Colombo Plan and provided 24 universities with their first round of mobility funding under which 300 students will study and experience life in one of the four pilot destinations – Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Japan. In coming months, a second round of mobility funding will be available, and 40 valuable and prestigious scholarships will also be offered.

We are fortunate today.  When the original Colombo Plan was introduced, the eight Australian universities that signed up to take students had little experience in international education.  Australian universities now have decades of experience working with other countries – experience in welcoming international students, establishing and promoting campuses offshore, and building global research and teaching partnerships.

I know your commitment to international education has not diminished in recent years, despite the previous government’s neglect of it – neglect that saw international student enrolments fall by 130,000 students between 2009 and 2012, and billions of dollars wiped off export earnings in Australia, including for our universities.
In February last year, the International Education Advisory Council, led by Michael Chaney, delivered a report on the challenges and opportunities for international education. The report identified seven key issues for the sustainability and quality of Australian international education.

We welcomed the Chaney report in Opposition. Since coming to office we have already taken steps to grow international education by improving the international student visa regime through simplifying the Assessment Level framework and extending streamlined visa processing.

In the coming weeks we will respond more fully to the Chaney report. I am attracted to the thrust of the recommendations in the report, including the recommendations to establish a coordinating council and develop a comprehensive strategy for Australian international education.  In the spirit of consultation, we will in coming months release a draft national strategy on international education for your consideration and input.

The vital challenge of adequately resourcing our universities, through both public and private means

Menzies had what he called ‘a genuine consciousness of the needs of the universities’ , and the resolve to translate this consciousness into action.

The universities applauded him for this. In 1964, the Vice Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, Professor J P Baxter, said:

We [the universities] are…creating an investment for the future, an investment in young people’s minds and abilities which will mean more for Australia in the next fifty years, and beyond, than anything else we could do.  We owe it largely to one man, the man who saw our needs, realised the importance of our problems and took the action required to solve them.

But then, as now, quality higher education was expensive, and there were ever-increasing demands on the Commonwealth’s resources.  In 1965, Menzies observed:

If I have one complaint that I can make about my academic friends, it is that some of them – not all of them but some of them – appear to think that there is no limit to what can be produced financially.  I’ve even known one or two like that in Canberra.  The sky is the limit, they think.  The sky isn’t the limit.  Considerable financial power doesn’t mean inexhaustible financial resources and that is not to be forgotten…The task of a Commonwealth Government in economic and financial policy is to preserve a good economic climate in which growth can proceed from a stable foundation…

This Government takes its responsibility to manage the Budget very seriously. As you know, the Government inherited massive and rapidly rising deficits and a ballooning public debt, and needs to take strong measures to restore the public finances to good health, including so that we can support universities as much as we would like.

Since coming to office, as I mentioned earlier, we have removed the cap on the tax deductibility of education expenses.  But, given the diabolical fiscal challenge before us, there has been no realistic alternative but to proceed with the other savings measures announced by the previous Government – Labor measures which Labor now, hypocritically and irresponsibly, oppose. We need to fix the budget for the long term, and only by doing so will we ensure the sustainability of university funding.

As you know, I have also recently received the Kemp-Norton review of the demand driven system. I am grateful for it, and for your input to it. The Government will consider the Kemp-Norton report in the lead up to the Budget alongside the report of the Commission of Audit.

Menzies recognised that government could not be expected to provide all the resources needed for high-quality higher education and research. He was, for example, a strong advocate of philanthropy towards our universities.
In the future I would hope to see – as I am sure you would hope to see - increasing support and encouragement from business and the wider community, in the form of philanthropy, research partnerships, and commercial ventures.

We have seen some inspiring donations in recent years – amongst them, Chuck Feeney’s numerous donations to various universities;  Graham and Louise Tuckwell’s $50 million to the ANU; Clive Berghofer’s $50.1 million to the Queensland Institute of Medical Research; and Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s $65 million to Western Australian universities.

Our universities are again developing the art of forming relationships, and learning how to engage others in the excitement of their endeavours. And, of course, it’s not only about these big sums of money – every university can work with their domestic and international alumni communities and with their other potential friends to help gather the resources needed for truly world-class universities.


In 1945, Menzies concluded a visionary speech in the House of Representatives on the educational needs of post-war Australia using words which, though of his time, I’m sure express the sentiments of those gathered here this evening:

As a nation we cannot afford to do anything less than our best -  in a campaign the result of which will be to determine whether… we are to be a nation of strong, self-reliant, trained and civilised people, or whether we are to be content with second-rate standards, and more devoted to the pursuits of material advantage than to the achievement of a genuine humane community spirit.

This is the spirit that this Government will bring to our active support of universities.
Australia is one of the most exciting countries in the world. Universities have an essential role to play in its future – in lifting our ‘spiritual, intellectual and material living standards’.

I have spoken tonight of the principles that shape this Government’s approach to higher education, of why Australian universities have a friend in this Government, and of some of the challenges and opportunities we face.

We have come a long way since Menzies laid the foundations for Australia’s modern higher education system.

Under this Government, we can look forward to a new era of freedom and autonomy for Australian universities.

Australia has a vibrant higher education system, characterised by high quality in teaching and research, and a singular commitment to providing opportunities and support for students. I look forward to working with you to make it stronger.