When it comes to higher education in Australia, Glenn Withers has been there and done that. From Menzies and Whitlam to Hawke, Keating and Howard, and through to the present day – he’s seen it all. He’s an insider who’s been outside often enough to maintain perspective.
And that perspective resolves into a firm belief in the essential and continuing value of universities.
“They have been around for thousands of years, in one form or another, at least since Plato sat under a tree somewhere and conceived of the Athenian Academy,” he says.
“They are enduring because they help us to understand our world, our logical construction of it, and help us to position ourselves better in it because they provide us with evidence for how it works.
“There are other sources that help us to do that – but universities are at the core.”
He’s a Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Australian National University and UNSW Canberra and has also served as Professor of Public Policy in the Crawford School of Public Policy at ANU and the Australia and New Zealand School of Government.
He was also the founding CEO of Universities Australia.
Withers is a true believer in the value and worth of all of Australia’s universities.
“Despite all of the pretensions of the Go8 to be so much better than the others, all Australian universities are very good.
“I know I am in a good university wherever I go within the Australian university system – which I can’t say of the US nor of Europe.”
A long and distinguished scholarly career
Over a long and distinguished scholarly career as an economist-researcher-academic, Withers has been an advisor to the likes of some of Australia’s enduring political names such as Menzies, Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and Howard.
He has worked in and for government, including as chair of various bodies such as the National Population Council and the Economic Planning Advisory Commission; he has chaired public inquiries, served on company boards, and has advised private sector and community organisations in Australia and overseas.
He’s also found time to be an author, having written numerous books, academic papers and government and consultancy reports.
His Order of Australia was for services to applied economics, including for design of the Australian immigration points system. His Australian merit-based immigration system continues to be a focus, such as at times during the Brexit debates and the Trump election.
Withers says he has gained much satisfaction over the years from also helping to build and develop applied research institutions such as the Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), the Crawford School of Public Policy and the Productivity Commission.
A recent venture is serving as chair of the Global Development Learning Network, which helps to deliver distance education to some 60 countries whose citizens can’t engage adequately in conventional education.
“Helping to build those sorts of things has been very important to me,” he says.
ACOLA and the ‘great challenges’ facing universities
His passion for higher education burns as brightly now as it ever did, and so he is an eager proponent for ACOLA – the body that draws together the four Learned Academies “to develop innovative solutions to complex global problems and emerging national needs”.
One of the great challenges facing universities is, Withers says, a desire in the wider community “for more holism, more interdisciplinarity, in dealing with the big existential issues we confront” such as climate change, population movements, and nuclear threats.
ACOLA is a great vehicle for delivering “a combined view in understanding the problems society faces”.
Interdisciplinarity is a relatively new challenge in that it moves away from the tendency to specialisation that grew out of the Humboldtian model of higher education and towards what he describes as “integrative engagement”.
This has its own challenging intellectual issues “in that there’s a discipline of interdisciplinarity that is emerging” which he says he finds “really fascinating”.
“And for a body like ACOLA, that really means that many of the top scholars of Australia are being induced to participate in this exciting intellectual new dimension.”
Galbraith, Rawls and the Harvard experience
Withers kicked off his career with a first class Bachelor of Economics from Monash University, and then, thanks to an RG Menzies scholarship, headed to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard from which he graduated with a Masters and PhD in business economics.
Galbraith he recalls as “a cantankerous sort of character” who was obliged by his endowed chair to offer some courses – “but the requirements of the chair didn’t say he had to have students in them”.
Galbraith hired Withers as a teaching fellow to help deliver a course on the economics of the arts.
“Most of the time, when students applied for the course, if they were economists he said they didn’t know enough about the arts. And if they had an arts background, he said they didn’t know enough about economics.
“So quite often he would go off skiing in Gstaad instead of delivering the course.”
Rawls was “much more a traditional academic – what you got was what you saw in his books”. But, adds Withers, “I did once deploy his ‘original position’ concept to get bickering vice-chancellors to agree on the initial funding formulae for Universities Australia”.
Withers was inspired by the Harvard ethos that encouraged working across disciplines.
“I really liked the interdisciplinarity, the sense of mastery of the multiple elements that come together to help you to understand the world – in my case the social world.”
Developing a deep interest in public policy
On returning to Australia he took up a position in the economics department of the ANU.
“One of the big lessons I got from visiting other US universities – including Yale, Chicago and Stanford – was that as great as they are, they are not that much better than Australian universities.
“It was very easy to return and enjoy the delights of the Australian university system.”
Withers had a deep interest in public policy. His first foray into the area was a book he began writing while at Harvard, arguing the case against conscription and promoting the idea of an all-volunteer force.
This was particularly topical at the time because of Australia’s military engagement in Vietnam.
However, not long after the book was published, then PM Gough Whitlam put an end to conscription – “so the sales of my book plummeted precipitously”, he recalls, although he was able to assist the Whitlam government in scrapping conscription.
The experience of working with politicians
Based at the ANU’s Research School of Social Sciences, Withers delved eagerly into many aspects of government policy and its application, especially from the perspective of an economist.
“The excitement of the new Whitlam government and the Fraser-Whitlam battles helped to embed that interest even further,” he recalls, adding that this was a spur to him working as a consultant for government and also companies, trade unions and community organisations, across major national issues ranging from equal pay and the North-West Shelf scheme, to broadcasting and childcare.
He advised politicians such as Hawke, Keating and Howard, all of whom, he says, were “perfectly courteous and congenial regardless of one’s political views”.
“I had very big differences with John Howard over immigration issues but he would listen courteously and engage in the discussion … Someone like Paul Keating was seen as a bit of a head kicker but in private he was nothing but courteous.”
Withers also worked with various governments overseas, an experience which taught him that Australian governments and their public servants were “much more open to inputs from academics” thanks in part to the legacy of H C ‘Nugget’ Coombs and his colleagues, who established a tradition of engagement with academics, especially in the area of economics.
Founding CEO of Universities Australia
Withers was appointed founding CEO of Universities Australia in 2007 after its transition from the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee.
His background as an economist, as a researcher-academic, and his extensive government work equipped him to deal with the challenges the role would throw at him.
He had an insider’s knowledge of how politicians and bureaucrats went about their business.
“I had sat around the table with the Prime Minister, the Treasurer, Premiers, senior ministers and leaders from unions, business and so on, seeing them in action and producing materials to help their discussion and decision making. You can’t help but learn from that.”
He had observed how politicians made decisions – “how they digested constructions about our society, economy, environment, and how they address those issues and respond to them”.
UA’s approach, he says, was to not put forward a proposal to government that “didn’t have the wide agreement of our membership”.
Where there was disagreement “we would exposit the views and differences in a constructive, logical and evidentiary way so that appropriate decisions could be made”.
“We saw ourselves as being an academic body that put forward logic and evidence that helped inform the decision-making process. We saw that you just couldn’t hold out your hand and say ‘give us more money and leave us alone’.”
There was no “twisting arms and whispering in back rooms”.
“We didn’t do any of that. I can’t say that some vice-chancellors didn’t go off and make their own case on separate occasions, but as a body we stuck to what universities believed could be supported and achieved … every area wants more money, so you have to show that your way forward is compatible with what else society wants and needs”.
‘Mandarins, markets and managers undermining scholarly activity’
Withers says Australia has one of the most economical university systems in the world and yet has “uniformly good universities and some very excellent ones at the top despite its relatively low funding”.
What helps to make it so good includes “the things that don’t get much of a guernsey – our university insurance system Unimutual; Unisuper; AARNET and the way we developed the broadband for our universities, quietly and brilliantly; IDP is a global leader in international education: those elements, I think, have made us a really good university system.”
Australia’s universities are not complacent and are always pushing ahead.
“They have been innovative in areas like international education, distance learning, and Work Integrated Learning – there’s a range of things they’ve done that have kept them in the game when government has reduced funding. They have found other sources of revenue.”
However, he sees a danger in this: “The pressure from government to keep on saving is pushing us to embrace markets too much and to have managers who have lost scholarly linkages inside of the university.
“And then there are the government mandarins who, even though we have lost relatively a lot of government funding, keep demanding more and more by way of red tape”.
“Mandarins, markets and managers are undermining true scholarly activity”.
“It’s time we addressed this and to bring back the role of the scholars themselves.”
Funding the university system
Universities need a balanced stream of financing, a portfolio of sources, he says.
“Total reliance on government can produce stultification. Many European universities lag behind partly because of their easy and simple reliance on public funding. We don’t want that.”
Getting the balance right is crucial, he says.
“There is a real danger from too much government, too much market, and too much internal administration that suppresses the capacity of academics to be ornery, to be difficult, and to think good things.”
Universities, he says, must reaffirm their role as sources for reflection on the nature of our world – “and that means to be free to do so as a community of scholars because it’s the scholars interacting with each other through their exchange of ideas that advances understanding and creates new knowledge”.
“If that is diminished then good decision making in our world will diminish as well.”