Tipped out of the cradle: The academic fortunes of political studies

Stuart Macintyre, University of Melbourne

Michael Hogan Cradle of Australian Political Studies: Sydney’s Department of Government, Ballarat, Connor Court Publishing, 2015 (296 pp). ISBN 9-78192513-851-1 (paperback) RRP $39.95.

By any reckoning, the Department of Government at the University of Sydney was foundational to the development of political science in this country. It was among the first to teach the subject and provided the impetus for the formation of the Australian Political Studies Association. It generated some of the first monographs as well as Australian Politics: A Reader, which marked out the development of the discipline in successive editions from the 1960s. Caught up in the ferment of the New Left, it was involved in the turmoil over political economy and women’s studies at Sydney. It pursued the democratisation of institutional procedures with particular fervour, and was a nursery of talent that populated other universities here and overseas with notable practitioners.

That did not save it from the changes that overtook higher education in Australia in the closing years of the last century. The formation of the Unified National System in 1988, the new forms of management that it imposed and the funding system that required universities to find new sources of income to supplement their dwindling proportion of public support forced the humanities and social sciences to reorient activity. Induction into a discipline as a systematic body of knowledge and a mode of interpretation gave way to vocational courses that could attract fee-paying domestic and international students. Hence philosophy turned to applied ethics, literature to media and communications, anthropology to development studies, and politics to public policy.

This reorientation was particularly severe at the University of Sydney. As Michael Hogan relates in his history, Cradle of Australian Political Studies: Sydney’s Department of Government, the department searched for postgraduate courses that could attract fee-paying students, with mixed success, and participated in an attempt to teach offshore. Its efforts were hampered by the creation of competitors, notably the Graduate School of Government as the Sydney arm of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), sponsored by and tailored to the needs of the Commonwealth and State public services. The problems mounted when a new Dean of the Faculty of Economics set out to compete with UNSW Australian Graduate School of Management and consigned the Department of Government to a residual school that was expected to provide service teaching. When this failed, senior administrators transferred both Government and Economics to the Faculty of Arts.

The funding system required universities to find new sources of income.

Other universities embarked on reorganisation after Dawkins required them to adopt corporate management. Disciplinary departments were joined into multi-disciplinary schools, and these in turn were configured into budgetary divisions managed by externally appointed heads with executive powers. The names of these unstable conglomerates are chosen with an eye to the customers they hope to attract: they are a marketing signal of the core business. The priorities are made clear at my own University of Melbourne, where the Faculty of Economics and Commerce has become the Faculty of Business and Economics, but Sydney went further when it turned its Faculty of Economics into a Faculty of Business. It is the only instance known to me where a faculty has removed the core discipline that brought it into existence.

This ignominious story of dismemberment and eviction forms a closing chapter of Michael Hogan’s account of the Department of Government. It begins with the origins of that department within a faculty of economics. The discipline originated in this country in the inter-war period. Before then an attenuated form of political economy had been taught within some Arts faculties, typically in conjunction with history—though at Sydney it was part of the Law Faculty (Turney, Bygott & Chippendale 1991, p. 384)—and descriptive economics also formed a major component of university extension teaching. With the shift from classical to neoclassical economics associated with Marshall and Jevons, which used mathematical models to plot supply and demand curves, and the associated principles of marginal utility, increasing and diminishing returns, economists laid claim to the rigorous expertise of a scientific profession. They created their own degrees, taught within their own faculties to their own students.

The faculties were made possible by business support and the majority of their teaching was in diploma courses for part-time, evening students working in business or the public service. These provided their bread and butter, allowing them to mount a full degree program in the discipline for a much smaller cohort of undergraduates. From the outset, moreover, the senior economists played an influential role in public policy; their advice to government during the Depression confirmed their authority. With Douglas Copland, the Dean of Melbourne’s Faculty of Economics and Commerce, acting as Australian adviser on social sciences to the Rockefeller Foundation, they secured financial support that enabled them to build research capacity and links to the international profession (Harper 2013, pp. 79–92). Economics was thus the first of the social sciences to achieve a full disciplinary standing in Australia (Macintyre 2010).

This success enclosed economics in self-sufficiency. Cut off from the other social sciences, there was little of the intellectual interplay with cognate disciplines that occurred in other academic settings. An American scholar has suggested that one function of both sociology and economics is to correct each other’s absurdities (Abbott 2003, p. 217), but in Australia sociology long remained a stunted and disreputable branch of knowledge; it had no place in Copland’s patronage. That is not to say that the Australian economics profession had no interest in social inquiry; on the contrary, Richard Mills, the professor of economics and dean of the Sydney faculty from 1922, had trained as a historian and sought to equip his students with an appreciation of the historical and institutional context of economic policy. In Sydney, as elsewhere, the faculties of economics established a range of auxiliary studies to accompany the economics major: economic history and geography, business law, industrial relations and public administration.

Faculties of economics were made possible by business support.

This was the genesis of Sydney’s Department of Government. F.A. Bland, a public servant, was appointed in 1917 to teach extension classes and undergraduate subjects in public administration in the Faculty of Economics, along with P.R. Watts, who taught a subject, Modern Political Institutions, which was delivered in the Arts faculties of the other five universities at that time. Bland subsequently offered a diploma course to New South Wales public servants and in 1935 the State government provided funds that allowed his appointment as Professor of Public Administration. Upon Bland’s retirement (and subsequent election as a Liberal Member of the House of Representatives (MHR)), the chair was restyled one of Government and Public Administration in 1948, as was the department he had headed. That change was determined in part by the disdain of the economists for Bland’s prescriptive and opinionated style of tuition, in part by their ambition to phase out the teaching of diplomas to part-time, unmatriculated public servants. The ascendant academic ethos militated against such service teaching—it would be half a century later before it declined to the point that allowed the universities’ ready acceptance of ANZSOG.

Michael Hogan gives considerable attention to the question of whether the renaming of the department made it Australia’s first to teach politics. He notes that Adelaide had a Department of History and Political Science, and for that matter Melbourne, Queensland and Western Australia also combined the two fields. In all of them history predominated, but Melbourne established a separate Department of Political Science in 1939, to which Macmahon Ball returned in 1945 (Kobayashi 2013). He was appointed Professor there in 1949, while Fin Crisp became inaugural professor at the Canberra University College in 1950. This question of the first-born child seems to me less important than the stamp that the founding professors put on their departments. Ball, who had studied philosophy as an undergraduate, was supervised by Laski at the London School of Economics and later worked for the Department of External Affairs, put particular emphasis on comparative politics and international relations. Crisp, who had completed a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) at Oxford and worked in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction, was principally interested in Australian politics.

Sydney’s first professor was Percy Partridge, who, with his links to John Anderson in the Philosophy Department, was primarily involved in political theory. The three-year sequence his department taught, Government I, Government II and Government III, had little appeal to students in the Faculty of Economics, and Government II (Public Administration) was unacceptable to the Arts Faculty, so the Department languished. Perhaps Partridge’s chief service was to bring Henry Mayer from Melbourne, for Mayer rose up the ranks from a teaching fellowship in 1950 to a temporary lectureship in 1951 and eventually a chair. Partridge’s own resignation in 1951 to take up a research chair at the Australian National University allowed replacement by Richard Spann. Mayer, a Dunera boy, was an extraordinarily productive and versatile intellectual who possessed an extraordinary enthusiasm for ideas and a deeply rooted, sceptical pluralism. Many people of my age will recall as a formative influence the voluminous notes on all manner of publications that he provided while editor of the flagship journal Politics. Spann, an Oxford graduate and specialist in public administration, was a precise and learned man of conservative views, courtesy and public spirit.

Hogan rightly sees the rapid growth of the department as ‘the Dick and Henry show’. They recruited brilliantly with a mix of Sydney graduates and overseas recruits, blending the nurture of their own with an appreciation of the new practices of open competition and meritocratic selection. They assembled colleagues of diverse interests and contrasting views, combining their own professorial authority with collegial respect. Having conformed at the end of the 1950s to the Arts Faculty’s requirement of a full three-year major with an honours program, the Department enjoyed an upsurge of enrolments from that faculty. The sixties were years of increasing plenty and creativity.

The sixties were years of increasing plenty and creativity.

Michael Hogan’s rich and evocative account of these golden years might be better understood by reference to the national and institutional context. The report of the Murray Committee in 1957 brought a substantial increase of Commonwealth support for universities. It also brought an affirmation of the importance of liberal education and a statutory agency to ensure it was protected. The subsequent Martin report of 1964–65 was more utilitarian in its enunciation of a system of higher education serving national purposes, but in creating the binary divide Martin confined vocational education largely to the colleges, thus leaving universities free to concentrate on the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. A buoyant economy allowed undergraduates to pursue their interests in the confidence they would find employment, while the expansion of postgraduate research provided academic careers to many of the department’s honours graduates.

Hogan’s observation that from the 1960s most students came from the Arts Faculty is an augury of future difficulties. At that time, he notes, the Department of Government benefited from the neglect of Australian studies by Sydney’s Arts departments. Since universities then used central budgeting systems to establish and maintain teaching posts where they were most needed (or where the head of department was most persuasive), Government was a beneficiary. Later, when budgetary responsibility was devolved, the funding followed the enrolments and the costs were borne by the budgetary unit. In this new order of internal competition, a leakage of income caused by students choosing subjects outside the faculty was a problem to be rectified.

The mercantilist instinct was not restricted to deans of Arts. Engineering students no longer fulfil their compulsory requirement of a mathematics component in the maths department of a science faculty; they do it inside the budgetary unit in which they are enrolled. Accountancy, finance and marketing students are no longer required to take the substantial subjects in microeconomics and macroeconomics taught by departments of economics; they have their own slimmed-down substitute. Medicine has moved from a narrowly clinical training to studies in population health and social medicine, but its employs its own statisticians, sociologists and anthropologists to teach them.

There are many depressing passages in this book, but by far the most abject is protestation of Sydney’s Vice-Chancellor when asked to restrain the duplication of studies once undertaken by the Department of Government: ‘I am sure that you and your colleagues are aware that I face problems of Solomonic dimensions in balancing inter-disciplinary collaborations with respect for core disciplines’ (p. 209). Since he presided over the regime that created such disputes, the Biblical figure that comes to mind is not Solomon but Pontius Pilate.

Making Sydney’s Department of Government more vulnerable, and surely calling into question its location, was the lack of interaction with colleagues in the Faculty of Economics. It would seem that their own interests absorbed much of their energy. They taught together, shared ideas, read each other’s drafts, argued, dined and drank among themselves. From time to time there seems to have been an effort to foster contact with the economists. Hogan cites a subject in quantitative methods offered by the Department of Economic Statistics, but it quickly withered for lack of interest by the politics students. The support within the Department for political economy during the 1970s might seem a point of common ground but it only widened differences with the mainstream economists.

The mercantilist instinct was not restricted to deans
of Arts.

Part of the problem was the growing specialisation between and within disciplines. The Faculty that Mills had nurtured allowed room for progressive economists such as Ronald Walker, the economic historian-turned-educationalist Robert Madgwick and popularisers such as Hermann Black. Under the direction of his successor, Syd Butlin, the Faculty became more austere and enclosed. He was one of many economists who worked for government during the war, and later wrote the official history of the war economy, but returned from the Department of War Organisation of Industry in 1943 with a preference for more rarified scholarship. By the 1970s econometrics was dominant. The Department of Government moved in the opposite direction in its curriculum as more and more options were introduced into Government I, II and III to allow members to teach their particular interests—the expectation that staff should be able to base their teaching and supervision on their research was a feature of the academic ethos of the Australian university by the 1970s. And in contrast to economics, political science resisted any agreement on a unifying methodology, as Hogan attests.

In conducting its affairs the Department was collegial to a fault. Door were open, the staff room a forum. The expectation that all decisions should be reached by consensus did not exclude heated argument, but at least while the professorial heads retained their formal authority it was possible for outcomes to be reached. Spann accommodated himself to this democratic deliberation with forbearance, but Henry Mayer clearly found it a tribulation and it was while he was head that the titular sovereignty of the professor was overthrown. Since the new regime of elective heads coincided with the storm und drang of the student movement and the insurgencies of political economy and women’s studies, it became almost impossible to reach decision by consensus.

Hogan writes ruefully of the consequences. A series of new professors arrived, proposed their schemes of reconstruction of greater or lesser cogency, were thwarted and departed. As conditions deteriorated with the freezing of Commonwealth funding from 1976, and then the mechanisms of accountability that followed the Unified National System in 1988, many academics withdrew to pursue their own interests. The change was accelerated, as Hogan describes well, by the way that the personal computer allowed them to work from home rather than at the Merewether Building. With office doors closed, the lively atmosphere that attracted students fell away.

In these final, elegiac chapters of his book, Hogan laments the centralisation of decision-making, loss of administrative support to central business hubs, the abandonment of curricular cohesion, grade inflation and much else. To the debased currency of honours results might be added the proliferation of professors. He counts ten of them by 2014 but the title no longer signified any custodial responsibility. The older term chair carried a dual meaning: its incumbent professed his discipline within and beyond the university—the professoriate was masculine—and undertook (or shared) its leadership. If there is a hero in his story, it is Ken Turner—a graduate, senior tutor and by 1975 an associate professor who became the first non-professorial head. Turner had the decency, the respect and manifest commitment to the welfare of the department to make the new order work, but he relied on assiduous attention to university committees and informal contacts outside the department to advance its interests. That style of stewardship was superseded by the new regime of line management that followed, in which even a head of school was powerless to alter the deals done elsewhere.

In conducting its affairs the Department was collegial to a fault.

Turner was unusual also in his field of study, Australian politics, as the discipline was internationalised. For understandable reasons, the social sciences in Australia began with the material that lay closest to hand and allowed them to produce research that had not been done elsewhere. Those circumstances have changed now that the Australian universities compete for international recognition and deans circulate spurious lists of international journals in which they expect research to be published. (As I read applications for funding from the Australian Research Council and find claims of publications in journals ranked A* by the ARC, I am tempted to recommend failure on the grounds of ignorance of the fact that are no such rankings—the ARC abandoned them after its first research assessment exercise revealed they had no validity but many unintended consequences.)

Ken Turner not only continued to work on Australian politics, he made a special study of the politics of New South Wales—a dead-end for any young Australian political scientist wanting to get ahead. His early study of the Legislative Council in New South Wales (1969) was followed by guides to the records of the Liberal and Labor parties, a history of the Labor Party in that State (Hagan & Turner 1991), various election studies and, more recently, an edited collection on the State premiers (Clune & Turner 2006). Michal Hogan has taken up this work, most notably in the remarkably rich volumes on the State’s electoral politics (Hogan & Clune 2001; Hogan, Muir & Golder 2007). These collaborative projects were made possible, in turn, by the foresight and energy of a former student, Rodney Cavalier, who took advantage of the centenary of Federation and then the sesquicentenary of responsible government to raise and direct financial support. No other state has anything like them. They stand as a good deed in a naughty world.

Any contemporary account of the academic enterprise runs the risk of lamenting all that has been lost. You can’t go back and even if you could, few would want to give up the advantages that expanded research opportunities, digitisation, greater mobility and collaboration have provided. That they are accompanied by the deterioration in employment conditions for so many casual staff, by exploitation and a strain on standards that accompanies so much fee-paying activity, the belittling nature of performance measurement and compliance, the crass marketing and the institutional greediness is a cause for contestation rather than mere regret. For many young academics, their commitment nevertheless remains a vocation as much as a career choice. There are few other opportunities to pursue intellectual interests on full-time basis and, for all the worldliness of the university, they remain committed to critical inquiry and the fortunes of their discipline. Michael Hogan affirmed that vocation and he has left a valuable record of how it was practised in the Department of Government.


Abbott, A. 2003, ‘The disciplines and the future’, in The Future of the City of Intellect: The Changing American University, ed. S. Brint, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

Clune, D. & Turner, K. (eds) 2006, The Premiers of New South Wales 1856–2005, Federation Press, Sydney.

Hagan, J. & Turner, K. 1991, A History of the Labor Party in New South Wales, 1891–1991, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne.

Harper, M. 2013, Douglas Copland: Scholar, Economist, Diplomat, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne.

Hogan, M. & Clune, D. (eds) 2001, The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales, 3 vols, Parliament of New South Wales.

Hogan, M., Muir, L. & Golder, H. (eds) 2007, The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in Colonial New South Wales, Federation Press, Sydney.

Kobayashi, A. 2013, W. Macmahon Ball: Politics for the People, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.

Macintyre, S. 2010, The Poor Relation: A History of the Social Sciences in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Turner, K. 1969, House of Review? The New South Wales Legislative Council 1934–68, Sydney University Press, Sydney.

Turney, C., Bygott, A. & Chippendale, P. 1991, Australia’s First: A History of the University of Sydney, Volume 1 1850–1939, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney.

Stuart Macintyre is a Professorial Fellow of the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne. His most recent book is Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s (2015) and he is currently working on the implementation and effects of the Unified National System.

View other articles by Stuart Macintyre: