New Zealand follows Australia 
Down The Cul De Sac

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New Zealand Follows Australia Down The Cul de Sac
By Giles Pickford
Secretariat, Association for Tertiary Education Management Inc. (ATEM).
(Published in ‘Campus Review’ 18 July 2002)

On 4 July Dr Andrew West, head of the very new Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) gave a paper to the 10th Annual Conference of ATEM New Zealand in Dunedin. This critique is offered by a long standing University administrator who has seen what has happened in Australia, and who does not think that New Zealand needs to follow in its footsteps.

The current policies in New Zealand and Australia are fundamentally wrong because they deny the ancient idea of a liberal education and replace it with a servile education. They also deny the primacy of the individual and replace it with the primacy of the State.

The word ‘liberal’ comes from the Latin word for freedom. In the western tradition, because of the deeply rooted idea that each one of us had an immortal soul, the Church for many years opposed monarchs and oligarches in many subtle ways. It did this by stubbornly upholding the idea that each individual person, because they were a creation of God, took precedence over the State which was created by mere humans to serve them, not to rule them.

It is another depressing aspect of our times that in some ways some Churches have abandoned this ancient role and now serve the State by applying for grants to carry on their work. Work which will only be funded if it complies with a policy that is fundamentally wrong in the first place. But that is the topic for another essay.

A liberal education, by definition, is founded on the five freedoms, as its name implies: freedom of enquiry, freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, freedom of association, freedom of choice.

This freedom is hampered by the new concept of a servile education. Education, which John Henry Newman showed was an end in itself and the best instrument for perfection of the human person, is no longer the end.

The end pursued by a servile education is to serve the economy, to serve industry and commerce, to serve the State. Educated individuals are no longer the end, they are means to another end which is less important than the means. This is topsy- stuff indeed.

Under this tyranny scholars become serfs. They are not free. Or at least, if they insist on being free they are not funded. So fear of failure to be funded becomes the driver. Whereas before, it was love of knowledge that drove the scholar.

(Aside: Have governments found out that the true academician will work for nothing? Basically this is true. But it only remains true if all governments together simultaneously decide to pay nothing. If one nation decides that learning is a public good that must be supported then all the best minds will migrate there.)

The servile approach to education cannot last long. After a few decades of being left behind by places like Ireland, Scandinavia, Singapore and South Korea, we will wake up again and abandon the sterility that now abounds within backward looking governments like our own.

The State which insists that the economy takes precedence over the perfection of the individual, has completely lost the plot. The State was invented by people to be their servant not their master.

The entire Marxist experiment collapsed because it was founded on this same error. And now, deeply conservative anti-Marxist governments supposedly steeped in the western tradition, learn nothing from history and continue to try to do the impossible.

They will fail in both Australia and New Zealand with devastating consequences that will ramify on for decades. The first signs are already appearing. There are now more Australians following postdoctoral studies in California than there are in Australia.

The next step will come when the tide of international students coming to our countries to do their first degrees will turn. Australians who have the money will go overseas to do their first degrees and foreign students will stay put.

Ironically this will harm our economy. But who cares if it does? Any economy that puffs itself up to be more important than life itself ought to be harmed. Only then will people wake up and take control of their lives.

The current moves in New Zealand and the same moves made decades ago in Australia will fail and come to nothing. The bad news is that it will take a long time to do that. The good news is that there are other places in the world where the word ‘liberal’ is still understood, where it is understood that the State is only strong because each individual in it is free and takes primacy over it. We will eventually learn from their example.

What is a Liberal Education?

I will elaborate now on the idea of a liberal education as explained by John Henry Newman.

‘It is a great point then to enlarge the range of studies which a university professes, even for the sake of the students; and, though they cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude. He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “liberal”. A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what in a former discourse I have ventured to call a philosophical habit. This then I would assign as the special fruit of the education furnished at a university in its treatment of its students.’

I will not apologise for the length of the quote. All of it is necessary to understand the meaning of a liberal education. In fact a person who has not read this book should be not allowed to hold a position of trust in education.

Governments of all colours and the bureaucrats that advise them do not understand the idea of a university. They understand the utility of a technical and vocational education because these necessary institutions prepare people for the work place. But a university prepares an individual for a life, not just for that part of it when we are supposed to be useful.

Every life has whole years in it during which a person is not contributing much to the common wealth. Every day has hours in it which are pleasantly wasted. Every hour has minutes when we dream, when the subconscious supplies answers which we need in order to stay sane.

Universities impinge across these periods of human activity and inactivity.

They are as useless as a symphony, as silly as a poem, as incomprehensible as the square root of minus one; and yet what kind of a civilisation can we expect without them?

Because without them we will be, when the government has turned all of them into vocational training colleges with a sterile choice of useful disciplines which the authorities have decided are ‘relevant’.

(Aside: As far as I am concerned it is completely OK for TAFEs and Polytechnics to offer degrees, especially so when we have universities that offer hotel management but do not offer physics.)

I ask the question: why not let the individual decide what is relevant? Let individuals build their own minds by freely choosing that particular combination of courses which they desire. Yes: DESIRE. What do governments and bureaucrats desire for us? Do they desire anything that we do?

Nations that decide to deregulate banks, employment, airlines, and anything else that they possibly can think of; but which decide to regulate desire and its sister intellectual curiosity, are just plain silly.

They have more chance of walking to the moon than to make the idea of manpower-planning work by forcing their ideas onto academia. When has a manpower-planning project ever worked anyway?

I fear that my words will come to nothing, because ‘Quarry the rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man’

We will just have to let the passage of time damage us, while we wait for new leaders who have the mental height and depth to withstand the temptation to try to decide what is best for our minds.

As Fred Nietzsche said ‘Insanity is a condition which is rare in individuals but common in organisations’. Who would allow an organisation to decide how our minds ought to be developed?

And don’t ask me to look up the Nietzsche reference because I have just burnt the lamb shanks writing this essay. Lunch is going to be a charring experience.


  1. ‘The Idea of a University’ by John Henry Newman. Image Books New York 1959, pages 128-129
  2. Ibid, page 145

Giles Pickford is semi-retired and works for ATEM ( and the ANU Emeritus Faculty ( He has worked in six universities and the AVCC over the period 1964-1998. Contact:

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