Graduation address given by Emeritus Professor Kenneth John Eltis AM

Emeritus Professor Ken Eltis AM gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of of Architecture, Design & Planning / Faculty of Education and Social Work graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 15 April 2011.

Emeritus Professor Eltis AM is the former Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor and recipient of the honorary degree of Doctor of Education at the same ceremony.

Emeritus Professor Ken Eltis AM

Emeritus Professor Ken Eltis AM giving the occasional address at the Faculty of of Architecture, Design & Planning / Faculty of Education and Social Work graduation ceremony, photo, copyright Memento Photography.

Graduation address

On Being a Graduate of the University

Well, you have done it! And I can hear a great sigh of relief from family and friends. It is a major achievement on the part of you all, including those who have supported you graduates along the way.

As you can imagine, today is a great day for me, too. Returning to the University to receive an Honorary Degree is a wonderful thing, and as for all graduates today, it is so warming to have our family and friends here to celebrate with us. I offer my sincere thanks to the Chancellor and the Senate of the University for their decision to make the award.

It seems to me that we live in a time when our community seems bent on negativism and pursuing self-interest. I want to appeal to your optimism, to that sense of a bigger picture which must have brought you to the University in the first place, a belief that now through your professional endeavours, as architects, as educators, you can make a difference.

Let me begin with a couple of true stories.

Recently I was part of a conversation involving two well-qualified and experienced graduates in their mid-thirties; one had recently finished her MBA, which, she said, had helped get her a new job, in Sydney. But she expected to be looking for another new job in two or three years’ time, so she would need, she said, yet another degree; she was afraid that by then, her MBA would already have lost its currency and relevance. I am well aware that from the early 1990s in Australia, as elsewhere, there has been a strong emphasis on the instrumental function of universities: that is, a university’s main job is to prepare graduates for the workplace – in my view, a one-dimensional understanding of universities. And now I was being confronted by evidence of the anxiety such a narrow understanding can lead to. I can’t believe that many of today’s graduates would see the value or currency of their new degree having so short a life.

I think that Professor Glyn Davis, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, the institution our two graduates were rightly proud to have attended, would have been as astonished as I was by what was being said. In his series of Boyer Lectures, on ABC Radio at the end of last year (and now published as The Learning Republic: Higher Education Transforming Australia, ABC Books), he said this:

The constants of learning – wider ranging curiosity, questioning, rigour in the search for truth and knowledge – must remain guiding principles in a new republic of learning. They ensure universities remain more than skill factories.

Some mistakenly believe that students only apply to university as the way to a job; the rest of the campus experience is nothing but drinking beer.

So to my second story.

Michael was a member of the first cohort of modern languages students to receive a BA DipEd at Macquarie University, in the early 1970s. He was awarded First Class Honours in French and on graduation he was appointed to a government Girls High School in Sydney’s west.

When I met up with him a few years ago I asked him what he’d been doing. He explained that he’d been teaching his students, still at the same school, as I’d told him to. Apparently, when he’d asked me what he should do, now he’d graduated, I’d said “Now you go to a school and you don’t leave until you’ve achieved the best you can for languages there.” He reckoned he was still working on it 30 odd years later. So I know there is at least one student who took notice of something I said. He had in fact sustained a thriving Languages Department through times when languages were increasingly being seen as “not useful”. But during all this time he continued to work in the academic field that had excited him as an undergraduate. He had been making a study of, and producing translations of, the famous Chansons de Geste, long narrative poems – in Medieval French - telling tales of heroic deeds of Medieval Europe. He had published 8 books, with another 2 to appear, and established an international reputation. And he added Japanese to his French and German.

The story has a particularly happy ending. Next week Macquarie will confer on him an Honorary Doctorate of Letters.

These two stories are true, but doubtless they represent extremes.

Let me come back to Professor Glyn Davis and his Boyer Lectures.

Everyone who leaves a university with a qualification – and sometimes without – is touched forever by the experience… They are equipped with training to interrogate and understand the world. Graduates have been exposed to a universal culture that values the intellect as something worthwhile in its own right. (ABC Books, p30)

In our society, of course everyone needs a job; but I think my two stories illustrate the dilemma Universities face today: how to manage the balance between the intellectual and the utilitarian, - between scholarship and skills – and to break down the notion that they are necessarily opposed; how to fund areas of study deemed not directly productive in economic terms, studies less utilitarian, even arcane, but which help sustain the human spirit beyond payday.

What I hope today’s graduates take from their studies is an appreciation that, while you may very likely pursue further study, your years at this University have given you the confidence to draw on your skills of learning and critical enquiry, and through experience and your professional awareness, meet whatever demands you encounter. I am sure you see your new degrees as more than just pieces of paper or signs of status. Certainly, they are there to serve your own quite proper self-interest, but they also identify you as joining that group of scholars Australia needs, from a wide range of fields, to serve the national interest. Whatever work you do, whatever further scholarship you pursue, you will be helping Australia to extend its reach into a bigger world, helping to counter tendencies to see Australia’s interests best served by the security of isolation.

But I’ve got a third story – one which comes down to bricks and mortar.

In a very insightful piece in the April Australian Literary Review (April,2011), Simon Marginson, Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne, discusses cross-country student performance in reading, mathematics and science as revealed in the Program for International Assessment (PISA) results for 2009. He highlights the success of East Asian countries – and Finland – and points out that there has been a decline in Australian performance, so that we are now also behind Canada and New Zealand.

Let’s set aside debate about the true significance of such testing programs, and the relative merits of what each country wants from its education system: the results must be telling us something. While the decline in PISA performance is not yet seen as a catastrophe, action is needed, and Marginson makes two suggestions:

First, we should be working to strengthen teaching. Finland, which is consistently at the top of these tables, requires its teachers to have a Masters degree. The University of Sydney took this step in 1996, when the Faculty introduced a two-year Master of Teaching degree. It has attracted high-performing graduates, and those emerging from the program are much sought-after by schools.

Marginson’s second suggestion is that we must focus on giving greater assistance to government schools. Why government schools? Not because they are under-performing, but because these are the schools responsible for the education of more than two thirds of our school enrolments. Their charter is to accept whoever comes to them, regardless of background, or abilities – or disabilities – or, indeed, interest in schooling. Their role is to be there, and it’s in the national interest that they deliver the best education possible. Their teachers need support whether they are pushing the high achievers even higher, or sustaining those who, for whatever reason, have difficulty at school.

I would add another reason for focussing on government schools, emerging from research conducted in this University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work by Craig Campbell, Geoffrey Sherington and Helen Proctor. In their book, School Choice, published in 2009, they lay bare the dilemmas and pressures many parents experience, particularly when choosing a secondary school for their children. As their report shows, very few parents can exercise a real choice; therefore they rely on what is available locally (broadly defined), and rightly expect that what is available for their children will meet their needs.

In an earlier major study of The Comprehensive Public High School (2006), Campbell and Sherington describe how significant changes have been made to the comprehensive school as a model, established, let’s not forget, way back in the 60s. So now there are competitive-entry classes; more varied curriculum offerings, especially in vocational studies; more selective high schools; the removal of zoning to allow more diversity of choice for students. And the introduction of Senior and Community Colleges. All this has enabled the government sector as a whole to adopt a comprehensive approach to secondary education, in which local, neighbourhood schools remain a key component. That is, after all, what choice in secondary schooling comes down to for most parents.

But – and this is where we get to the bricks and mortar - the physical conditions in which our children are taught also matter – to students, to their parents, to their teachers. Yes, we need a good – and national – curriculum, and it’s well under way; yes, we need top quality teachers, and there is great progress in defining standards for the profession. But buildings matter, too, as I well know from my time here, at this University, when I had responsibility for capital works.

It is the best part of 50 years since the last major building programs were undertaken in the government school sector, to meet a then expanding high school population and the extension of secondary schooling to 6 years, following the introduction of the Wyndham Scheme.

The recent Commonwealth government initiative – Building the Education Revolution – was a different thing. Designed as part of a response to a global, economic crisis, its prime purpose was economic, and urgent: to stimulate the building and construction sector, with all the flow-ons from the employment it underpinned. But across the country government schools in particular are now enjoying new buildings – halls, classrooms, libraries - they would otherwise still be waiting for. Just ask them. And those improvements should be a taste of things to come.

I believe what is needed now is a more considered and comprehensive revitalisation of the fabric of the government’s own schools. More than just a maintenance program: a genuine rebuilding driven by an educational plan and a real audit of what we’ve got, informed by input from schools and their communities. What we need can then be properly determined and designed, and equipped with the best gear on offer. So that teachers – well-trained and respected teachers – and their students will work in modern schools designed and equipped for the times. To do this, I believe there needs to be set up a government body – a Commission – to identify major initiatives needing to be undertaken, and setting up a range of options for government – any government – to consider in relation to its own schools. Once it has developed its blueprint, such a Commission must feel confident that whoever is in charge of government schools will remain committed to genuine rebuilding, and lock in guaranteed funding, over a long period.

There is currently under way the Commonwealth Review of Funding for Schools, set up last year, to report later this year, with the outcomes to be implemented in 2013. I am confident that the Review would be aware of the issues I have raised this morning, and of the need to ensure that parents can have confidence in the quality of the schools that most of our children will attend. The Review would also understand the consequences for our nation as a whole if those schools cannot compete at the highest level. And I think we must be ready to act when their decisions are handed down.

Just as establishing the neighbourhood comprehensive high school was the Big Idea of my time, 50 years ago, I believe that what I’ve just been talking about – reshaping that model and rebuilding it, literally - represents one of the Big Ideas of your time. But whether you are educators or architects, there will be many Big Ideas that will challenge your talents and your critical capacity, your courage and your conviction. So many Good Fights to win. So all the best!