Preserving the Past: the Dawkins reforms and the University of Sydney

A special lunchtime Sydney Ideas co-presented with the History of University Life Seminar

29 March, 2017

The Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s and the creation of the Unified National System roused passions at many universities across the nation over fears for the academic enterprise and Australia’s system of free, public university education.

With much at stake, the Dawkins reforms became a hot topic of discussion across university campuses, and even between vice-chancellors and state education ministers. Vice-chancellors were threatened with motions of no-confidence, staff argued furiously against change and students protested against fees, yet mostly to no avail. The reforms were introduced and universities became subject to new ways of funding by the Commonwealth that changed the way higher education was organised in Australia.

What were the Dawkins reforms? Why did the Commonwealth government, led by the then education minister, the Hon. John Dawkins, initiate some of the most profound changes to the organisation of higher education in Australia’s history?

Why did the University’s vice-chancellor, John Manning Ward, scramble to acquire five former CAE institutions when his counterpart at the University of Melbourne was seeking to do the opposite?

As a consequence of the reforms, between 1988 and 1996, the University of Sydney grew exponentially. At the same time it strove to preserve its honoured past despite profound change. Did this desire to preserve an older tradition compromise its effort to master the future?

This panel discussion is based on a case study of the Dawkins reforms and the University of Sydney, which is part of a major ARC-funded research project with the University of Melbourne. Copies of Preserving the Past: The University of Sydney and the national unified system 1987-96 (Melbourne University Publishing, 2017) by speakers Julia Horne and Stephen Garton, will be available for purchase.


  • Deryck Schreuder was 4th Challis Professor of History at The University of Sydney during the era of the Dawkins White Paper, and then Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Macquarie University, Vice-Chancellor of UWS and a Member of the new Australian Research Council, during its implementation. He was later Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, President of the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee and Chair of the ‘Australian Universities Quality Agency’. He is now an Emeritus Professor and writes about history and higher education.
  • Julia Horne was a PhD student during the implementation of the Dawkins reforms. She is now Associate Professor of History and University Historian at the University of Sydney, and writes on Australian cultural and social history, and the history of higher education. Her books include Sydney the Making of a Public University (with Geoffrey Sherington 2005) and Not an Ivory Tower: the making of an Australian Vice-Chancellor (1997), based on a long interview with Michael Birt, who had his own interesting Dawkins reforms experiences.
  • Stephen Garton was a newly-appointed lecturer in History at the University of Sydney when Dawkins announced his reforms. He is now Professor of History and Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sydney. He is the author of a number of books, articles and chapters in the field of Australian social and cultural history, as well as work in the area of American history and the history of the British Empire, particularly the Dominions.

Panel Chair:

Emeritus Professor Deryck Schreuder, Visiting Professor, University of Sydney.