Peter Karmel, who died this week, was one of the most distinguished Australian educational leaders of the second half of the twentieth century.
He was perhaps best known for his report on schools in 1973 for the Whitlam government. Disputes still alive today have their origins in decisions taken following that report, from recurrent federal grants to state schools to graded funding to private schools. The Karmel report recommended funding based on the needs of the school, which survived until the Howard government replaced it with a funding formula (at least until it broke down from so many exceptions) based on the income of parents. However, the idea that for private schools – though not for public schools – grants should be adjusted based on some measure of income or wealth has survived.
His main career, however, was in universities. He was Vice-Chancellor of two, Flinders and the ANU, and served in the late 1970s and early 1980s as chair of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, an intermediary agency between the universities and colleges of advanced education and the government. Such bodies fell out of favour during the previous Labor government, though Karmel and others continued to call for their restoration.
Despite ill health and advancing years, Karmel maintained an interest in higher education policy. He sent me a critique of some of my ideas on higher education reform set out in my 2002 book The Unchained University, though he agreed with the broad thrust of it. We both supported a voucher system, which he called for again in his June submission to the Bradley review. He preferred a capped voucher model, where the government still determines overall student numbers by setting entry criteria. I think this leads to arbitrary-at-the-margins inclusion and exclusion of people at the border of eligibility, but nevertheless Karmel’s proposal would have been a big improvement on the status quo.
Though I often disagreed with the detail of Karmel’s arguments, his regular submissions to higher education reviews and inquiries always stood out for their clear thinking. Reading them was a pleasant break from the rent-seeking, irrelevant OECD comparisons, and re-heated 1970s ideology and intuitions that usually pass for argument in the higher education sector.
Peter Karmel, RIP.