A mind is a terrible thing to waste
Professor Peter Doherty

Matriculating from a state high school 50 years ago, I went to the University of Queensland School of Veterinary Science and graduated five years later. Apart from seeing our two sons through public and private schools and universities in Australia and the USA, that was the last time I was on the receiving end of formal education. Also, though I’ve been at the University of Melbourne for the past five years and give an occasional lecture, my career has been spent as a working scientist in biomedical research institutes, not as a professional teacher.

Much of my adult life has been spent writing scientific papers and research grant applications. It helps to have some small facility with our marvellous English language, partly as a consequence of being forced to confront the grammar by learning Latin and French at school, and partly from the fact that I’ve always been an avid reader.

I’m totally committed to the ideal of a liberal education, and am a great supporter of the new Melbourne Model that delays entry to narrower, professional studies like medicine and law. We live a long time, and those three years as an undergraduate in science and/or the humanities give young people a chance to confront the culture of questioning and disciplined thinking, the breadth and richness of a first class university, before making any final commitment to a more focused career path.

Given the profile of resource allocation through our secondary education system, the Melbourne Model also facilitates a very necessary ‘levelling of the playing field’ when it comes to acceptance into highly competitive courses.

Thinking more broadly about society, I’m a passionate advocate of the view summed-up in the fund-raising slogan of the US United Negro College Fund that, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste”. With a population of only 21 million, can we afford to waste a single, talented person?

The expression of talent is not, of course, solely a consequence of experiences in a school, college or university. Even so, formal education remains the best, general mechanism societies have for broadening horizons and bringing talent to the fore. That’s why the health and integrity of our schools, universities and technical training institutions is so vital for Australia’s future.

What should we be doing with our education system? This isn’t my specialty, so I can only make some broad-brush comments. My starting point is the conclusion reached by University of Melbourne Professor Barry McGaw during his time in Paris with the OECD that, when it comes to schooling, Australia follow a “high quality but low equity” model.

While nobody would wish to compromise the basics in those well-funded schools that offer a top educational experience, the ‘low equity’ has to be a major cause for concern.

Australia, like the USA, is an immigrant country. Many of the bright kids who are negatively impacted by the ‘low equity’ aspect are likely to be in recently arrived families, or in financially stressed rural communities that are increasingly impacted by climate change. Failing to cater adequately for the intellectual needs of such young people comes with an immense, and continuing social cost.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to roll out fast, universally available broadband, and to make sure that first-rate educational material is available to teachers, to school and university students and, in fact, to all those of any age who want to expand their horizons. The content might be purely practical, to do with some aspect of technical expertise and qualification or function to increase breadth of understanding and insight.

Australia has a long, and honourable history in distance education and, as major international institutions increasingly put very high quality material on-line, it is essential that our universities are part of that process on the one hand and draw on the breadth of possibilities that’s becoming available on the other.

Perhaps the single certainty about higher education globally is that much is changing and will continue to change, both with respect to content and to modes of delivery.

As an experimentalist, I’m interested in exploring different ways of doing things. However, it’s past time to take a very hard look at some of Australia’s recent experiments in the education sector.

Though it was a bold and original experiment in a supposedly egalitarian society, what sense does it make to pour federal money selectively into minority, private (and often exclusionary) primary and secondary schools while starving the majority public sector?

So far as I’m aware, we are the only nation on earth that has ever distributed such educational largesse, obeying the Biblical injunction: “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance” (Mathew 13:12), while further eroding the almost defunct separation of Church and State in Australia by failing to mandate that ‘Creationist’ myths about the world being only 6000 years old are not taught in science courses.

Then there’s the experiment with the universities: alone among the OECD countries, we’ve spent 11 years pursuing the somewhat counter-intuitive approach of systematically cutting the public resources available for higher education during a time when there was a global explosion of knowledge and opportunities.

As Australians, we don’t yet have any reason to be ashamed of our stature in this sector but we can, and must, do lot better in the longer term. While the nation still has the top universities and research institutes in this part of the world, everyone who’s familiar with what’s happening in some of the countries to our immediate north and west is asking: “For how long?”

We have great expertise in areas like engineering: can that continue to be the case if we are less and less involved in manufacturing? My bet is that we can be very competitive, especially if we focus on areas where we develop a real selective advantage in the process of fulfilling our own needs.

Australia’s relatively small population and large land mass give us a clear edge when it comes to developing renewable energy alternatives that ameliorate the consequences of dangerous climate change. This could in turn lead to an energy sector that will be cheap in the context of emerging international realities and provide a basis for new areas of innovation and industrial development. The same might be said for evolving both technical strategies and management systems to deal with water scarcity and dry land food production.

We also have the enormous advantage of being a pragmatic, stable, open, tolerant and pluralist society. There are some inequities we need to put right and, to quote a great Australian, “Life wasn’t meant to be easy”. But challenge and opportunity are two faces of the same coin.

Professor Peter Doherty works on immunity and influenza at the University of Melbourne, and is the author of The Beginner’s Guide to Winning the Nobel Prize and A Light History of Hot Air.

Editor's Note: First published in the University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 3, No. 1 (14 April 2008 - 12 May 2008). For permission to reproduce this article please contact the University of Melbourne.