Monday, January 12, 2009

An economist who had a love of learning

PETER KARMEL Economist, scholar 9-5-1922 - 30-12-2008

Australia ’s most influential economists, Peter Karmel, blended academic life and public service to an extent rarely achieved in Australia. Karmel, who has died in Canberra aged 86, will be best remembered for his work in education, in particular, his landmark 1973 report Schools in Australia that highlighted educational neglect and inequality across the country.
The report followed an inquiry set up by the Whitlam government and its education minister, Kim Beazley snr, aiming to use Commonwealth funds to increase the quality of education and eliminate inequality.
It led to programs for Aboriginal children, migrant children, children with special needs, technical education and adult education. A new schools commission was to oversee the programs, on a needs basis, and money was allocated to state and territory government schools for the first time.
Just before his death, Karmel had written a note to his family describing his pleasure, as the only child of a protective and possessive mother, at becoming a father of six and grandfather of 16. He wrote that his wife, Lena, was the rock on which the family was built.
Peter Karmel was born in Melbourne to Simeon and Ethel Karmel. His father, an importer, died when he was young. Being Jewish was central to his life only "in terms of one ’s ambition". His drive to succeed brought him a scholarship to Caulfield Grammar, where he was school captain.
From Melbourne University he went to the Bureau of Statistics in Canberra, where he met Lena Garrett. They married in 1946, before he took up a scholarship to Cambridge University, finishing his PhD in two years.
He returned to Melbourne University as a senior lecturer in economics in 1948 and, by 1950, at 27, was professor of economics and dean of the faculty at Adelaide University.
Karmel became Flinders University ’s first vice-chancellor in 1966. From 1962 he had been chief planner of the new university. Karmel was admired for his democratic ways at Flinders, yet his last years there coincided with student protests against authority. Being lampooned in the student press distressed him.
He was chairman of the interim council of the University of Papua New Guinea (1965-69) and became its chancellor. In 1971 he returned to Canberra as chairman of the Australian
Universities Commission, which became the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission in 1977. He was vice-chancellor of the Australian National University (1982-87) and, for 19 years, president of the Australian Council for Educational Research.
Karmel also chaired the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, the Canberra Institute of the Arts and the Australian National Council on AIDS.
As well as his tertiary education work, he chaired three inquiries into schools. The 1973 report, written with Jean Blackburn, established the present system, with the public, Catholic and independent sectors all funded by government.
Karmel felt that the section helping disadvantaged schools and handicapped children was the report ’s most important part. "I don ’t think there ’s quite the same enthusiasm these days for equality as there was in the 1970s," he said later. "We ought to be thinking of education as a part of life as really life itself instead of as a preparation for life." Despite its widespread acclaim, critics argue that the 1973 report brought an end to teaching the three Rs reading, writing and arithmetic and dumbed down a system that had served Australian children well.
Karmel ’s contribution to the education debate was unending.
He made a submission last year to the Bradley review of higher education, delivered to the Federal Government last month.
Two of his recommendations, a voucher system for students and a centralised and independent university regulatory body, were supported by the review.
He had long advocated an independent body to act as a buffer between universities and the government to develop education policy, arguing that various governments were too beholden to lobby groups.
He warned against creeping mediocrity in universities, arguing that it was vital for Australia to support elite researchers and academics, in much the same way that we support elite sportspeople.
Decrying the underfunding of higher education, he fought for a decentralised system to strengthen the autonomy of the institutions. In 2000 he said Australians should pay more tax to pay for a better public education system.
While he worked six days a week, Karmel always ate dinner at the family table and devoted Sundays to mowing the lawn and enjoying a roast lunch with Lena and visitors. He is survived by Lena, five daughters, a son and 16 grandchildren.


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