When James Conant visited Australia in 1951 he unwittingly entered an existing, lengthy debate about the value of university‐based knowledge in Australia. The Second World War, with its significant reliance on academic expertise, had suggested that if knowledge could win wars, the labour of academic staff could be considered to normally have social and economic value to the nation. In 1951 Conant had no way of foreseeing that steps made, in this light, at Federal level during and after the war, would culminate in the 1957 Review of Universities in Australia, chaired by Sir Keith Murray, and the injection of a large amount of funding into the university system. Conant’s confidential report to the Carnegie Corporation does show that he saw the system in desperate need of funding, which wasa reality that everyone agreed upon.1 The long debate included options for university funding and the potential change to the character of universities if the community, rather than the cloister, was to determine the purpose and character of knowledge. Conant’s report reflects this debate, centring (as many other participants did as well) on the value universities would gain if they were more obviously useful and relevant to industry and if their reputation was less stained by elitism and arrogance. Conant could not gather sufficient data in his visit to identify the nuances of this long discussion nor could he see the depth and spread of its influence over the decade or so preceding his visit. As a result, his particular agenda seems to obscure the perception of the threat that change provoked to some of the traditional values associated with academic work. To consider the debate and the character of academic work in the university scene that Conant fleetingly visited, we need to look back just a few years to another, but very different, visitor to the Australian system.
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