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Canterbury Luminaries’ Blue-sky Thinking Led To Tertiary Sector Shift

Keen to be taken seriously on the world stage, Canterbury University College began a post-World War II campaign to establish a culture of research and inquiry that changed the course of New Zealand history, according to University of Canterbury Associate Professor Mike Grimshaw.

A new article by Associate Professor Grimshaw. published this week in the New Zealand Journal of History, shows that several prominent individuals at Canterbury University College (now the University of Canterbury) led the charge to steer the country’s tertiary sector away from focusing exclusively on vocational education.

Luminaries including philosophers Sir Karl Popper and Arthur Prior, and historian JGA Pocock provided the momentum. Popper is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century, and a UC Arts building is named in his honour. After joining UC in 1937, his impact at UC influenced a generation of lecturers to strive for a stronger research culture. Influential philosopher Prior filled Popper’s vacancy after he left and carried on the research agenda, while Pocock established and chaired the Department of Political Science at UC from 1959 and is now, at age 98, an Honorary Fellow of St John's, University of Cambridge, and the Harry C. Black Emeritus Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.

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The research approach was initially proposed in a manifesto by Popper, then supported in a subsequent manifesto by Prior and Pocock, and backed by the New Zealand Chancellor DS Smith’s address to the Senate, ‘Needs of the University’.

“This created a public climate where it was seen as important for post-war recovery of New Zealand – that we could start to position New Zealand as having a serious university system that undertook research, which would signal to the Western world that New Zealand was an important player in post-war reconstruction,” Associate Professor Grimshaw says.

“This reminds us that without certain individuals being prepared to both push for change and take the lead in a research culture, nothing happens. But also, there needs to be public discussion and support, and debate about what the universities can and should do; without this the universities can slip into mediocrity.”

The new research approach benefitted from free thinking, Associate Professor Grimshaw says. “What is easily forgotten is that all the discussion at the time also stressed the central need and value of what we would term today ‘blue sky’ research, which was speculative, with no fixed outcome. Too often today we focus on funded-project research as that of the only real value.”

Libraries played a central role in the transformation, with more investment supporting academics as well as students. “The libraries were woefully under resourced. What’s clear is that, if you want a vibrant research culture, you need to invest heavily in your libraries; but also give staff ample time, conferences to attend, resources, and support such as regular sabbaticals to facilitate research.”

The article, ‘Popper, Prior, And Pocock and the Turn to Research in Sciences and Humanities at Canterbury University College, 1945–1946’, is available to journal subscribers with a release to the public in two years. The publication is timely as UC looks forward to its 150th year in 2023 and celebrates the contribution it has made to regional and national advancement.

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