Peter Karmel profile

9 May 1922 - 30 December 2008

Emeritus Professor Peter Karmel was Flinders University's founding Vice-Chancellor and one of Australia's most influential educationists.

His contributions to education and research, and his influence on generations of researchers, scholars and students were profound.

Educated at the University of Melbourne and Cambridge University where he gained a PhD in economics, Karmel spent much of his life in universities.

He came to national prominence in 1973 with a report to the federal government on Australian schools that put the issue of social inequalities on the political agenda and resulted in a new programme of federal spending on public and private schools.

On his return to Australia from Cambridge, Karmel worked for the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics from 1943 to 1945 taught economics at Melbourne University in 1946. He then moved to the University of Adelaide in 1949 to teach economics.

Building Flinders University

He began planning a new university that became Flinders in 1961 during a period of rapid expansion in the Australian tertiary sector.

It was also a time for innovation and Karmel, speaking at a public meeting, explained his ambitions for the new campus:

"We want to experiment and experiment bravely".

True to his word, he devised for Flinders an untraditional academic structure aimed at broadening student experiences and academic opportunities by establishing 4 schools: Language and Literature, Social Sciences, Physical Sciences and Biological Sciences.

Flinders demonstrated its distinctiveness by teaching several courses not previously seen in the state, including Sociology, Drama, Fine Arts, Spanish, Indonesian, Oceanography and Meteorology.

Karmel was instrumental in the planning of another radical yet enduring aspect of Flinders: co-location of the School of Medicine and the Flinders Medical Centre in the new hospital's buildings on the western edge of the campus.

A continuing influence

Karmel left Flinders in 1971 to head the Canberra-based Australian Universities Commission and, after serving as its Chairman and heading its successor, the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission, he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University in 1982.

His influence extended well beyond the university sector and included two outstanding contributions to policy and governance in the schools sector. His 1971 report Education in South Australia set the foundations for the modernisation of school education in that state.

Two years later, his 1973 report Schools in Australia to the Whitlam Government was similarly transformative at the national level, and was instrumental in bringing about federal funding of state government schools.

Although Karmel retired from the ANU in 1987, he continued to be involved formally and informally in the continuing debate on higher education in Australia and continued to contribute to Flinders University. A promoter of academic diversity among universities, he championed university independence from central control by government.

Karmel remained active in many aspects of public life, chairing the Australia Council, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and the Australian Council on AIDS.

He is survived by his wife Lena, five daughters and a son, and 16 grandchildren.

"Professor Karmel brought vision and an enduring set of values to this University. Forty years on, I have personally invoked his aspiration - to experiment and experiment bravely - in my recent conversation[s] with the Flinders community".

Current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Barber

inspiring achievement