Robert Madgwick

Sir Robert Bowden Madgwick OBE

Hall of Fame Class of 2019

Sir Robert Bowden Madgwick OBE (10 May 1905 – 25 March 1979) was an important Australian. Over his long and distinguished career, Madgwick was an influential proponent of adult learning. Born in North Sydney, NSW, Madgwick was from a humble background.

Madgwick trained as a schoolteacher and attained degrees in economics and economic history from the University of Sydney and the University of Oxford. Appointed as a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, Madgwick also worked in the university's adult education program, which gave him an experience of and a great interest in adult learning.

With the onset of World War II, Madgwick and colleagues proposed an adult education plan to the Australian Army. The Army largely accepted the plan, which had a strong liberal education component and, from 1941 to 1946, Madgwick served as a colonel and the director of the Australian Army Education Service (AAES), which was Australia’s largest and most successful adult education initiative.

Madgwick was renowned as a most effective public servant. From 1943, while still commanding AAES, he helped to establish the extremely successful Commonwealth Post-War Reconstruction Training Scheme. Between 1943 and 1946, he also sat on two committees that set out the post-war role of the federal government in education.

From October 1946 he was secretary of the council of the new Australian National University. He also argued strongly for a government-funded national adult education system but was thwarted by a lack of government support.

After his release from active duty, Madgwick was selected as warden of the New England University College in 1947. Madgwick guided the college, then a small rural campus of the University of Sydney, to independence as the University of New England in 1954. Appointed as UNE’s inaugural vice-chancellor, Madgwick, until his retirement in 1966, presided over the expansion of its curriculum and facilities while promoting closer ties with local communities.

Under Madgwick's leadership, the university took an early and leading role in adult education, extension, external degree programs, and the development of several degree programs, across rural science, agricultural economics, and educational administration, that were the first of their kind in Australia.

In 1961, Madgwick was elected as the first president of the then new Australian Association of Adult Education.  As chairman (1964-66) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, Madgwick successfully rebutted the conclusion of the Martin Committee that the provision of 'distance education' was not a proper university function.

In recognition of his contributions, Madgwick was appointed as an officer in the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1962 and in 1966 he was knighted. Honorary doctorates were conferred by the Universities of Sydney (1961), Queensland (1961), and New England (1969).

In 1967, Madgwick was appointed chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). This public broadcaster provided TV and radio service across the nation. He served two terms and has been described as the most popular chairman in the history of the ABC.

A reserved, unruffled but immensely effective administrator, Madgwick's contribution to Australian education had been distinctive. He pioneered very important innovations in adult and regional higher education in the Australian context.