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By Richard Hil - posted Friday, 8 July 2011

Currently, there are something in the order of 17 war-like conflicts happening around the globe, with the latest bloodbaths occurring in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt. The actual number of 'wars' depends of course on what you mean by war, because some of the face-offs between drug gangs and the police in Brazil, Peru and Mexico can look very much like warfare. Many of these wars have been going on for a long time and collectively have accounted for millions of lives. And what's more, the prospects for peace seem as dim as ever. For instance, the U.N. as well as leading climate scientists predict that large scale population movements caused by climate change and rising tensions over resources like oil, food and water will lead to many more wars in future years. Actually, anywhere you care to look there is the potential for violent conflict and a need for peace.

All of which should draw our attention to the specific contribution that Australian higher education is making to the study of war and peace. It's in such a setting that we might reasonably expect a heavy and specific emphasis on what is a crucial area of inquiry, but alas no.

We've all heard about the assaults on arts, humanities and social sciences in English-speaking countries, but much less is known about the demise of peace and conflict studies in Australia. It appears that our market savvy and fractious universities are either unable or unwilling to retain anything as patently useful as peace and conflict studies, preferring instead to respond to what it perceives as 'market demand'.


So what's the story about peace and conflict studies? This area of study emerged in the 1980s and expanded through the 1990s when there were nine centres and programs in Australia. The future looked very bright at the time. But it all turned out to be a false dawn. Of the healthy crop of peace and conflict offerings that existed only a few years ago only two remain: one at the University of New England and the other, the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

One of the first peace research centres to rear its head in Australia was the Centre for Peace Research at the ANU, which opened its doors in the late 1980s and closed abruptly in 1996. The centre was the brainchild of a number of then leading ALP government members like Bill Hayden and Gareth Evans, and was funded by no other than the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Following the election of the Coalition government under John Howard in 1996, the newly installed Foreign Minister, his Lordship, Alexander Downer, soon set about closing the centre. According to one leading source from the ANU, the closure reflected Downer's preference for a Centre for Democratic Institutions and his ideological opposition to a peace research centre.

A number of academics also objected, insisting that peace studies intruded on their turf or was intellectually inferior to other more established disciplines. Melbourne's Centre for Conflict Resolution, while not explicitly referring in its title to peace, produced some well-regarded research work on precisely that, as well as other related areas. However, as a source close to the Centre noted, the problem was that it had no separate funding or rooms, and lacked a coherent identity. The precariousness nature of its funding base meant that the existence of the centre was always likely to be temporary, and so it proved.

Other peace and conflict programs at Murdoch, Curtin, La Trobe and Macquarie also closed their doors because of financial shortcomings, lack of support, and tensions over funding and discipline boundaries, leading to what one former ANU academic described as a "landscape of wrecks and relics''.

Perhaps one of the more surprising closures was that of the Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (ACPACS) at the University of Queensland (UQ). Led by Professor Kevin Clements (now in a similar position at the University of Otago in Dunedin), and under the aegis of UQ's Institute of Social Science Research, the centre was funded initially with a $2 million endowment from the Amitabha Buddhist Society through Venerable Master Chin Kung who also founded the Interfaith Centre at Griffith University and the Buddhist Pureland College in Toowoomba. Additional funds were also acquired through several grants. Housed in a demountable building, the centre drew academics from other faculties in the university and had a steady stream of highly regarded overseas scholars such as Professor Peter Wallensteen from the University of Uppsala, Professor Hebert Wulf from Hamburg University, Professor Kurt Schock and Professor Saul Mendlowitz from Rutgers University, and Professor Richard Falk from Princeton University.


In short, the ACPACS had all the features of a well-established, cross-disciplinary centre undertaking research that promoted something we all want: peace. Couldn't be better, right?

Unfortunately for the centre, a range of forces conspired to bring about its demise. Despite having accumulated substantial funding for research and policy work, the ACPACS found itself having to pay higher overheads to the Institute for Social Science Research, combined with a general antipathy towards the very idea of a discrete peace and conflict studies centre.

Additionally, a leadership vacuum arose in 2008 when Professor Clements left the University to take up his Directorship of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies in Otago. Instead of advertising for and appointing a new director, the University replaced him with someone who, according to former APACS staffers, had little expertise in the area of peace and conflict studies and experienced difficulties when it came to dealing with academics from other parts of the university, especially those from the Institute for Social Science Research. According to a former ACPACS academic, the appointment of some inexperienced and academically unsuitable personnel to lead the ACPACS and other peace and conflict centres and programs has been one of the principal failings in this field. Put simply, many of the appointed leaders had no clear understanding of what constituted a peace and studies discipline.

Without a strong advocate at the ACPACS, the program was gradually dismantled and in 2010 hived off into the School of Political Science and International Studies under the watch of the Institute of Social Science Research. Two graduate peace and conflict units remain in the program although their focus is on resolving conflict rather than preventing this from arising in the first place.

Although peace and conflict studies have largely disappeared in Australia various programs and centres are thriving in New Zealand, the U.K., Europe and North America. They are making major research, theory and policy contributions to the debates about how best to promote and maintain peace, security and individual well-being. Such specialised work has been reduced to a minimum in Australia. More's the pity.

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About the Author

Richard Hil is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, NSW.

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