A hundred harvests

Into one grain, there come a hundred harvests.[1]

We, the alumni of the University of Queensland (UQ), are seeds germinated and nourished in the rich intellectual life of the University, bringing forth a hundred harvests, a rich bounty manifest not only in the contributions made to the communities in which we have worked, but more broadly to our nation and humanity.  Ours is the story of the power of education, of how a world class university empowered us with the knowledge, expertise, values, determination and opportunities needed to become leaders in our field and to help build  the kind of nation and world to which we aspire—in my case, in helping to assure the right to education of  all children, youth and adults, and in developing the international policies and programmes designed to improve the quality and effectiveness of education systems worldwide in ways consistent with internationally-agreed sustainable development goals.

Matriculation Day, University of Queensland, February 1957.  This was my first day as a science undergraduate at the university, my first glimpse of the imposing main building. Sheathed in sandstone, it stretched majestically across the parklands lining the river, hiding the then incomplete semi-circle of buildings that house the science departments and a then treeless Great Court. Queensland had just one university, the University of Queensland. In 1957, I was but one of its 4,000 students.

Dressed in a second-hand academic gown, my old college greys, a new white shirt and black bow tie, I was obviously a first- year student from Kings’ College.  “We wear black bow ties at Kings,” we were instructed by senior students at the college, and woe betide a freshman caught not wearing one.  The Vice-Chancellor, Professor J.D. Story, welcomed us to the international community of scholars. Above him carved on the lintel at the rear entrance were the immortal words of Disraeli “A place of light, of liberty, and of learning,” what a real university must be.

In the Chemistry 1 lecture theatre, some 200 plus first year students laboriously tried to capture every word of the lecturers as they sped through the essentials of physical, organic and inorganic chemistry.  Just over a hundred students were enrolled in each of my other subjects: Physics I, Pure Mathematics I and Applied Mathematics I. The same pattern of instruction.  The same reality of good lectures, tutors and demonstrators, and a few who fell short. These were the days of God-King Professors. Given that status, their concept of academic standards was absolute, academic values well entrenched – the quest for excellence, critical thinking and academic freedom taken for granted.

Like most science students, my focus at first was on mastering the content and skills of the subject areas we had chosen. It was at Kings College and honours programme that the inner voyage that leads to the opening of the mind, critical thinking and the quest for understanding, began in earnest. Entrenched beliefs and ideological positions challenged, the light of reason and shafts of evidence penetrated the walls of prejudice so carefully crafted during childhood and adolescence.  Slowly, I began to question some of the dogmas that had ruled my life. The chords remain, the universal values embraced by virtually all faiths and philosophies that continue to give meaning and purpose to life and lie at the heart of what it means to be human. But I also learned why exclusive sects do not want their young automatons going to a university, or set up their own “universities.” Higher education is a risky business for authoritarians—religious, political or ethnic.

“Doc” Sutherland, Reader in Organic Chemistry, was an excellent teacher. He punctuated lectures with illustrations from the history of science to drive home key messages: nature does not give its secrets easily, breakthroughs in science demand a deep understanding of one’s discipline and field of inquiry, a lot of painstaking research and even more deep reflection on what the data mean. As part of Maurice Sutherland’s research team, I worked on the structure of the organic molecules responsible for the pigmentation in marine organisms.  Once more, working through many a long day and night in the lab, I learned precisely what Dr Sutherland meant.

Given that I was on State Teaching Fellowship, I began my training as a science teacher. I really enjoyed studying the philosophy of education, psychology and other Dip. Ed. subjects.  These demanded the exploration of fields of knowledge new to me, fields that focused more on people than molecules.  Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Hegel, Kant, Dewey—fundamental ideas about humanity, its goals, meaning and destiny, about democracy and the aims of education, ideas that both expanded and challenged what I had assumed to be the truth. It was at this stage as well, that I began to learn about the work of UNESCO. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Fred Schonell was a world leader in special education and had played an important role in developing programs for the disabled. He spoke of the invaluable role UNESCO plays in building peace in the minds of people and in promoting the international co-operation needed to assume progress in the development of education, science and culture.

While teaching science and mathematics in Queensland secondary schools, I continued my post-graduate studies. Graduating with First Class Honours, I was immediately appointed as a Research Officer in the Queensland Department, responsible for the statistics on education in Queensland, educational planning and research on what were at the time key policy issues for the Ministry of Education. The seeds planted at UQ were beginning to bear fruit.

As a science teacher, I puzzled about why some students came to love science and achieve well while others became alienated. I began work on a PhD observing and analysing what was happening inside the classroom, identifying different patterns of interaction between teachers and students and how these shape student outcomes.  In 1967, I was offered a post in science education by the University of Sydney, but the UQ quickly moved to make a counter offer, one I was happy to accept.  And so for the next decade, the UQ was my academic home. As my research and publications blossomed, I became increasingly active in professional associations focussing on educational research and the World Education Fellowship—along with the Vice-Chancellor (Sir Zelman Cowen, or Big Z as we often called our leader) and his wife Anna. Anna frequently hosted WEF events in the Vice-Chancellor’s residence, and Sir Zelman reminded us that the right to education is enshrined in international law.

I have taught and  engaged in co-operative research programmes in many universities, but my life as a Lecturer and Senior Lecturer at the University of Queensland during the late 1960s and 1970s were undoubtedly the happiest I have had as an academic. Teaching and research at UQ was a joy: we were fortunate to have so many outstanding students and research assistants, most of whom subsequently have had distinguished careers. Indeed, my greatest joy as a teacher has been to see the seeds we planted in our students bear fruit as our graduates have blossomed. I should add that I was fortunate to have very strong support from the senior academics like Bill Bassett and Jack Campbell, and a strong and long-standing UQ friendship base.

I left UQ in 1978 to take up a Chair in Education at Flinders University and then Australia in 1988 to assume the top post in education in the UN system at UNESCO. But UQ has always been a key part of my life, the rock on which my professional life has been built, and the cycle continues. On my retirement from UNESCO in 2000, I returned to Queensland and renewed my links with my Alma Mater—as an Adjunct Professor at the University, a member of the Alumni Association and a Fellow of Kings’ College.

And yes, in my case, the seed nourished at UQ did yield a hundred harvests. On my retirement from UNESCO in 2000, I received awards from several governments and universities, and letters from more than 60 Ministers of Education, Ambassadors and National Commissions for UNESCO thanking me for the work I had done in support of the development of education in their country[2]. In 2002, I was made a member of the Order of Australia, awarded Alumnus of the Year by the University of Queensland, and given an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Sydney.  The citation given by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney provides a snapshot of the hundred harvests that one seed planted and nurtured by The University of Queensland (See footnote[3]).


Emeritus Professor Colin POWER, AM, BSc, DipED, BEd (hons),PhD (UQ).

Alumnus of the Year, 2002



[1] Geraldine Brooks (2008).  People of the Book.  Pymble NSW: Harper Collins.

[2] For an account see Power, C. (2015), The  Power of Education: Education for All, Development, Globalisation and UNESCO.  Singapore, Heidelberg, New York, Dortrecht, London: Springer.

[3] In April 2000, Professor Colin Power completed a term as Deputy Director-General of UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  That term as Deputy Director-General came after ten years as Assistant Director-General for Education, a time when, in effect, Colin Power was the “E” in UNESCO.  These are the most senior posts that an Australian has held in UNESCO, and are among the highest positions held by an Australian in the UN system as a whole. “For the twelve years he was at UNESCO, Colin Power was responsible for UNESCO’s programs in the organization’s 188 member states.  He is now credited for having played an outstanding international role in assisting education authorities the world over during a decade of profound political, economic and cultural transformation.  That work saw him liaise with many world leaders, most of the world’s ministers of education. and literally hundreds of non-governmental organizations, government aid agencies and multilateral organizations as they sought to tackle the formidable global problems of equal access to education, the quality of education, and its relevance to economic and social change.  As Deputy Director-General of UNESCO, Colin Power assumed a very high level of responsibility within the UN system in the global struggle to alleviate poverty, to defend human rights, and to protect world cultural and natural heritage sites…..Colin Power has always been – indeed continues to be – a passionate advocate of the right of every person to education, emphasising, in his own words, that “quality education, directed at the full development of the individual personality is a global public good, is the key to peace, development, social cohesion and democracy in the twenty-first century”.  Perhaps nothing illustrates this passion more than the leading role played by UNESCO in the Education for All initiative spearheaded by UNESCO in 1990 with the World Bank, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme.   In mobilizing the international community to ensure equality of access to education, Colin Power brought a formidable combination of intellectual, strategic and persuasive skills.  That literally millions of children, young people and adults over the past decade had opened up to them the world of learning is due in no small part to the energy, commitment and skill shown by Colin Power.  He is an Australian of whom all Australians can be proud.  More than that, he is a global citizen who has played a leading role in ensuring that education is placed at the centre of global strategies for peace, for progress, and the universal application of human rights.”