University of Queensland and the National Service Vocational Training Scheme

In November 1964, the Menzies Federal Government enacted legislation to compel all Australian 20-year-old males, born 1945, the Baby Boomers, to register for National Service for two years duration. This scheme operated until 1972, and for some of those called up, the University of Queensland provided a year of transition back into ‘civvy’ life, thanks to a government-subsidised training scheme.

The Government introduced National Service in response to Indonesian hostilities and a perceived Communist threat, known as the ‘Domino Effect’, to Australia’s north. Young men, after registration, were balloted into military service from March 1965. The initial group attained a 52% chance of selection and recruit training commenced in July of that year. Deferments were possible. College and university students were permitted to finish their course prior to enlistment. Subsequent ballots were held bi-annually with four intakes each year for the next seven years.

The military emphasis moved to Vietnam in April 1965, with Australian society, in general, supporting the move. Dissenters were few. Australian regular troops, supported by the newly recruited National Servicemen, joined American servicemen in South Vietnam to fight North Vietnamese Communist forces.

By 1967, Queenslanders who deferred from previous ballot selections, entered recruit training at Singleton NSW. First degree, teachers’ college and those completing apprenticeships predominated in this group. Medicine, pharmacy, dentistry and other long-running course candidates were approaching call-up. The Army did use qualified people in their respective disciplines but the emphasis was on Infantry soldiers and the related fighting arms of Artillery and Engineers.

Upon the completion of the two year conscription period, a return to civilian life scheme was available for many soldiers to upgrade their qualifications under the National Service Vocational Training Scheme (NSVTS). UQ received many soldiers who undertook one year of full-time study, provided that their application for training was received within 12 months of discharge by the relevant authority.  A lifestyle change or other pressing factors at home might distract the candidate from applying on time. From my knowledge, no exemptions were made. Those who were selected after discharge received a fully paid, recognised course for one year with a book allowance and a travel-living allowance which approximated the basic wage of that time, tax-free.

UQ students were enrolled in Education, Arts, Commerce, Science and Law, to name a few. Some students came almost directly from Vietnam battlefields, others returned from instructional duties in Papua New Guinea (the Chalkies*- of whom the author was one), and the remainder came from military postings around Australia.  These mature aged students continued with their previous studies with only a 20% movement to more exotic courses. Some former teachers did move to commerce or law.

By 1969, UQ had at least 15 mature aged ex-soldiers studying full time in various faculties with as many as 100 students in total over the seven-year conscription timeline. (Part-time and external students may well have swelled this figure.) Most had the maturity to succeed in their chosen field. At studies end, candidates returned to the workforce, completing their degree part-time. For others, the full-time study continued unfunded, unless a Commonwealth Scholarship was secured. Many returned to former employers. Now with a degree in hand (or in sight), promotions followed for those who sought it. For the teachers returning to the classroom, principalships and other higher duties became available for both State and private school sectors. A few have become tertiary educators.

A colleague studied Computer Science One in its inaugural year in 1971 as part of a science degree. He re-joined the Public Service and has recently retired as Chief Scientist-Computing at a Brisbane public hospital. His groundbreaking work in pathology processing is a vital forerunner for today’s computer run health system.

For myself, I studied first-year Commerce with the vocational grant and completed this degree, followed by an Economics degree using my savings and part-time work until the course was completed. This led me to a satisfying career in both Business and Education.

Returning to campus, it was most unlikely that this cohort of students joined the UQ Regiment regardless of their previous Army rank, although some participated in sporting teams and university clubs. As at other Australian universities, there had always been some dissent on campus to the war in Vietnam, but from 1969 public opposition increased, and campus life became punctuated with student demonstrations and marches. No doubt this gave the UQ Vice Chancellor of the time, Sir Zelman Cowan some sleepless nights. Public sympathy for the cessation of the war continued moving the students’ way especially when the body bags were returning from Vietnam.

In late 1972, the Whitlam government swept to power and, almost immediately, all draftees were exempted from the military call-up. For those already in the Army, their tour of duty was curtailed. However, to be eligible for the aforementioned NSVTS, one had to complete the two-year duty which many educated soldiers did.

The UQ years enhanced qualifications, confirmed a chosen career path and gave students the best possible opportunities. These ex-military Baby Boomers are now settling into retirement. Although the NSVTS gave them the opportunity to make the most of their circumstances, career disruption and the obstacle course of a two year Army Career in war circumstances is a path that, young men, might well resist today.

Terry Edwinsmith B.Com 1973, B.Ecom 1974

* “The Chalkies, Educating an Army for Independence” Darryl R. Dymock (ASP); Website <www.NashosPNG.com>

The photo is of myself as a soldier preparing to go overseas. Not to Vietnam, as you would expect, but to Papua New Guinea to join the Pacific Islands Regiment, to assist our nearest neighbour prepare for imminent independence from Australia. This occurred on the 16th September 1975, three years after the cessation of the 1965-72 National Service period.