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Arthur Denning (1901–1975)

by Hugh King

This article was published:

Arthur Denning (1901-1975), by unknown photographer

Arthur Denning (1901-1975), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 16531

Arthur Denning (1901-1975), educationist, was born on 23 April 1901 at Glebe, Sydney, second child of Australian-born parents Benjamin Reuben Denning, schoolteacher, and his wife Florence, née Duffin. Arthur was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1922; Dip.Ed., 1923). Entering the Department of Public Instruction in 1923, he taught at Wagga Wagga (1924), Armidale (1924-28) and Canterbury Boys' (1928-36) high schools. He was a council-member of the New South Wales Public School Teachers' Federation and secretary (1934-36) of the Secondary Teachers' Association. Having begun teaching mathematics part time at Sydney Technical College in 1930, he was promoted head teacher of mathematics in 1935 and deputy-principal next year. On 23 December 1938 in his brother's house at Cronulla he married with Methodist forms Margaret Cecily Mordaunt; they were to have three children.

Believing that technical education was an essential ingredient of any effective national policy to make industries more efficient and internationally competitive, and to improve Australia's economy and standard of living, Denning endorsed the efforts in 1936 of D. H. Drummond, the minister for education, to obtain Commonwealth support. He was disappointed with funding provisions in Drummond's Technical Education Act (1940) and relieved that the incoming Labor government nullified the Act's proclamation in 1941.

During World War II Denning was responsible—under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme—for projects which included co-operation with the United States Army in establishing the correspondence teaching centre for the South-West Pacific Area (42,000 students), setting up courses for the Australian armed services (30,000 students) and arranging the training of munitions workers.

While deputy-principal (assistant-superintendent from 1945) at S.T.C., Denning introduced policies aimed at increasing the number of highly-qualified technologists. The standard of diploma courses was upgraded, and the range of diploma and post-diploma courses was increased to cover new areas such as radio and television. He sought co-operation from the University of Sydney to gain recognition of improved standards. When credits for diploma courses, approved by the university senate, failed to achieve wide recognition at home and abroad, Denning persistently recommended the establishment of an institution with authority to award degrees, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, United States of America. With the support of Robert Heffron and Wallace Wurth, respectively minister for education and chairman of the Public Service Board, a developmental council was set up in 1947. Next year an 'Institute of Technology', with Denning acting as director and using the facilities of S.T.C., began enrolling students in degree courses.

Heffron made provision for the institute to be a university through the Technical Education and New South Wales University of Technology Act (1949). On 1 July 1949 Denning was named director of the new university (his appointment was renewed annually) and appointed deputy-director of technical education. On the retirement of Percy Riddell in January 1950, Denning became director of technical education and permanent head of the department, while continuing as director of the university.

Many of the professors whom he had recruited, such as R. M. Hartwell, objected to working under public service regulations and resented having a public servant as their director. For his part, Denning regarded academic attitudes and irregular working hours as a handicap to good communication and administration. While he recognized that a university, once it had its own facilities, should be independent and separate from a government department, some academic staff thought that he wanted to keep the university and the Department of Technical Education together indefinitely. Eventually, his dream of maintaining a close working relationship between the department and the staff responsible for the broad spectrum of vocational courses provided by the university was shattered.

In June 1951 four professors, among them A. E. Alexander, signed a 'prayer' to the university council recommending that immediate steps be taken to separate the university from the department and the board. In November 1952 the university council took swift action after its sub-committee had reported in favour of autonomy (from 1 July 1954). Denning was left no option but to resign as director when Professor (Sir) Philip Baxter was elected by council to that office from January 1953. As an ordinary member of council from the end of 1952, Denning was not able to contribute greatly to the university's future, but his founding achievements were recognized by the conferring of an honorary doctorate of science in 1957. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (1952) and appointed C.B.E. (1962).

As director of technical education (until 1958), Denning endeavoured to meet a growing need and demand: five new technical colleges were established between 1953 and 1959. He was chairman of the Australian Committee for Study and Training in the U.S.A., a director of the United States Educational Foundation in Australia (Fulbright Board), an executive-member of the American Australian Association and—with Sir Owen Dixon—a founder of the Australian Canadian Committee, of which Denning was secretary-treasurer.

In 1958 Denning was appointed commissioner for New South Wales in the U.S.A. Based in New York, he assisted American firms to set up subsidiaries in Australia by promoting joint-ventures and arranging licensing agreements. Back in Sydney in 1967, he became a management consultant, a director of several companies, and chairman and chief executive of Value Search Pty Ltd. He belonged to the Australian Golf, Double Bay Bowling and American National clubs, and enjoyed playing bridge and chess. Survived by his wife, daughter and one son, Denning died on 27 March 1975 in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated. His portrait by H. A. Hanke is held by the University of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • D. H. Drummond, Technical Education in Australia (Syd, 1936)
  • A. H. Willis, The University of New South Wales (Syd, 1983)
  • Technical Education Committee, Report, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1935-36, 1, p 311
  • Technical Gazette of New South Wales, 24, pt 2, 1936, p 21
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 May 1936, 21 Feb 1948, 11 June 1949, 6 Aug 1958, 28 Mar 1975
  • A. Denning, curriculum vitae (copy held in ADB file)
  • Department of Education (New South Wales), teachers' records (State Records New South Wales)
  • University of New South Wales Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Hugh King, 'Denning, Arthur (1901–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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