AUSTRALIA: Confidant to vice-chancellors dies

OBITUARY: John Mullarvey 23 May 1950 - 12 February 2009

The John Mullarvey story is quite remarkable. With humble education beginnings and without a tertiary education qualification, not even John in his wildest dreams would have thought he would be involved at a high level in the development of Australian government policy on higher education, or that he would become an adviser to and confidant of Australian vice-chancellors.

Born in 1950 and raised in northern Victoria, Mullarvey went to Canberra in the late 1960s and joined the Australian Public Service where he stayed for more than 20 years. During this time he served in the Department of Education and Science, the Commonwealth Schools Commission and the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission before joining the Department of Employment, Education and Training in 1987 where he acted as First Assistant Secretary.

Some vice-chancellors had not always enjoyed a happy relationship with Mullarvey in his education department role but, when the opportunity arose, they were happy to recruit him as deputy executive director to the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee (AVCC) in February 1989. He was promoted to chief executive 12 years later and occupied that position until the transformation of the AVCC to Universities Australia in May 2007.

Mullarvey then joined the Slade Group as business development director - education and government, specialising in executive search in education, government and government-related organisations.

He gained a reputation among some work colleagues, and those with whom he dealt, as being tough, difficult and strong-willed. He certainly did not please all of the people all of the time but still had many admirers and mellowed over time.

He was a person who people were happy to have on their side during discussions and negotiations. Indeed in 2003, Mullarvey was recognised by the Australian Financial Review when it ranked him as the third most influential person across the public and private sectors in influencing the higher education agenda. Again in 2004, he was recognised by the Review as one of the five most influential people in higher education for his ability to negotiate acceptable outcomes for the sector.

Among his many achievements, Mullarvey was instrumental in bringing the Association for Tertiary Education Management, or ATEM, to the notice of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee in 2006. This relationship, which he engineered, has blossomed into a true partnership between the two peak organisations and will have many benefits for the professional development of tertiary education managers into the future. In recognition of this service he was made an emeritus member of ATEM last year.

Mullarvey was a generous host and made lasting friendships among those with whom he worked, and with a number of vice-chancellors and other senior university officials. He loved a good party and was an enthusiastic wine buff with an extensive cellar. His other passion was horse racing and he was part-owner of several racehorses over time. Some claimed he lived in the fast lane, perhaps not figuratively but certainly literally if you were ever his car passenger!

Although he did not achieve a tertiary qualification, Mullarvey did study part-time, but time constraints and work pressures did not permit him to complete his studies. He derived great satisfaction when Central Queensland University awarded him an honorary doctorate which he used with pride.

He died after a long battle with cancer and will be sadly missed, particularly by his partner Helen and by his family and friends who were special to him.

* Frank Hambly is a former chief executive of the Australian Vice-chancellors' Committee while Giles Cooper works in the ATEM secretariat and was also on the staff of the AVCC.