BA (Sydney), MA (Illinois), Academic Diploma of Education and PhD (London), D.Litt. (Hon) NUI
(Deceased), 2022-06-17

Obituary: Emeritus Professor Malcolm Skilbeck AO

Emeritus Professor Malcolm Skilbeck began his working life as a gardener and nurseryman in Sydney in 1953, moving on to become an internationally acclaimed academic and educator. He died on the 17th June, 2022 at his home, Lark Edge, on the Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria, in the beautiful natural environment, garden, orchard and vineyard he had created with his wife, Helen. 

He recently celebrated the international publication of his last book, Loving and Studying Nature – Celebrating the earth through history, culture and education in January 2022.  

In his career, Malcolm lived and worked in many countries, serving as Deputy Director for Education at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris (1991-1997); Vice- Chancellor and Principal of Deakin University, Geelong, Victoria ( 1986-1991); Professor of Curriculum Studies, University of London, Institute of Education (1981- 1985); Director of Studies, The Schools Council for the Curriculum and Examinations, England and Wales ( 1981-1983); Foundation Director of the Australian Curriculum Development Centre, Canberra (1975-1981); and Professor and Dean of Education (1971-1975), New University of Ulster, Coleraine, Northern Ireland.

Malcolm was recognized and respected internationally for his original and thoughtful contributions to educational policy development across OECD countries. He advocated for the work and standing of international inter- government authorities such as UNESCO.  

He showed academic leadership as a vice chancellor, professor and dean in higher education institutions in Australia, England and Northern Ireland, along with extensive academic writings, policy-oriented reports and public addresses. His humane concern, respect for the dignity of all, his enduring love of learning and belief in the value of education shaped his views of the changing nature of society and how education should be provided. 

His thinking and writing was wideranging, spanning: school-based curriculum development; lifelong learning for all; re-defining tertiary education; improving access, equity and opportunity to tertiary and higher education; provision of quality schooling and teaching; and reforms in the teaching profession.

Malcolm’s core intellectual interests were in the philosophy and history of ideas. Early in his career he was strongly influenced by the work of the American thinker, John Dewey, whose “pragmatic approach” to education formed a basis for Malcolm’s own thinking. At a time when other powerful theories and approaches were influential in education, Malcolm concentrated on fostering the ability of students to address problems, form ideas for themselves and determine their own patterns of “what would work for them.”  

This approach became of inestimable benefit to students and teachers in approaching learning. For Malcolm, pragmatic approaches to problem solving and respect for personal freedom and action were the optimum ways of learning over adherence to idealistic conceptions of “truth”. This remained his principal emphasis throughout his professional career. During his OECD years this approach found significant expression in the work program “Making Lifelong Learning a Reality for All”. 

These beliefs, values and commitments continued to influence Malcolm’s own life, choices and activities in his years of retirement. The joy he found in nurturing his rose garden, orchard, vineyard, and tree plantation, caring for the needs of his animals, and making his wine, all provided a parallel to his continued love of learning, scholarship and writing.  

In his final years Malcolm loved spending time with family and friends at the Sunday lunch table, replete with produce from his own work hardened hands and beloved property. Malcolm is survived by Helen and their daughter Brigit, by four children from his first marriage, Ruth, Clare, Paul, and Lucy, by grandchildren James, Ella, Conor and Lexie, and by great-grandchildren Finnegan and Nora.  

To the end Malcolm engaged with the pursuit of ideas, enjoying intellectual and social engagement, always interested in and respectful of everyone’s experience, commitments and concerns. In so many ways Malcolm has left us with a continuing model for lifelong learning - an inspiration for us all.

Written by Emeriti Professors Judith D Chapman AM and David N Aspin

  • Malcolm Skilbeck (2002) The University Challenged: A Review of International Trends and Issues with Particular Relevance to Ireland. Dublin: Higher Education Authority.
  • Malcolm Skilbeck (text author) (2000) Education for All - Global Synthesis. Paris: UNESCO.
  • Malcolm Skilbeck (2000) Access and Equity in Higher Education: An International Perspective on Issues and Strategies. Dublin: Higher Education Authority.
  • Malcolm Skilbeck (principal author) (1998) Redefining Tertiary Education. Paris: OECD.
  • Malcolm Skilbeck (senior author) (1994) The Vocational Quest - New Directions in Education and Training. London: Routledge.
  • Malcolm Skilbeck (1990) Curriculum Reform. Paris: OECD.