George Alexander Currie was born at Windyhills farm in the parish of Grange, Banffshire, Scotland, on 13 August 1896, the second son of Mary Craib and her husband, George Currie, a village blacksmith and later tenant farmer. He was born into a Free Church of Scotland family and in adult life was to be a devoted Presbyterian and kirk elder. George went to the local school and won a scholarship to attend Keith Grammar School. He served in France with the 6th Gordon Highlanders in 1915–16, but was invalided out of the trenches when his regiment was decimated by diphtheria.
Government assistance for ex-servicemen and a grant from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gave Currie his opportunity to study at the University of Aberdeen, and in 1923 he graduated BSc with first-class honours in zoology and geology. He fell in love with one of his lecturers, Margaret Smith, the gifted daughter of the provost of Inverurie and one of the first women appointed to a lectureship in a Scottish university. Her marriage, at Inverurie on 5 April 1923, to the impecunious son of a tenant farmer who had yet to make his way in the world, raised eyebrows.
Migration held the key to their future. Aberdeen university specialised in tropical agriculture, and the couple decided to join one of Margaret’s cousins at Koumala, inland from Mackay, Queensland. There Currie cleared and developed land, and managed a sugar plantation. For him it was swapping the privations of his childhood and the war for the wilds of northern Queensland; for Margaret Currie, whose life had been sheltered, the years there were particularly trying. Their two sons were born at Mackay.
In 1926 Currie was appointed an entomologist in the Queensland Department of Agriculture, and three years later he was invited to work for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Canberra. His research focused on the biological control of noxious weeds, for which Aberdeen university awarded him a DSc in 1936. An incidental discovery during these years was Currie cocksfoot, a grass he found in Algeria in 1937, which proved to be a highly successful pasture grass in New South Wales and Victoria.
In 1939 he was appointed professor of agriculture in the University of Western Australia; he became vice chancellor in 1941 and steered what was then a small university through a decade of expansion. He chaired the Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee (1949–52) and was an executive member of the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth. His interest in New Zealand was whetted when the association held an executive meeting there in 1950, and its members visited the four university colleges.
In early 1952 Currie was appointed vice chancellor of the University of New Zealand, taking up the position in Wellington in July. The New Zealand university system had long been in need of major overhaul. The chancellor, Sir David Smith, favoured devolution of authority to the four university colleges, a view strongly favoured by the colleges themselves, but the university senate was deeply divided on the issue. Currie proved to be the catalyst. An experienced vice chancellor, he believed that more autonomy should be conferred on the university colleges. However, he realised that in New Zealand, where virtually all the money for university education was controlled by the government, central institutions in some form would still be required to ensure educational equality, maintain national standards and assure funding for autonomous universities facing increasing enrolments.
Between 1954 and 1957 Currie prepared a series of memoranda which analysed the issues and helped the senate to develop the policy outline of a new system. It was to be based on autonomous universities and the dissolution of the University of New Zealand; the latter would be replaced by a university grants committee that would administer matters of common concern and negotiate with governments on behalf of the universities.
By the mid 1950s the requirements of an expanding university sector were a matter of public debate, and in their campaigns for the 1957 elections both the National and Labour parties promised to give them a higher priority. Labour, which won the election, also pledged to set up a commission of inquiry into all aspects of the education system. University interests were, however, averse to having their concerns merged in such a wide-ranging review, and the senate prevailed on the government to examine the university system on its own first. The Committee on New Zealand Universities, which reported in December 1959, endorsed the senate’s proposals for reorganisation, and urged the government to plan for and fund a considerable expansion of university education. When National became the government at the end of 1960, it took over its predecessor’s commitment to reorganise the university system, and in 1961 Parliament passed the necessary legislation without a division.
It was a moment of unusual academic and political agreement, largely brought about on the university side by Smith’s leadership of senate and Currie’s administrative and political skills. Currie was knighted in 1960, and at its final congregation in December 1961 the University of New Zealand conferred on him its honorary LLD. Earlier in his career he had been awarded honorary doctorates from the universities of Aberdeen, Dalhousie (Canada), Western Australia and Melbourne. These honours were warmly applauded by a wide circle of friends. As they had earlier done in Western Australia, George and Margaret Currie infused the vice chancellor’s residence with the warmth of their personalities and good-natured hospitality, as well as the pleasures of Margaret’s skilful cooking.
When it set up a commission on education in February 1960, the government invited Currie to chair it. His handling of all aspects of the commission’s 2½-year inquiry was masterly. His geniality, tact and unfailing courtesy made it easy for people from all walks of life to have their views heard fully and fairly, and his well-honed skills as chairman ensured that the views of his 10 fellow commissioners were carefully considered. The result was a unanimous report in a field of public policy that had been contentious for two decades. The recommendations of the Currie report, almost all of which were adopted, became the blueprint for educational development for a quarter of a century.
In 1962 Sir George and Lady Currie returned to Canberra. His skills were immediately in demand, and a newspaper profile of him in 1967 was headed ‘The Chairman of Everything’. In 1963–64 he chaired an Australian government commission that led to the establishment of the University of Papua New Guinea. Among other things, he played a leading role in the establishment of the Australian Capital Territory education administration and the Canberra Theatre Trust, and was the principal author of The origins of CSIRO: science and the Commonwealth government, 1901–1926 , published in 1966. George Currie died in Canberra on 4 May 1984, survived by Margaret (who died in 1986) and his two sons.