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Woodburne, Gregory John (Greg) (1932–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

The technical education system, sandwiched between schools and universities, has always been underrated. But Greg Woodburne, who became deputy managing director of the NSW Department of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) Commission, became its champion, forever advocating its importance, its need for proper training and resources and its value to the community. In 1993, he said that as many as half of Australia's 8 million workers would need some form of retraining before the turn of the century. About 70 per cent of people then working would still be working in 2000, but only about 30 per cent would have the requisite knowledge, in the face of the accelerating rate of technological change.

Woodburne, a gifted student who devoted most of his working life to TAFE, was buffeted at the top by budget cuts and political and bureaucratic demands. For 10 years from 1985, he went through a succession of structural changes under five ministers and five departmental heads. In 1995, when the senior administrator, Dr Gregor Ramsey, left suddenly, Woodburne took over and effectively ran the department, assuming day-to-day control of a body that had an annual budget of $1 billion. His sudden resignation in 1995 to take up a federal government appointment was widely mourned.

Gregory John Woodburne was born on June 30, 1932, at Young, southern NSW, the elder son of a hairdresser, Lesley Woodburne, and Amy (nee Fraser). Believing their sons, Greg and Norman, deserved the best schooling, the family moved to Sydney where Greg went into an opportunity class at Woollahra Public School, then to Sydney Boys High, where he rowed and played football.

He anchored the winning debating teams for both the Combined High Schools and Great Public Schools and won the NSW schoolboys' public speaking championship and the Lawrence Campbell Oratory Competition.

Woodburne enrolled at Sydney University where he gained his Bachelor of Arts degree. He started his working life in management positions in the food manufacturing and construction industries. In 1955 he married Mary McNamara, whom he had met as a student. In 1964 he gained his Technical Teachers Certificate from Sydney Teachers College and worked as a TAFE teacher and head teacher until 1970, when he became a teacher of TAFE teachers at Sydney Teachers College. He was a strong advocate of the notion that TAFE teachers needed appropriate training, given the pivotal relationship between vocational education and work. He gave TAFE teacher education a professional identity with his innovative and world-class TAFE teacher education program. His work in this area continued after his retirement from TAFE NSW, with a national reputation for his expertise in this field.

Woodburne's significant planning skills were brought to the fore in the expansion of TAFE in the mid 1980s, when there was growth in both courses and building infrastructure. He was renowned for his negotiation skills with local councils, members of parliament, community interest groups and others in order to ensure TAFE was able to meet the urgent need for state-of-the-art training facilities. Ramsey said: "What made all the difference was his skill in inspiring people to do what was needed for success. He was prepared to take on the 'tough stuff' that many seem to back away from these days. Not that he was confrontational, but he always kept his eye on the best way to achieve what was possible in the circumstances.''

Woodburne was always actively involved in ensuring TAFE NSW was properly acknowledged and celebrated for its role in the education of people throughout NSW – both in the cities and in the country. Ramsey recounts one example of a controversy that blew up in the media over teaching fashion skills to women in remote areas instead of focusing on trade skills for males. Ramsey sent Woodburne to the radio interview with commentator Alan Jones. Ramsey said later: ''Greg turned the 'aggressive beginning' around to explain what a great thing TAFE was in regional NSW, that it was a first step back into employment for many women, and the interview ended with Greg and the announcer being 'the best of friends'.''

Woodburne and his wife had six daughters. Tragically, they lost one, Lisa, at the age of four.

He was well recognised professionally, with the inaugural AUSTAFE National Educational Leadership Award in 1993 and the Public Service Medal in 1994 for pioneering advances in technical and further education.

After leaving TAFE, Woodburne took on several academic appointments and was engaged as a consultant and conducted research for the federal government, UNESCO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He was a worldly man and his counsel and expertise was sought by many. A great reader, he would email material to friends from a range of books, magazines and journals relevant to each one's special interests.

Greg Woodburne is survived by his wife, five daughters and 15 grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November 2011

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Woodburne, Gregory John (Greg) (1932–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/woodburne-gregory-john-greg-16720/text28616, accessed 22 July 2019.

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