Earlier this evening the Twitter followers of Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) Executive Director, Greg Lindsay, were sadly informed of the passing of economist Helen Hughes. Mr Lindsay indicated that Hughes passed away due to “complications following surgery.”
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1928 and migrating to Melbourne with family in 1939, Hughes attained Honours and Masters degrees at the University of Melbourne. After a stint at the London School of Economics to undertake a PhD, she returned to Australia with various lecturing positions at the University of Melbourne, University of NSW, the University of Queensland, and from 1963 the Australian National University.
Hughes remained at the ANU (including at the Research School of Pacific Studies) from 1963 to 1968, and then spent the next 15 years at the World Bank. Returning to Australia in 1983, she successively took up senior positions at the ANU, University of Melbourne, and as a Senior Fellow at the CIS until her untimely passing.
Helen Hughes’ research interests were deep and varied, including economic development and aid, international trade and investment, employment, the Australian economy, and indigenous economic issues. She had written, edited or co-authored at least 18 books on these, and other, matters. Hughes also presented the ABC Boyer lectures in 1985, on ‘Australia in a Developing World.’
Hughes deservedly received many accolades during her lengthy career. She was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1985 for ‘service to international relations, particularly in the field of economics.’ In 2001, she received the Centenary Medal for her work in poverty alleviation and economic development. Hughes also received the Economic Society of Australia’s Distinguished Fellow Award in 2004.
Helen Hughes fearlessly adopted a free-market approach to the resolution of real-world problems, pointing out that the most appropriate path for growth in the developing world rested on exploiting economic opportunities, through embracing open trade and investment, supported by stable, pro-growth institutional settings minimising the scope of political expropriation.
In her later years, Hughes trained her intellectual attention towards Australia’s own ‘development problem,’ i.e., the need to improve the long term economic status of rural and remote indigenous communities. Genuine human capital investment through sound school education, which would enable indigenous children to tap into the skills and knowledge bases that other children, especially in metropolitan areas, take for granted, was seen as a key to ensure that indigenous children do not fall behind educationally.
Her interest in reform, and passion for indigenous youth, was very much evident in her many contributions on indigenous schooling during her time at the CIS. If the political classes were to follow the Hughes model of schooling reform, including competitive experiments in educational services provision, then a legacy of sustained improvement in this area of indigenous education is truly well within Australia’s grasp.
I had the benefit of meeting Helen Hughes on one or two occasions, and would like to publicly express my thanks for her very helpful comments provided in the context of an Issues Paper I developed for the CIS on a proposal for charter schools for indigenous populations. Helen also very kindly sent me a range of her own materials in this area, subsequent to my contribution. For this I was very grateful.
Whilst Helen Hughes’ passing is unquestionably a significant loss to the Australian economics profession and broader academic community, I trust you will join me in paying tribute to Helen Hughes, Australia’s greatest female economist.