A History of the Modern Australian University

A History of the Modern Australian University

by Hannah Forsyth

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ISBN-13: 9781742241838
Publisher: UNSW Press
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 278
File size: 423 KB

About the Author

Hannah Forsyth is a historian of modern Australia and an educator at the Australian Catholic University. She is the author of New Year’s Eve in Sydney: A History of Urban Carnival.

Read an Excerpt

A History of the Modern Australian University

By Hannah Forsyth

University of New South Wales Press Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Hannah Forsyth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74224-183-8



In lodgings and in taverns ideas were born and nursed. They were vague and unpractical ideas that a man of the world would not entertain for a moment: yet thousands of students discovered that the rest of their lives was filled by a growing and maturing of these ideas, and the very subjects taught matured in this atmosphere.

Eric Ashby, Challenge to Education, 1946.

In 1857, all of the Arts students at the University of Sydney could fit easily in a single photograph. Their only colleagues in the Australian colonies, at the University of Melbourne, would undoubtedly have done so as well. Indeed, Australia then had less than 140 university students all together. Today there are more than one million.

The change this represents is not just a matter of scale. In the 20th century, universities became less elite, but more important. In that time, following the phases of growth that began after the Second World War, six small state universities, educating less than 0.2 per cent of the nation, became 39 institutions enrolling more than one-quarter of high school graduates, a proportion that continues to increase and shows no sign of plateauing. Indeed, most analysts argue that it is essential for our labour market that this participation rate continues to grow. The most conservative estimates suggest that 40 per cent of young people will go to university by 2020; debate rests on whether this rate will in fact be achieved sooner. In order to facilitate this growth, in 2014 the Abbott Coalition government is discussing deregulation of higher education, controversially asserting that a market will make the tertiary sector simultaneously bigger and better.

These numbers are significant, not just to the lives and hopes of the people who studied and learned, but also because the idea of the university changed. A small elite institution is different to the mass system we see today, and represents a whole other philosophy of higher education. Take the idea of research, for instance. Before the Second World War, university academics focused their energy on scholarship (reading, understanding and maintaining 'mastery' of their field) and teaching or examining students. Only rarely – and then only in particular fields – did they conduct research. Later in the 20th century, scholarly leaders began to declare research central to the idea of the university, suggesting it was not a 'real' university without research.

In fact, the idea of the university had to change. Despite what it may look like in more traditional corners of some elite institutions, higher education is not the same as it was only bigger. The adjustments, moreover, are not just incidental. Ideas have power. Shifts in ideas about universities in Australia have not been achieved in a disinterested or objective manner: every new idea about tertiary education represents someone's interests. Because university-based knowledge became so important in the 20th century, whose interests were involved is also important to understand. The story of universities is the story of knowledge in Australia and who controlled it – and for whose benefit.

Consider how wide spreading are the implications. Nearly every occupation now requires more education than before. Many roles that would once have been learned on the job now need a formal university degree – sometimes even a Masters (think of teaching). Even running away to join the circus could now take a university degree: Swinburne University of Technology offers a Bachelor of Circus Arts. This puts universities, often in alliance with professional associations, in a position of considerable influence over the labour market. The relationship between universities and professional associations is often strained, however, for each needs the other (but would perhaps like to need them less) in order to maintain this control. Battle lines are usually drawn over standards, for both education and professional reputation are based, in part, on the regulation of quality. Ensuring that doctors, nurses and pharmacists are educated and able to meet standards of care and ethics has serious implications. The stability of our built environment depends, literally, on the competence of university-trained engineers. Controlling knowledge and credentials is a responsible, as well as powerful, task.

Universities have also maintained and developed their control of knowledge in areas that have little to do with the labour market, and many people believe that encouraging more 'liberal' knowledge is what universities naturally do best. This aspect is explored in more depth later (in chapter 2 especially), but here let us consider what is at stake for society in having institutions that regulate our collective knowledge of art, philosophy, history, literature, pure maths, physics, biology, music and many other fields that are 'known' as well as practised. University scholars usually – and rightly – emphasise our good fortune in having institutions where such knowledge is protected and nurtured. Sometimes this knowledge is foundational to things that are of practical value to us, at other times it is valuable just because it adds to the beauty and complexity of the world and our understanding of it. Those aretwo important issues. A third relates to the social standing of the people who hold this knowledge. Specialists in this kind of knowledge may not always be wealthy, but in general they are influential. They are present in the public sphere, on television and radio, in newspapers and in political decision making. They sometimes do this quite spectacularly: think of the line-up on the ABC's Q&A program, for example, or of the experts so often cited by journalists and politicians. These are just two of the ways that wielding knowledge – university knowledge – also wields power.

Mentioning knowledge and power in the same sentence will raise a red flag for some people, for this juxtaposition has become associated with French philosopher Michel Foucault. Foucault's assertions about the role of power/knowledge in society were influential, disrupting some of the positions many university scholars valued, whether Marxist or conservative in their outlook. A book about knowledge may lead some readers to assume I am out to prove something about Foucault: indeed some are likely to already be looking askance at the mere mention of this philosophical F-word. He is here, it is true, but Foucault is less central to this study of knowledge than the power/knowledge cliché might suggest. This is because knowledge is not the same as ideas. The kinds of power that Foucault cared about (and here I am skating blithely across decades of Foucauldian scholarship) lay in ideas and how they lead us to regulate our behaviour. It is not my knowledge of how to brush my teeth that leads me to do so every day, it is the idea of dental hygiene, internalised as a kind of teeth-brushing morality.

The reason for writing a book about knowledge, via the history of the university in Australia, is not because knowledge asserts the kind of power that Foucault described (though sometimes it does, and this comes up, especially in chapters 4 and 8), but because knowledge operates a bit like money. Knowledge does not have to work like money; indeed, money does not have to work like money. But just as the flow of money and the institutions that regulate it, the systems that lead people to desire it, the imperatives that compel business owners to pursue it, all structure the conditions in which society functions, so too with knowledge. Who has access to knowledge? Who decides on the value of knowledge, or its price? How do universities (which have grown to such proportions that we might point to their functions as loosely analogous to the tasks banks perform in relation to money) work? What compels them to work in the strange and alien ways that they seem, in recent decades, to have adopted?

For the past 20 years, books about universities worldwide have been rather gloomy affairs, sometimes for good reason. Catalogues of everything that is wrong with universities are reflected in titles like The Fall of the Faculty or Education's End. American historian Anthony Grafton called these works 'jeremiads', collectively pronouncing the end of the scholarly world. Australia's Richard Hil's evocatively titled Whackademia falls into the same category. I choose, for reasons that I hope become obvious throughout this book, not to follow their path. This is not to ignore higher education's considerable problems. Indeed, an academic apocalypse can clearly not be averted by blind optimism – if it could, Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis's otherwise well-researched Boyer lectures in 2010 on The Republic of Learning would have fixed all our problems. Nevertheless, in adopting some of the spirit of both the Jeremiahs and the optimists, A History of the Modern Australian University is a history that has implications for the present. It shows how the things that are wonderful about collecting clever people together to study, research, think and teach and the dreadful, corrupted, ridiculous and wasteful aspects of higher education are both wrought by history.

To the jeremiads we must add the large piles of research publications on university learning and teaching, higher education policy and administration, histories of science, medicine and other disciplines, as well as histories of many Australian tertiary institutions. At one point during my research I had more than 200 of these books on my desk; I wondered what on earth I was doing adding to this literature. What was not in the pile, however, was an overview of the history of universities in Australia, or anything that would tell the story of how we forged the higher education system that we have. Such a book did not exist. The task of telling this story, however, is not just to describe the institutional and policy frameworks that made higher education, for books such as higher education policy expert Simon Marginson's Education and Public Policy in Australia did that more than 20 years ago. Instead, a larger picture is needed, one that explains not only why universities look the way they do, but also why the knowledge that they protected and promoted became so central to the world and the economy that universities needed to grow and change so significantly.

University knowledge was not always so important, nor indeed was education in general. When Australia was first colonised, education was hardly an institution worth mentioning, neither in Britain nor across its Empire. Indeed, Aboriginal nations and early colonists from China probably had more substantial and institutionalised educational traditions than Britain, at least in the first part of the 19th century. As a result of the weak place of formal education in most colonists' lives, the path to financial and social standing was not normally via university. Now there is no other path, really, which demonstrates the point: from the early 20th century universities began to take over the control and regulation of knowledge. It was not that knowledge was unimportant in the early days of the colonies. Knowledge, then as now, enabled people to do their work, make decisions, be good parents and be useful citizens. It was just that they did not gain this knowledge at university or even, often, at school.

A quick history of universities before 1939

By 1911, each of the six states had a university. They were all tiny. There were around 3000 university students in Australia in total, with more than two-thirds of them enrolled at the two oldest universities in Melbourne and Sydney. Many people imagine these first universities as little replicas of the medieval British institutions at Oxford and Cambridge. It is an understandable mistake, for the architects of the university buildings and institutional frameworks were trying to create that impression. Sydney University's old Latin motto adds to it. Translated, it reads 'though the constellations change, the mind is universal' – or, in student-speak, 'new latitude, same attitude'. Linking new institutions to those with far older traditions gave colonial universities legitimacy and authority.

We should not be fooled by the Oxbridge similarities, however. The designers of Australia's first higher education institutions were very happy to shop around for ideas. Even in a world where very few people went to school at all, they had plenty of ideas to choose from. Within Britain, where they naturally looked first, there were competing ideas of the university between English and Scottish preferences, while Ireland was just beginning something new again. Most Australian universities selected a mix that suited them, adding local innovations that fed back into ideas of the university that spread across the Empire. Continental Europe had a university tradition extending over seven centuries; in the 'new world', America already had 200 years of university experience when Australia's first institutions were established. These latter models influenced Australian universities more slowly than their British counterparts, but their ideas seeped through eventually.

Not many of Australia's institutional founders were 'experts' in university planning, which probably helped them in their innovation. Most of those instrumental in setting up the University of Queensland, for example, had never set foot in a university, leaving them free to think through what they needed unhampered by nostalgia. Moreover, innovations in higher education were in the air, worldwide, at the time. In the 1850s, when the universities of Melbourne and Sydney were established, Cardinal John Newman published The Idea of the University. While this selection of lectures promoted new thinking about the university at the time, it was possibly the worst thing Newman could have done for the present system, for the title alone has been enough to make too many of today's commentators think there is only one proper idea of the university and that it should stand for all time.

Ideas about universities were being developed in a world where education at all levels was changing. By the time the First Fleet set sail for New South Wales, evangelical Christians were becoming convinced that instilling literacy was one way to convert the heathen. Believing Australia harboured quite a few heathens, they encouraged teachers to move to the Antipodes. The teaching in church 'Sunday Schools', in keeping with the whole idea of education in the early 19th century, was about morality, not vocational training, a pattern that continued as government-run schooling evolved.

The link between education and morality was also about 'civilisation', which colonists (whose worldviews, as historian Alan Atkinson demonstrated in The Europeans in Australia, were shaped by a notion of Christendom) imagined to be connected to being Christian and white. 'Civilising the savages' was a moral task, associated with saving souls, so before there was really much in the way of schools for white children, a Native Institution for Aboriginal students was established, with government support, by a missionary in 1815. Missionary work across Aboriginal Australia also established schools – all too often with disastrous humanitarian consequences. Government-supported schooling evolved, aimed at those who, in addition to Indigenous Australians, the authorities believed needed civilisation the most, like the children of convicts. Education, though, was also needed for the elite, who it was believed would eventually lead and govern the burgeoning Colonies. Universities were part of this collection of ideas.

Other kinds of education were growing too. Concern over the morally iniquitous effects of the industrial revolution led well-meaning members of the middle class to promote education for workers in both Britain and the Colonies. The types of institution that sprang from this impulse were many, but most noticeable in Australia were the Mechanics' Institutes and the Schools of Arts. The first Mechanics' Institute was established in Hobart in 1827; the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (which is still running) began in 1833; one was operating in Newcastle in 1835 and another in Melbourne in 1839. Among the subjects promoting morality and wellbeing there were also courses that were directly useful to work, including gold mining. It is no coincidence that in the midst of Victoria's 1850s gold rush, numerous Mechanics' Institutes arose; soon they were dotted across the Colonies. Technical education evolved from this system and from the Schools of Mines.


Excerpted from A History of the Modern Australian University by Hannah Forsyth. Copyright © 2014 Hannah Forsyth. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 A history of Australian universities,
2 Universities make a grab for power,
3 Universities and national priorities,
4 God-professors and student ratbags,
5 The end of the golden age (if there was one),
6 A clever country,
7 The DVC epidemic,
8 Knowledge factories,
9 Knowledge in the age of digital reproduction,
10 Winners and losers in Australian universities,
Afterword: What sort of university do we want?,

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