The Australian idea of a university

Innovation is transforming the singular Australia idea of a university. Image from shutterstock.com

This is a transcript of the 2013 Newman Lecture delivered on Wednesday at Monash University’s Mannix College.


Let me quote a much-respected contemporary Australian scholar and philosopher, Raimond Gaita.

[W]e must preserve the unworldly space in which university teachers are able to reveal to their students what it means, mostly deeply, to devote one’s life to an academic vocation – to live an answer to Callicles. They will then reveal to their students, who will go into the world to live many kinds of lives, a value in their education that nourishes them more deeply than the kind of liberal education that many people praise.

So philosopher Raimond Gaita argued the case for the unworldly university in his lecture “To Civilise the City?”. His deeply felt evocation of the purpose of a university proposed an institution that engages critically with the world, enriching both students and their society.

Professor Gaita, of course, understands well the reality of contemporary campus life:

To avoid misunderstanding, I acknowledge without reluctance that vocational and professional courses have always been important to universities. Never before, however, have they determined the idiom, set so much of the tone, transformed the language and set the goals of the institutions to whose essential identity, if not to their attractions and prestige, they had previously been marginal.

Not quite, I will suggest in this lecture. The unworldly university has always been rare. Professional training dominated Australian universities from their earliest expression. Students enrolled in the liberal arts and academics engaged in public debate have always been important on campus, but the dominant tradition is pragmatic and vocational. It was a path chosen early and reinforced by national policy, student choice, and academic values.

Origins of an ‘Australian’ university

Along with parliaments and police, literature and language, the idea of a university was imported to Australia with the first European settlers. This colonial inheritance was expressly British in character. Colonial records suggest little interest in developments such as the new research universities of Germany or the land grant institutions of the United States. Instead, local debate circled around a smaller set of concerns – which British traditions would work best for an Australian university?

There were relatively few graduates in the colonies to guide discussion, and much scepticism about whether a university was required. People could always sail home to England for higher learning as William Charles Wentworth did in 1816 to attend Cambridge. Yet practical considerations pressed as the prosperous new colonies faced shortages of trained professionals in engineering, law, medicine and other specialist fields.

Largely organised by Wentworth, from the 1840s, a group of Sydney notables pressed for a campus. The model they proposed reflected British arguments of the era. The ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, with their focus on literary, philosophical and Mathematical “Greats’ of the Western canon argued for a liberal education.

Yet the Oxbridge ideal held significant drawbacks: it would not provide the professionals required in the colonies, while the close links between the ancient universities and the established church made the model unacceptable in a colonial society riven by tension between Protestants and Catholics.

There were other models to consider. British debate about higher education focused on expanding the subjects offered in universities, and opening the institutions to a broader spectrum of society. As John Stuart Mill would tell graduates at St Andrew’s University in 1867, until recently the old English universities "seemed to exist mainly for the repression of independent thought, and the chaining up of the individual intellect and conscience”. Yet within a few years, noted Mill (in language idiomatic of that era), these universities had been transformed into “the great foci of free and manly inquiry”.

This transformation was led by the establishment in 1826 of the University of London, under the intellectual influence of Jeremy Bentham and James Mill. London University offered higher education to those excluded from Oxbridge by faith or low income, particularly Nonconformists, Catholics and Jews. The new institution taught in fields other than classics and ancient languages, and stressed the importance of education for the legal and medical professions. It broadened the traditional formulations of a liberal education by allowing female students to study “modern science, modern languages, the major branches of philosophy, and political economy”. In addition, the University taught engineering, mechanics and chemistry. Only one popular branch of higher learning was excluded: there would be no classes in theology.

Soon enough, London University spawned a competitor, set up by dignitaries such as the Duke of Wellington who opposed the idea of a “godless university”. Established in 1829 as an Anglican institution, King’s College London accepted the logic of a broader curriculum, though not one that excluded religion.

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