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The Australian idea of a university

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…

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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The rivalry did not last long; in 1836 London and King’s joined under the umbrella of University College London to offer a wider variety of instruction, with a prominent role for professional education in a largely secular setting.

The example of University College London would influence Australian practice. Even more significant were developments in Scotland and Ireland. In Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment crafted universities as non-residential and non-sectarian institutions, with provision of education on merit. The Scottish universities differed from their English counterparts with large classes rather than the individual teaching provided at Oxford and Cambridge, and attention to a broader group of disciplines than the classics. Scottish innovations such as the honours year would be imported to Australia.

In Ireland, three new institutions were created in 1845 as Queen’s College Belfast, Queen’s College Cork and Queen’s College Galway: all were established as secular institutions with a strong focus on the professions. Though both Catholic and Protestant leaders condemned these “godless colleges”, the institutions drew enthusiastic students from across Irish society.

For Irish Catholics, long discouraged back then from attending Trinity College in Dublin, the new institutions provided opportunity and new intellectual horizons. However, not all Catholic academics welcomed the development. In 1852, John Henry Newman published his influential The Idea of a University. Newman’s ideal institution is collegiate, literary, residential and liberal. It is a vision hostile to the new Irish and British universities, and opposed to research as an element of higher learning, as embodied by Wilhelm von Humboldt’s University of Berlin.

Newman spoke against the spirit of his times. The college he established to implement his ideas proved a financial failure, and eventually it was absorbed into University College Dublin. More influential voices of the era were pressing hard the case for expanding access and curriculum, and for introducing research into higher education. Herbert Spencer published Education in 1861, and FW Farrar his Essays on a Liberal Education in 1867, the year John Stuart Mill presented the inaugural address at St Andrew’s University.

In 1868 Thomas Huxley produced his essay A Liberal Education, and where to find it. Not at Oxford and Cambridge apparently. Huxley dismissed both as “simply “boarding schools” for bigger boys". British universities, he argued, must embrace research as the basis of great university education. At present, he lamented “a third rate German university turns out more produce of that kind…in one year, than our vast and wealthy foundations elaborate in ten".

Colonial legislators in New South Wales framed local proposals for a university in the mould of liberal reformers such as Spencer and Mill. William Charles Wentworth, now a barrister, newspaper proprietor and politician, pressed the case in the Legislative Council. He and his allies conceived of a local university as a secular institution outside the direct control of both the colonial state and church. It would be a public institution, established by government and funded both with state money and private donation, levelling fees from students but offering scholarships for deserving candidates who could not afford a place on campus.

Proponents were optimistic that the fledgling university could produce:

…a long line of illustrious names, of statesmen, of patriots, of philanthropists, of philosophers, of poets, and of heroes, who would shed a deathless halo, not only on their country, but upon the University which brought them into being.

Legislation creating the University of Sydney was passed in 1850. It adopted the principle of institutional autonomy. A senate would govern the institution, initially with 16 appointed Fellows. All were men, and their educational background was richly suggestive of the mix of influences underpinning the first Australian university - five foundation Fellows had no university education, five were Cambridge graduates and one from Oxford. Three had attended Trinity College Dublin, and two Edinburgh.

From inception the University of Sydney borrowed from across British and Irish tertiary practice. In appearance and early curriculum, the influence of Oxford and Cambridge was clear. Yet Sydney drew also from the newer universities in curriculum and aspiration. The University offered entry without religious qualification to those who passed an examination.14 Classes were organised around the lecture and tutorial model familiar in Scotland and Ireland, with professors rather than tutors as the principal teachers. As in Scotland, the University opened admission to a wider social demographic, typically living at home and travelling to campus for classes. As in Ireland, the new institution would develop in time strong professional programs in medicine, law and engineering.

The model informing the University of Sydney offers an amalgam of universities from Edinburgh and London to Dublin, with architectural hints of Oxford and Cambridge in its design and a motto (sidere mens eadem mutato) to stress continuity with British origins. This new institution would become the model for all later Australian higher education – an autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular public and commuter university.

In 1853, the University of Melbourne followed Sydney. The idea for a second university on the Australian continent grew in part from inter-colonial rivalry. Victoria had just separated from New South Wales, as Melbourne boomed following the discovery of gold. Championed by Redmond Barry, a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria and a leading member of fledgling Melbourne society, the new university would add to the esteem and civility of a newly wealthy colony.

The university was established without much pomp or procession. A bill was drawn up for the Legislative Council in January 1853, and received royal assent within weeks of drafting. The University Council, announced by Governor La Trobe in April 1853, was populated with graduates of Oxford, Cambridge, Trinity and Edinburgh. Again, university governance emphasised professional skills found among the local political and social elite. Clerics were few and far between, though the Council adopted an ecumenical approach to governance by inviting the Anglican and Catholic bishops of Melbourne to join the governing body. As at London University, religious instruction was excluded.

The Act to establish the University of Melbourne required the institution be “open to all classes and denominations of Her Majesty’s subjects”. The University would be a state-initiated entity, required to report to parliament each year.

There were some differences between the new institutions. Melbourne University’s founders would choose more austere architecture – sombre Scottish ecclesiastical stonework against the exuberant gothic revival of Sydney’s original building. Legislation differed in detail, and while both universities quickly embraced professional studies, Melbourne moved with greater speed to create vocational faculties, with Law (1857), Engineering (1861) and Medicine (1862) all operating within a decade of foundation.

Yet taken overall the governance, funding, and role in society of the two institutions was strikingly similar. The new universities reflected analogous influences and adopted a similar organisational form and mission. In turn, they would influence the next generation of institutions. The Province of South Australia established the University of Adelaide in 1874 using the same model. The Act of Incorporation for the University of Adelaide mimicked key tenets from legislation in Sydney and Melbourne, creating a non-sectarian institution governed by an independent council empowered to award degrees. Hobart gained a university in 1890, Brisbane in 1909 and Perth in 1911.

Each university was established by an act of parliament based on the now dominant Australian model. The new institution would be given land and funding by the state to support a non-sectarian and self-governing institution. Though residential colleges would be established in time, most students would commute to campus, complete a single undergraduate degree, and leave for a life in the professions.

A standard model does not imply a static, stable world. On the contrary, universities proved lively places. Arguments on governing boards found their way into the metropolitan media. The role and rights of professors provided rich copy; an exasperated Sir John Monash, after serving as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne, declared bitterly that he found it easier to organise an army on the Western Front than to run a university. Through their first century, Australian universities grew as new disciplines found a place in the curriculum. This was often a controversial journey, with long arguments over whether dentistry or nursing, media studies or creative writing, deserved a place on campus.

From the late 19th century, research became an established part of the university mission. Australia may have adopted predominantly British notions of a university, with an academic career focused on teaching, but in time the important technological innovations of German and American institutions, and a rising international interest in scientific research, proved influential. Research laboratories appeared around campus from as early as the 1870s, and over time a research qualification would be required for academic employment. Research would become universal, adopted by every institution as part of the standard Australian model.

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Difficulties leaving the path

As the first Australian universities approached their centenary anniversaries, voices argued for more diversity. There were calls for further institutions in Sydney and Melbourne, a growing interest in creating regional universities, and advocates for a national university based in Canberra.

Argument for a federal university began in the 1920s influenced by American research institutions such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, which did not teach but focused on high quality research. Implementation would be delayed by economic depression and war, but by 1944 a substantive proposal for the university was complete. It became the Australian National University (ANU) in 1946.

The new institution would be very different from existing universities, with a specific mission to “encourage, and provide facilities for, post-graduate research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia”. However, within a decade ANU had merged with the undergraduate Canberra University College. It acquired the familiar arts, science and professional programs of other Australian universities.

The ANU was the first of several attempts to create new institutions with a unique mission. During the long boom following the Second World War, science and technology became policy priorities. Politicians talked of new universities specialising in research and training of scientists, technicians and engineers.

The New South Wales University of Technology was the first commitment to a tertiary institution with an explicit science and technology character. As with ANU, the new institution retained many of its founding features but moved toward the wider Australian university tradition. The exclusive focus on science and technology lasted only a few years.

A Faculty of Arts and a Faculty of Medicine began in 1960 following recommendations in the Commonwealth Government’s Murray Report, which observed that “it must be expected that the NSW University of Technology will assume many of the features of a traditional university”. With a new name (the University of New South Wales) and a faculty complement that now included law, a distinctive original mission was replaced with a more comprehensive, traditional profile.

A similar story played out in Victoria. Again, the state government embraced the idea of a new technically focused institution. The idea faced both political and bureaucratic opposition. As Member for Albert Park, Mr Sutton, told the Victorian Parliament:

I could never quite rid my mind of the disturbing thought that the words “University of Technology” or “Technical University”, involved a contradiction in terms.

He urged instead the establishment of an institution focused on “the pursuit and passing on of wide general knowledge and for research animated by a passion for truth.”

In 1961, Monash University enrolled the first 347 students but just five year later it had over 6,000 students across in a wide variety of disciplines. Strong in science and engineering, as originally promised, Monash had also become another comprehensive institution in the Australian mould.

The lack of genuine differentiation disappointed many who championed a different approach. At a 1965 seminar on the future of higher education, the first Vice-Chancellor of Monash, J.A.L Matheson, is rumoured to have said the following:

I speak as one who has tried – who indeed came to this country with the avowed intention of trying – to produce a university different in character from the other university in the city in which Monash is located. Instead of this I now find myself Vice-Chancellor of a university that is disappointingly like the University of Melbourne.

There are, of course, worse disappointments in life.

The 1960s provided further opportunities to challenge the Australian idea of a university. A sustained period of founding new universities began with Macquarie in 1964, and within 20 years included La Trobe, Newcastle, Griffith, Deakin and Murdoch. As foundation Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University, Peter Karmel, told a meeting at the Adelaide Town Hall: “we want to experiment and experiment bravely".

Yet over time familiar patterns returned. What began as radical departures began to take on the degree structures, teaching practise and governance structures of Australian orthodoxy.

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The past and the future of Australian universities

This lecture offers a historical note about a commonly encountered narrative of decline and loss in universities. It suggests significant continuity in Australian tertiary institutions, and argues the power of foundation ideas in shaping that pattern. Institutional choices adopted by the original founding communities are reinforced by policy, by student preferences and by academic values.

Over more than a century and a half, the incentive to remain close to the original idea has proven compelling, defeating even legislated initiatives to create diversity.

As a result, Australian higher education is dominated by autonomous, professional, comprehensive, secular, public and commuter universities sharing very similar missions. More than 150 years in the making, this model has a powerful hold on the public imagination.

Yet we may be approaching the end of its influence.

The new element is the market – exactly the pervasive influence that Professor Gaita fears – turning students into customers and universities into enterprises. For the Australian model to date has relied on public funding to sustain institutions. As student contributions rise, and government funding falls as a percentage of overall income, so universities are forced to make market decisions. This introduces a new logic into the choice of disciplines, selection criteria for entry, even the economics of commuter versus residential students. In a market, increased numbers of private players can open campuses, some with an explicitly religious character.

For 20 years, Australian universities have worked simultaneously in two worlds – one public, highly regulated, and deeply constrained, the other international and more like a private market. The first is the world of domestic undergraduates, where Canberra sets strict rules about price and entry. The second is the market for international students, where universities can make choices about where to recruit, what to charge, whether to operate within Australia or set up offshore.

Not surprisingly, the world of domestic students remains largely undifferentiated. Australian universities offer a very similar array of programs to domestic students, with no price competition allowed. Only in the global market has real and important difference emerged.

Required to make independent strategic choices, universities differ greatly in their approach. A number prefer large offshore operations, as teaching programs or with an overseas campus that reproduces the ambiance and values of the home institution.

Others run an on-shore strategy, working with feeder schools, international agencies, foundation colleges and other players to build significant international revenue. A few universities have changed their entire curriculum in an effort to orientate themselves toward graduate education for Australian and global students.

Pressures for change necessitate urgent reflection on the role and purpose of a university. Professor Gaita has expressed eloquently his concerns about the trajectory of Australian institutions. His call to 10 arguments is timely. For though the Australian tradition has endured with little change to date, stately progression along a deep path may halt abruptly under commercial pressures.

Markets end the incentives to uniformity. They require diversity, since not every institution can occupy the same niche. Markets reward innovation and punish the slow-moving. They destroy and build simultaneously.

On current Commonwealth funding rates no Australian public university can survive without a strong international cohort. As a result, innovation is transforming the singular Australia idea of a university. As the market approaches, the familiar road comes to an end.


An extended version of this argument will be published in a forthcoming edition of Meanjin.