Friday, 25 October 2013

Colonial Ambition: the first universities

No two cities in the world bicker so competitively as the residents of Melbourne and Sydney, so it is no surprise that Sydney proudly boasts that it hosts Australia’s first university, founded in 1852. It was barely ahead of Melbourne, however, which opened its doors only three years after Sydney’s first enrolment of 24 students. There was, apparently, no opposition at all to the idea of a university in Melbourne. The same could not be said in Sydney, but that was not because anyone disputed the suggestion that a university was an essential step toward self-government of the colony, rather they were just not sure that it was the colony’s most pressing priority.

The University of Sydney was the pet project of NSW politician, William Charles Wentworth. Wentworth explicitly linked the idea of the university to self-government, which he said ‘would be a useless boon’ without the university, for ‘ the native youth of the country could not now obtain the education which would fit them for high offices in the state.’  Wentworth pointed to a future colony that would be ‘enlightened and refined’, a state only achievable, he argued, with a university.  It was controversial, for there were many who feared that such an elitist institution would give some of their fellow colonists aristocratic pretensions. Moreover, schooling in NSW was in such a sad state that investing in the education of so few with such little immediate benefit to the colony seemed inappropriate at the time.

Fear of snobbishness was something that those who knew Wentworth would have once expected him to share, but Wentworth’s views were shifting. For him the university was a way of facilitating the development of a local aristocratic class. The university would shape the men who would lead NSW when self-government was achieved. The university’s links to Sydney’s high culture, from its opening recital in the Great Hall, affirm that from its beginning it was looked upon as the educational birth right of Sydney’s best breeched. It still is.

Around twenty years later, a group of clerics decided to form a secular university in Adelaide. In the 1870s, that town held only around 30,000 people. The insistence on secularity, in all three universities, reflects in part how avante garde they were: establishing secular universities was still novel and somewhat contentious in Britain. Secularity was seen as progressive and modern, for better and worse. ‘Modern’ in universities, is often not a compliment, since they rely heavily on their connection to tradition for their authority: it is no accident that the oldest universities are also the most elite. Secularity was also an attempt to get around the sectarian divisions that would threaten universities’ existence and equilibrium, for divisions between Catholic and protestant plagued Australia for more than a century, as did theological disputes between protestant denominations. Theological education, each university’s founders agreed, should stay in colleges linked to the university, so the religious denominations need not battle over theological slants or exclude one another’s members, as universities sometimes did in Britain and elsewhere.

Historian Tamson Pietsch argues that, at this point, when steamships were yet to begin a 200-year sprint towards an increasingly connected world, each university was largely in its own hands. They carried with them ideas about links between knowledge and civilisation, but they were locally run for local purposes, informed by local controversies and built with local wealth.

These early Australian universities in fact had access to more substantial local resources than institutions being established in other parts of the world, for the colonies were extraordinarily prosperous. Australian wages in the mid-1850s were the highest in the world (138% higher than in Britain and more than 50% higher than in the United States) and by 1860, no nation exceeded the colonies’ collective Gross Domestic Product measured on a per capita basis.  Tapping into the sources of this wealth, however, required institutions to adapt their idea of the university still further.

--- This is a segment of my first draft of Chapter 1: Ideas of the the University in Australia, from the book I am writing Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press. ----

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