Sunday, 27 October 2013

Knowledge for Australian primary industries

The key sources of Australia’s wealth were agriculture and mining. Wool was Australia’s primary export for around one hundred years. When the price of wool fell temporarily in some decades, sheep also provided meat or tallow from which to derive income.  Other forms of agriculture also developed rapidly. While Australia’s land and weather could be harsh, there was plenty of space, rapidly appropriated from Aboriginal nations, whose dispossession enabled wheat and other agricultural commodities to become an important source of wealth for the colonists. Moreover, agriculture literally fed the changing Australian economy as settlers populated the cities and built the towns, and local animal and agrarian industries developed rapidly.

Of all the animals relied upon for Australia’s economy, none mattered more than horses. Horses were the source of transport, labour and power for all industries and yet it was not until 1908 that the first courses in veterinary science were introduced to universities. When they were introduced, horses were naturally their primary focus, with far less attention paid to dogs and cats than is the case in the present. As the motor car replaced horses, the need for knowledge shifted again and so did the university. This is a pattern throughout the history of universities: any claim that universities are or have ever been ‘ossified’ institutions that prefer to avoid change is a gross misreading of their history. Those old-looking buildings and medieval outfits are just a disguise. Universities use the trappings of an unchanging tradition to maintain their gravitas, but in fact Australian universities adapted and changed remarkably quickly, throughout their history.

The discovery of gold by the 1850s and 1860s marked the beginning of what Geoffrey Blainey described as ‘the rush that never ended’. Nevertheless, although the University of Melbourne attempted to instate mining-related courses from the 1850s, it was not until 1891 that University of Sydney scientist Edgeworth David argued:
In a country like this where mining is of such importance it would appear almost obligatory on the part of the University to have students in the highest branches of Mining, as is the practice at the leading German and American Universities. 
David needed to point to the German and American universities in order to derive some sort of tradition for university knowledge in the field of mining. Universities struggled, in fact, to gain much a foothold in these industries responsible for Australian prosperity. Mining needed knowledge and in fact needed quite a lot of it. Gold was pretty readily identifiable, but metallurgical experts were needed to verify other kinds of minerals, such as the copper, silver and tin that were also significant exports. More complex applied science was often needed to extract minerals from other kinds of minerals and to refine them to the point of being useful. Mining techniques that improved the efficiency or safety of mining were also sought-after and yet universities, for their first hundred years, could barely compete with the Schools of Mines established in every major centre for mining. Institutions for tertiary education still stand where they were built, in mining towns like Ballarat and Broken Hill.

But by what authority did universities exist in colonial Australia? Old ideas about civilisation and self-government only carried them so far; universities needed to hook into the values and structures of the colonies. They needed to do this, not only to prove their usefulness, but also to retain and improve their links into colonial power. Mining and agriculture were important industries to become connected to. What value was the university’s authority over knowledge if it was not also the knowledge that was of value to society?


--- 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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