Monday, 28 October 2013

New universities for a modern nation

Many local politicians considered the University of Tasmania an unaffordable luxury when it was established in 1890. It was a tough time to start a university, with an economic depression hitting Australia so hard that, even when universities were increasingly practical, so few studied there that their effect on economic development and the public good was not as noticeable as the cost of the place. Tasmania’s university in fact struggled financially for several decades, so that even in 1957 official visitors reviewing Australian higher education declared their situation extremely urgent.

Queensland debated and dithered over their university for twenty years before the University of Queensland opened in 1909. The new institution reflected the more practical aims of the university in Australia, commencing with courses in mining, engineering and education.

It is not just that the new universities were only aimed at instrumental ends; the new focus was reflective of a wider shift in ideas. No longer were universities to be such elitist institutions, educating a handful of wealthy youth in manners and ‘useless’ knowledge – knowledge that was only valuable because its holders could lord it over others while gaining privileged access to positions of social, economic and political leadership. The new modern nation needed something quite different. Both Queensland and the latest of the oldest six universities, the University of Western Australia, saw themselves as ‘modern’ institutions, though still with the links to older traditions that would boost their authority. Being modern meant expanding the benefits of higher education to the wider public, enabling ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’, which British utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham praised as ‘the foundation of morals and legislation’.

Implementing such modern ideas meant that universities needed to focus on practical aims. Obviously, these included mining and agriculture as well as the professions. Within this new set of ideas it was also possible, however, for practical goals to include moral aims, such as civilisation, giving universities a reason to keep some focus on the liberal arts and humanities as well as the newer and trendier ‘applied’ fields of knowledge.

Expanding the benefits of higher education beyond the elite also required an adjustment in the idea of who should attend university. High course fees ordinarily meant only fairly wealthy people could afford to go. There was also the lost income of the extra years of study both at high school and at tertiary level: for many, it did not even occur to them that this loss was worthwhile, even if it was possible. Despite this clear barrier to social inclusion, the colonies promoted a higher degree of social mobility than is often imagined. In a close study of the first 123 students at the University of Sydney, Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington found that, while the largest body of students were from upper middle-class families, around 39 per cent had fathers who worked in a combination of lower middle class jobs and unskilled trades.

An ideal that Australia’s universities would prioritise merit over family status existed from the beginning, but really came to fruition in the University of Western Australia (UWA). UWA sought to find a way to reduce the financial barrier to higher education. The new university was not to charge fees to its students, funded instead by the state. This was new and contentious and in fact, was barely passed by UWA’s Senate in 1912.  The idea that the university was for the public good became embedded in the idea of the university, even legally. The Act of the University of Western Australia specifies, in fact, that the purpose of university knowledge is for the public good, a clause that disturbed some of the university’s commercial aims in recent years (an issue considered in Chapter 8).

But while these new philosophies built higher education institutions to serve the new nation, they were not really national institutions. State-funded and with allegiance to their home state, Australia's first six universities  (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia) seemed a remnant of the colonial past, operating independently from one another. Ironically, at this time, their ties to Britain tightened. New technologies brought scholars within the universities closer to the networks of the British Empire. The effect was to lead university leaders to look even more to British institutions for inspiration, legitimacy and academic staff, so that for many academics, the ways that particular British universities approached curriculum, examination and scholarship set the benchmark for what Australian universities should do – even towards the end of the twentieth century, this attitude could still be detected, particularly in the humanities.


--- 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. ----

1 comment:

John O'Brien said...

This piece of historical perspective about the six state foundation universities demonstrates the largely false distinction drawn between professional/vocational and general education. There were of course high status professions such as law and medicine as well as engineering and agriculture in universities and other professions such as teacher education in other post school institutions. I am always amused when people associate the post Dawkins area with vocational education. Indeed early universities in Italy such as in Bologna were founded for teaching medicine and Oxbridge 'trained' young men for the church. So much commentary about universities is 'essentialist' and profoundly unhistorical.