Thursday, 24 October 2013

Whose idea of the university?


Many people think that the first Australian universities were just replicas of old British institutions: ‘Sydney University’, argued public intellectual Clive James, ‘is really Oxford or Cambridge laterally displaced approximately 12,000 miles’.  Certainly the architecture at Australia’s three oldest universities – the Universities of Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide – supports this assumption. Sydney University’s old Latin motto does too: translated it reads ‘though the constellations change, the mind is the same’ – or, ‘new latitude, same attitude’ as one student reportedly quipped.

But not everything in higher education in Australia is in direct imitation of Tudor Britain, despite their building design. Australian university planners were in fact happy to shop around for ideas about universities that best suited their needs, though it is true they also liked to connect to British traditions in order to boost their standing in the sometimes-sceptical minds of their fellow colonists.

Worldwide there were lots of ideas that university founders could choose from. European universities carried around eight centuries of tradition – and not all traditions were the same. In the ‘new world’ American universities had been around for 200 years, as had the first Canadian institution (though in English only since 1785), whereas when discussions about the university commenced in Sydney, the first university in South Africa was only twenty years old and India’s only university was just over thirty. Spanish settlers had moved faster: Latin American universities date from the mid-16th and 17th centuries. Other British colonies were slower: universities were yet to established in New Zealand, Hong Kong or other parts of Africa. Nevertheless, a university was a sign of civilisation, albeit a fairly luxurious one that could wait for a more prosperous season if need be.

At the time the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney were established, some of the ideas about both civilisation and the university were being re-thought. New ideas about personal economic power and responsibility, the structure of political organisation, separations of church and state and about humane society led to changes in thinking about universities as they also led to shifts in the styles of prisons, hospitals and parliaments.

While shopping around as needed, Australians did tend to look to Britain, as much for legitimacy as for inspiration. Melbourne’s vice-chancellor sought recognition from the British universities for their graduates well before they had any.  That being said, sorting through ideas about the university in Britain was a surprisingly fraught process: there were schisms between English and Scottish modes of education, religious and secular structures, and between Protestant and Catholic intellectual traditions.
Not all of Australia’s colonial founders had equal input, however. Although from the 1850s many Chinese colonists were joining migrants from England, Ireland, Europe and America in the search for Australian gold, early university founders did not look to long and esteemed Chinese scholarly traditions in building Australian universities. In fact, scholarly links to Asia, now a marked characteristic of Australian universities, did not develop until around 100 years later with the Federal government’s Colombo Plan, established in 1949.

Each of the early universities was founded on its own mix of foreign ideas with local innovation thrown in. In gold-rush Victoria, so many basic questions about minerals could only be answered by long-awaited letters from London that at the University of Melbourne traditional subjects in Latin, classics and mathematics were supplemented by mineralogy, chemistry and geology.  What they all had in common was an ambition for what such a seat of learning would offer their colony.


--- 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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