1950 to present

These web pages provide a brief overview of the history of the University of Sydney and the major figures of our history, including those who studied here and went on to have a major impact after graduating.

A number of authoritative sources provide more detailed information.


A new world

Photo of John Anderson

After World War Two, Australian society underwent significant changes, fuelled by the postwar 'baby boom' as well as increased immigration. In addition, the federal government provided financial support for war veterans to enrol in universities, and allocated funds for universities to expand their facilities. By the end of the 1980s, enrolments were five times greater than in 1944.

These changes transformed the diversity of Australia's population, as well as the composition of the student and staff body at the University of Sydney.

The changes also led to questions about the role of the University in this new world. In 1954, the University hosted a major debate on the role of a university, including its links with 'external' communities – be they local, national or international.

On the one hand, John Anderson (see photo) – professor of philosophy since 1927 whose promotion of 'free thought' in all subjects, including politics and morality, had provoked controversy and brought him into constant conflict with the University authorities – argued that a university’s primary role was the advancement of learning rather than explicitly addressing community or professional needs.

The contrary perspective – in part informed by the beneficial results for the nation of university research during World War Two – strongly advocated universities having a community service role. This view was supported by the prime minister of the day, Robert Menzies, who told parliament it "has become demonstrably clear that a complex and highly industrialised modern society has claims on the universities that must be met."

In practice, both sides of the argument existed. The 'knowledge explosion' that had led to rapid 20th century advances had a major impact on the academic curriculum, with, for example, breakthroughs such as nuclear energy changing 'academic' study and research in areas such as chemistry, medicine and physics.

The University continued to respond to the changing world by modernising its administration. In 1955, Margaret Telfer (BA 1925 DipEd 1926 Sydney) became the first woman to hold a top administrative post in any Commonwealth university when she became registrar. Telfer travelled to Europe and North America to examine administration and student services overseas. Today's administrators would recognise much of her role as she faced challenges arising from increased student numbers, demands from departments and faculties, and pressures that flowed from government reports.

As the decades passed, the University widened its curriculum even further. In the early 1990s, through a series of amalgamations, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Sydney College of the Arts both joined the University. Cumberland College of Health Sciences became the Faculty of Health Sciences, Sydney College of Advanced Education's Institute of Nursing Studies became the Faculty of Nursing, and Sydney College of Advanced Education's Sydney Institute of Education became merged with the University's Faculty of Education.


The student voice

Image of the cover of The Female Eunuch

As the makeup of society changed in those postwar decades, so did the social and intellectual perspectives of Australian life.

The Vietnam War was a catalyst for increased student activism (in 1966 Sydney's Honi Soit claimed to be the first student newspaper to have a student paper in Vietnam), while new thinking on social issues such as The Female Eunuch (1969) by Germaine Greer (who graduated from Sydney with a Master of Arts in 1963) brazenly challenged current conventions and prejudices.

Protests also tackled issues particular to Australia. In 1965, Sydney student Charles Perkins (BA 1966 Sydney) led a group of 30 students to travel through remote New South Wales on a 'freedom ride' to protest against discrimination against Aboriginal people in small town Australia. Perkins, the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from university, later became the first Aboriginal to become a permanent head of a federal government department.

Within the University itself, a 1967 protest against excessive library fines and inadequate consultation represented the first major questioning by the student body of the established authority. Following disciplinary action against Max Humphreys, the psychology master's student who organised a series of protests against the fines, the student body rapidly mobilised in support.

The episode was the beginning of a long-term and substantial shift of attitude to student representation at the University. It led to a major push for better student representation on the University’s governing and decision-making bodies – all of which had a major impact on students' welfare and studies.

Today, student involvement sets Sydney apart from its Australian peers. The University strongly supports student involvement in University policymaking. We believe we make better decisions as a result.


Building for the future

Photo of the Fisher Library

The most obvious manifestation of the University's post-war growth was a flurry of building activity.

The new Fisher Library (see picture) opened in 1963 and was one of the first University buildings to move away from the prevailing Gothic and Mediterranean styles. The design architect for the new library was University of Sydney alumnus Ken Woolley (BArch 1955), now one of Australia’s best-known architects. Innovative in his use of new technologies, his design for the library attracted awards from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects.

Other major postwar buildings recall names that had had a major impact on the University's history to date. They include the Griffith Taylor, Edgeworth David, and Carslaw buildings for the sciences, the MacCallum and Brennan Buildings for the Faculty of Arts, the Bosch Building for Sydney Medical School, and the Macmillan and Gunn Buildings for the faculties of Agriculture and Veterinary Science.

By the latter half of the 20th century, the University significantly extended from its Camperdown Campus, moving across City Road into the suburb of Darlington.


Supporting the modern Australia

Photo of the Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG

During the second half of the 20th century, Sydney researchers and graduates included medical pioneers, prime ministers, Aboriginal community leaders, Oscar winners – and even Australia's first astronaut.

Their work has affected the lives of people across the world, from the invention of the bionic ear, to breakthroughs in modern ecology, to the development of the 'black box' now carried by aeroplanes across the world.

Our story changes and develops on a daily basis – read more about our people and what they do to change our lives.


Sources

This website provides a brief overview of the history of the University of Sydney and the major figures of our history, including those who studied here and went on to have a major impact after graduating.

The website of the University's Senate also provides links to interesting information and articles about the University's history.

For a more detailed history, you may find one of the following publications useful:

  • Australia's First: A History of the University of Sydney, Volume I 1850–1939, by C Turney, U Bygott and P Chippendale, and Volume II 1940–1990 by WF Connell, GE Sherington, BH Fletcher, C Turney and U Bygott
  • University of Sydney Architecture by Trevor Howells (introduction by Julia Horne and Trevor Howells)
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography