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New history examines university's role as a public institution


3 May 2012

New students signing the Matriculation Register, ca 1952-54. [Photographer Max Dupain; reproduced courtesy of the University Art Collection UA1996 81 69]
New students signing the Matriculation Register, ca 1952-54. [Photographer Max Dupain; reproduced courtesy of the University Art Collection UA1996 81 69]

A new history of the University of Sydney examines Australia's oldest university's track record as a secular institution serving the public interest and one of the colony's earliest hubs of philanthropy and social inclusion.

Author and University historian Dr Julia Horne says Sydney, the Making of a Public University is less an institutional history than a scrutiny of the University's evolving role as a public institution since it began in 1852. It tells a tale of how Australian public institutions have evolved in the last 160 years.

Dr Horne says the book traverses the different views of what 'public' meant in the history of NSW. Philanthropy at the University serves as an excellent example.

"Nowadays we see universities as state institutions funded by the government but this notion has really existed only since the 1950s," she says. "In the University's first 100 years there were long periods when philanthropic revenue outstripped that from the public purse. That's what 'public' meant then: funded directly by the public."

The concept now known as social inclusion is also addressed in Sydney, the Making of a Public University. This is underpinned by the establishment of the University as an organisation free from religious affiliation. In the era of Charles Darwin, secularism became an appropriate path for universities to follow. The University was one of the earliest tertiary institutions to offer entry on merit rather than according to religious or social affiliations, pre-dating public universities established in the United States by more than a decade.

Students on a Commemoration parade float, May 1954. [Photographer Max Dupain; photograph reproduced courtesy of the University Art Collection UA1996 55]
Students on a Commemoration parade float, May 1954. [Photographer Max Dupain; photograph reproduced courtesy of the University Art Collection UA1996 55]

Dr Horne says offering education on the basis of academic merit is a long-established tradition at the University. Women were permitted to enrol from the early 1880s, and went from comprising two percent of the student body in 1887 to more than 50 percent of students in some faculties by 1919. "This is largely because the University allowed anyone who passed matriculation to enrol," she says. "It also instituted scholarship and bursary schemes so, by 1920, upwards of 42 percent of students didn't pay fees."

There were, however, exceptions. The reluctance of many parents to allow Aboriginal children into predominantly white schools and the tendency for Aboriginal reserve schools to train students in manual skills and domestic service meant few were prepared to sit the university entrance examination.

"While NSW saw the idea of entry by academic merit as fair and cutting across class and gender, this did not apply to Aboriginal people," Dr Horne says.

The University was among the first to popularise lectures over tutorials in public universities. In the 19th century the Oxbridge tutorial system was not embraced by Sydney, says Dr Horne. "The lecture, where professors could impart knowledge, was seen as a reform." The dominance of the lecture continued in the arts but new teaching forms were introduced in the late 19th century, when laboratories became essential to teach science and medicine.

Sydney, the Making of a Public University, co-written by Emeritus Professor Geoffrey Sherrington, will be officially launched by notable alumna the Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC at the Sydney Law School's foyer, Camperdown Campus on Friday 4 May at 11am. It has been published by The Miegunyah Press, and available from Sydney University Press, Gleebooks and the University's Co-op Bookshop.


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Media enquiries: Jocelyn Prasad, 02 9114 1382, jocelyn.prasad@sydney.edu.au

Sarah Stock, 02 9114 0748, 0419 278 715, sarah.stock@sydney.edu.au