About Senate

History of the University of Sydney


The first university to be established in Australasia, the University of Sydney was established on 1 October 1850 by the Act of Incorporation to promote useful knowledge and to encourage the residents of New South Wales to pursue a regular course of liberal education. Its governing body, the Senate, first met in February 1851 and the University first began operating in buildings in Sydney's city which are now occupied by Sydney Grammar School. The University's Inauguration Ceremony was held on 11 October 1852.

Following the ceremony, teaching began with a Faculty of Arts degree which required three years' study of Greek, Latin, Maths, and Science.

In this critical period, the University's growth was hampered in several ways. Secondary education was very little developed in the colony, and the program provided did not encourage further study, so it was 30 years before an annual enrolment at the University reached 100. Tuition fees were, therefore, small in number and, at this time, Government grants were inadequate.

In 1855, the Government gave the University land at Grose Farm, about three kilometres from the city. The first plans for the University's original building, the Quadrangle, were drawn up by architect Edmund Blacket. By 1862 the Great Tower, now a focal point of the University, had been completed.

Planning and building of the Quadrangle, recognised as one of the country's best examples of Gothic Revival architecture, continued over a number of years. The south-western corner was designed by Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon and completed in 1909. The University's own Professor of Architecture, Leslie Wilkinson, designed the northern and western wings, which were added in the 1920s, along with the Zoology and Physics buildings and the Edward Ford Building.


In 1880, the Government, stimulated by the news of the very large Challis bequest to the University, increased its grant, and in 1889, provided finance for the Medical School Building, named the Anderson Stuart Building, which matches the main building architecturally.

The Challis bequest brought the University to life. Between 1880 and 1891, ten new professorships were established. The Faculties of Law and Medicine were at last able to recruit staff, and a Faculty of Science, which incorporated a School of Engineering, was created. Research flourished, and four of the professors appointed in that period became Fellows of the Royal Society of London.

A much greater range of choice and the possibility of considerable specialisation were provided in the Arts Faculty, and, from 1890, it became possible to enrol for degrees in Medicine, Law, and Science without first doing at least one year of Arts.

The University came out from the cloisters when it arranged for practising doctors in hospitals to provide clinical instruction for medical students, and located the Law and Dental Schools in the city, with practitioners doing much of the teaching. The University Rifle Corps was formed in 1900, members of the Military Board of the Commonwealth were appointed to the University's Board of Military Studies, and, in 1907, a Diploma in Military History and Science was created.

From the beginning, the University was the servant of its small community, responding to the needs and demands of the growing population. In 1920, new faculties were created for Dentistry, Engineering, Architecture, Agriculture, Veterinary Science and Economics. But for a university with a full range of faculties, enrolments were small and resources inadequate, and remained so until after the Second World War.

Gifts from Peter Nicol Russell, in 1896 and 1904, were directed to new fields of engineering and a major extension of the Engineering Building. A large bequest from Samuel McCaughey (1919) enabled the appointment of new Professors and Associate Professors in Arts, Engineering, Medicine, and Dentistry, and George Henry Bosch (1928) funded new Chairs in various fields of medicine. In 1930, income from the Challis, McCaughey, and Bosch Funds accounted for a quarter of the University's general expenditure.

This trend continued in later years. A bequest of funds and paintings from John Power (1962) made possible the creation of the Fine Arts Department, the E.Y. Seymour Bequest (1970) financed the Seymour Centre, and large donations to the Science Foundation led to important developments in teaching and research in computing, astronomy and nuclear physics.

Two World Wars

During the 1914-18 war, the University was requested by the Department of Defence to accelerate courses, and to release staff for intelligence work, the testing and preparation for the manufacture of war materials, and for scientific advice on tunneling in France. Some 1800 members of the University were engaged in active service, of whom 197 were killed. In their memory, a carillon, for which money was raised by public subscription, was installed in the great Tower. A plaque naming those who enlisted is fixed in the archway under the Tower.

For World War II, there was rather more preparation. Over 4000 members of the University community served in the military forces, of whom 250 were killed. A plaque in the Tower archway commemorates their service. From the ranks of the pre-war University regiment came four major-generals, six brigadiers, and an air commodore, and one, later Governor of the State, was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Several University departments were engaged in war work – on medical needs, on camouflage work, on research for optical munitions and radio locations, and on a range of war-time engineering problems. The war-time research of the University staff, along with that in the other five universities, helped to establish the post-war view that university research could be beneficial to the community.

Post war growth

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.

In 1994, Orange Agricultural College linked with the University. In 2000, the University's Senate approved the establishment of a Faculty of Rural Management to replace the Agricultural College at the Orange campus, and also approved the establishment of a Faculty of Pharmacy.

The Graduate School of Business at the University of Sydney and the Australian Graduate School of Management at the University of New South Wales merged to become the Australian Graduate School of Management (at the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales) as of 1 January 1999.

Further changes took place in 2005: responsibility for undergraduate nursing was distributed among Charles Sturt University, the University of Technology, Sydney and the Australian Catholic University; Senate ended the Australian Graduate School of Management joint venture with the University of New South Wales with effect from 2006; and the Faculty of Rural Management transferred to Charles Sturt University.