Graduation address given by Dr Peter Chippendale

Dr Peter Chippendale gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Education and Social Work and the Board of Studies in Indigenous Studies graduation ceremony held at 2.00pm on 20 April 2007. Dr Chippendale is a scholar in the early history of the University of Sydney, co-author of "Australia’s First, A history of the University of Sydney" volume 1 1850-1939, author of many researched articles published in the Archives journal, "Record" and recipient of the title of Honorary Fellow of the University.

Graduation address

Mr Chancellor. May I begin by thanking you and the Senate for the great honour you have bestowed upon me today. And also by congratulating the graduates on gaining their degrees - all the better because they have been awarded by Australia's oldest and most prestigious university. I am sure you will all do well in your chosen careers.

I trust that you enjoy your day and I do hope that you may remember just a little from my brief remarks that follow - which I have entitled: "Students in the Early Days and the Idea of a University".

2007 should be, but isn't, being celebrated as the sesquientenary - the 150th anniversary, of the commencement of university teaching at this site; the University having moved from its temporary premises of the old Sydney College at Hyde Park, to what was then generally known as Grose Farm, though nowdays more generally thought of as Broadway or Camperdown.

In 1857 the foundation professoriate - John Woolley (Principal & Professor of Classics); Morris Birbeck Pell (Mathematics); and John Smith (Chemistry and Experimental Physics) - gave their first lectures in the partially-completed university buildings on the Grose Farm paddocks.

As the cattle grazed, the Professors taught, and the builders continued with the work of completing Stage 1 of the university buildings, comprising:
- Blackett's masterly designed Great Hall,
- the eastern front between the Hall and the Clock Tower,
- and the Great Tower itself.

It is instructive to look back at these early days to see something of the life of the students; and to ask the question, What is a University?

A glance at how students traveled or got to University is a useful starting point. In the early years Grose Farm was perceived to be at what John Woolley termed a "great distance from Sydney", and getting to the place was not without its difficulties.

Delicate students, in particular, the Principal claimed, were disadvantaged by the location, as there was a great deal of wet weather in Sydney, and whereas these students might have been able to attend at Hyde Park - where the University began in the building of the old Sydney College, they could hardly be expected to withstand the elements to reach the building at Grose Farm.

Horse-drawn omnibuses travelling to Glebe stopped at five-minute intervals at the toll-bar at the bottom of the hill, on which the University stood, but there was still a considerable walk to the university building.

The omnibuses made the University accessible from all parts of the city, but they were an expensive form of transport, especially for students, who normally walked or rode to the University. Those who rode, however, had no accommodation for their horses at Grose Farm and were forced to keep them at neighbouring hotels, a practice which Woolley found "very objectionable on many accounts".

Members of the class in jurisprudence who were not undergraduates of the University complained bitterly at having to travel out to Grose Farm on Monday nights. They claimed that for an hour's lecture it took up to two or three additional hours of their valuable time, and Hargrave, the Reader (or in more modern parlance, Associate Professor), had no doubt that had the lectures been held in some central location, such as the Supreme Court, the attendance would have been much increased.

According to Hargrave, the accommodation for his lectures at the University was "very good", but the inconvenience of getting to the night classes was aggravated by the incomplete state of the approach road to the university building and the inadequate lighting in the grounds. Some nights were very dark and very wet, and when the road was particularly bad, the Sydney students, who used to charter an omnibus to come out, found great inconvenierlce in reaching the place.

If getting to the University could be extremely difficult in the early days, once there it could scarcely be said that classes were overcrowded. During Term, lectures for the regular degree course were conducted from 9.00 am to 1.00 pm as in Oxford and Cambridge, on each day of the week except Sunday, with a student generally having one hour free during the morning. The by-laws of 1856 required that lectures, each of an hour's duration, be delivered daily by the professors in classics, mathematics, and experimental physics.

There were also voluntary classes in French and German but they attracted very few students indeed. The lectures in German were in fact abandoned in 1856 after a single student who had been taking the class discontinued. The numbers taking French, which had been up to eleven in 1855, also fell away when the University moved out to Grose Farm.

In 1859 when these lectures were held three days a week at the very inconvenient hour of 1.00 to 2.00 pm - so that they did not interfere with the regular degree course - they attracted only two students.

The very few undergraduates in the professorial classes, however, was the most remarkable feature of early University life and militated strongly against the emergence of a corporate university life. Throughout the early years the numbers were very low, and in the fourteen years from 1852 to 1865 they totalled only 176.

The great majority of students furthermore did not graduate. Between 1856, when the first degrees were awarded, and 1865, only 65 students graduated Bachelor of Arts.

The high dropout rate further depressed the size of the student body, and the total number of students at the University at anyone time was very small indeed.

Whether or not potential students or graduates were deterred by the toughness of the examination system it is impossible to say; but that the system was one of some rigor, there can be little doubt.

In addition to the yearly examination, for the first two years of the undergraduate course, there was an examination at the end of the Third Year for the award of the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The examination was conducted in the first instance by printed papers, and afterwards, at the discretion of the examiners, by "viva voce". Candidates were required to pass "a satisfactory examination" in Greek, Latin, mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, experimental physics, and logic for the award of the ordinary or pass degree. All those who passed the examination were eligible to sit for the honours examinations in classics and mathematics, held at the beginning of Lent Term.

The undergraduate examinations developed a reputation for strictness and rigour, and the failure of half of the sixteen candidates who presented themselves for the degree examination in 1859 was cited as evidence of their "admirable" severity.

At the same time, the standard, according to Woolley, was not as high as in Oxford and Cambridge, where "a young man wishing to get on in Classics or in Mathematics ... must be well acquainted with moral and mental philosophy, both modern and ancient, and so well up in languages that it would be almost impossible to puzzle him with any book you put before him".

The Sydney examinations, on the other hand, were on "things actually done during the course of the Term", and no question was asked which had not been previously often written upon.

Failure to pass the yearly examinations in the early days could incur not only the displeasure of the professors, but also the censure of the Vice-Provost and the Senate.

The case of David Scott Mitchell demonstrates the point. In their report on the examinations for 1854 the professors observed that Mitchell, who subsequently graduated BA (1856) and MA (1859) and whose books and papers now form the basis of the Mitchell Library, had displayed evidence of "culpable and wilful negligence".

Although he had won a scholarship in the previous year, largely on the basis of his performance in physics, he had submitted a blank paper in that subject, and his performance in classics and mathematics had been "by no means equal to his ability; and the expectations which the Examiners were led to form at the commencement of his career".

The examiners considered Mitchell (who had attended a private-venture school in the colony) to be one of those students whose performance had been adversely affected by the discrepancy between the attainments of the undergraduates educated in the colony and those who had received their education in an English Public School.

Under these "special circumstances" they were "inclined to recommend that the letter of the law should not be severely enforced". The Senate consequently deprived Mitchell of his scholarship, but did not require him to attend any additional terms.

Nevertheless, he was to be summoned to appear before the Provost and the Vice-Provost in order that he might be formally censured, and unless he should satisfy them of his regret for his past failure and his resolve for the future, he was not to be permitted to compete for any scholarship at the next examinations.

The Idea of a University
I have previously said enough to convey the notion that our University in 2007 is so different from that of 1857 that any similarity seems purely accidental. For example, today, or at least according to the latest official statistics, the University of Sydney comprises:
- 45,000 students (a majority, or 26,000 of whom are female);
- 6,500 staff (3,170 of whom are female);
- The University awarded for the year ended 31/12/05 over 13,000 degrees/diplomas;
- It had an income of just under $1.03 billion (i.e. $1,020,707,000);
- And there were in excess of 5.5 milllon items in the Library .

Such mind-boggling differences may well cause us to pause and ask: What is a University?

It is not as Cardinal Newman - who held back reform at Oxford for some quarter of a century or more - would have us believe, a place of "universal knowledge". Rather, a university (or "universitas", to use the mediaeval legal term from which the word "university" is derived) is a CORPORATION of students and masters - or, to put the matter another way, as the distinguished American educator and former President of the University of Chicago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, has observed:

"A university is a community of scholars. It is not a kindergarten; it is not a club; it is not a reform school; it is not a political party; it is not an agency of propaganda. A university is a community of scholars ...

"Freedom of inquiry, freedom of discussion, and freedom of teaching - without these a university cannot exist. Without these a university becomes a political party or an agency of propaganda. It ceases to be a university.

"The university exists only to find and to communicate the truth. If it cannot do that, it is no longer a university. Socrates used to say that the one thing he knew positively was that we were under a duty to inquire. Inquiry involves still, as it did with Socrates, the discussion of all important problems and of all points of view."

I would add that in 2007, a university is not a vast correspondence school, nor an institution for self-adulation. It is not an instrument for playing political games, nor a centre for remedial education; it is a community of scholars.

And to those who would interfere in university affairs by legislating, for example, against compulsory student unions, to take but one example of recent Federal Government interference, would do well to heed what the famous Oxford Don, Benjamin Jowet, said to the future Secretary of the landmark Royal Commission on the University of Oxford in the mid-nineteenth century, viz: "Our sense that education at the Universities does not consist in mere teaching or learning, but in a thousand undefined things - association, place, amusement etc".

Or, as Australia's first professor, John Woolley, put it in a letter to the Colonial Secretary and member of the University of Sydney Senate, Edward Deas Thomson:

"The mere acquisition of certain knowledge is not the sole, even principal thing sought for at the University - it is the indirect effect produced by the collision of many minds together, and by the influence not less real because difficult to appreciate of the 'genius loci'. Many men leave Oxford and Cambridge with little positive addition to their scientific acquirements - but not without real and considerable benefit. No man looks back to his reading for the degree as to the benefit which he derived from his academic life".

Here today in this magnificent Great Hall, we, graduates of the university of Sydney, can look back to those who conceived our University, who built the edifice, who imbued it with a great spirit of learning and of service to the nation and we can rightly say we have been blessed - and in turn, we can pass this blessing on to others.

Again, I wish you every success and professional fulfillment in your chosen careers.

Thank you.