A Brief History of Australian Universities

There are about 40 universities in modern Australia, but these have quite different backgrounds.

Early Australian History

Although European mariners had earlier sighted Australia, the famous British Captain James Cook (at that time still Lieutenant Cook) is given the credit for "discovering" Australia on his second famous journey, when he charted the Australian east coast in 1770.

On 26th January 1788 the first major European settlement of Australia began with the arrival of the "First Fleet" from Britain under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip, the purpose of which was to found a penal colony in Botany Bay (which is in Sydney). However, Captain Phillip found Botany Bay unsuitable and entered Port Jackson (the natural port which includes Sydney Harbour). He described this as "the finest harbour in the world" and laid anchor in Sydney Cove. That marked the beginning of the European settlement of Australia.

A Short History of Universities in Australia

The oldest Australian university is the University of Sydney, which was founded in 1850. Its buildings, and those of the other universities which were founded
soon afterwards, were modelled on the style of the traditional British universities Oxford and Cambridge, as was the style of teaching and research. The foundation of Melbourne University followed soon afterwards, in 1853. The University of Adelaide was founded in 1874, then the University of Tasmania (in Hobart) in 1890. The University of Queensland (in Brisbane) was founded in 1910 and the University of Western Australia (in Perth) in 1911.

In addition to universities a few institutes of technology were founded in the nineteenth century, most notably the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology
(now RMIT University) in 1887 and the NSW Institute of Technology (now the University of Technology Sydney) in 1893. The Queensland University of Technology was also founded as an institute of technology and traces its history back to the foundation of the Brisbane School of Arts in 1894.
In the years following the end of the Second War − as was the case worldwide − a number of new universities were founded in Australia, corresponding to the
"red brick" universities in Great Britain. In addition a number of Colleges of Advanced Education (known as CAEs) were also founded. Towards the end of the 1980s the then Labour Government decided that a radical reform of Australian higher educational establishments was necessary, and devised a Unified National System (UNS) of Higher Education.

The sweeping reforms instigated by the UNS included:

  • replacing the "binary system" (universities and CAEs) with a "unified" higher education system (in which all institutions were called universities),
  • amalgamating higher educational institutions into a lesser number of larger multi-campus institutions,
  • introducing a business-like managerial administrative structure for institutions,
  • loosening of the bonds between teaching and research,
  • a more competitive system for research funding,
  • promoting closer links between universities and industry,
  • a greater market orientation for teaching and research, and
  • ignificant student contributions to tuition costs.

Some of these reforms may sound familiar to you. The British Government adopted similar reforms soon afterwards and then many of the ideas were also
taken up by the German Government in the mid and late 1990s.

However, the German Government did not follow up on the most radical reforms. For example, it has not sanctioned charging higher fees to international
students than to local students, and it has not amalgamated Fachhochschulen and universities into a unified system.

The most notable result of the Australian reforms was that all amalgamated institutions became "universities". In some cases the CAEs were "taken over" by
existing universities while in other cases several CAEs became the basis of a new university. Hence not all Australian universities were founded as universities
in the German sense.

The other notable result was that Australian universities were encouraged to recruit international students, and were permitted to charge them for the full cost of their education. Since that time all Australian universities have charged full tuition fees to international students, and this is the most noticeable effect which the reform has had for German students who wish to study in Australia. Australian universities have become extremely dependent on these fees. Australian students also pay fees, but for most students these are substantially subsidised by the Australian Government, at least at the bachelor level.

One reform which the Australian universities did not have to make (in contrast with German universities) was a change to a bachelor-master system, because
they had traditionally always used the British system (with some significant differences which I will explain shortly).