Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

History Revisited - the politics of establishing a place of learning for a regional community

In A University is Born (1959), David Drummond told the story of the founding of the New England University College. It is accurate history, but it is also a very political document, written with intent. Not political in a party sense, but political in an institutional and regional sense. graduation 2103

You can see this in the subtitle, the story of the founding of the University College of New England. That last “of” is important, for the College wasn’t just named New England, it was of New England, belonged to New England.

The New England that the College belonged to was not that much shrunken geographic area that carries the name today, but a much larger area, the whole North. This was to be the Sydney University of the North.

The same idea carries through into the dramatis personae, the short biographical entries at the start of the book. There Drummond carefully lists main individuals and the places they came from, a roll-call of centres across the North from Casino to Taree, from Grafton to Moree, Gunnedah and Tamworth. The names roll-on.

In writing, he is careful not to assert any special party political claim for the Country Party, but to recognize contribution from other quarters.

He also recognizes key figures within Sydney University who supported the cause and, in dealing with opponents, is careful to explain their motivations. The most bigoted opponent, and there were some, could read this book without real discomfort.

Drummond knew Sydney University very well and was a strong supporter of that institution. We got what would become our university in part because Drummond was a friend to Sydney and was able to deliver additional financial support to Sydney University at the same time that the New England College was being created.

Later historians would pick over the campaign and financial records of the University Movement and conclude that Drummond was gilding the lily when it came to broader Northern involvement. The key activists came from Armidale, the money too mainly came from Armidale and the Tablelands and especially from a small number of people. There was not great support elsewhere.

There is some factual truth in this, but it totally misses the point.

In 1920, there were just six Australian universities. There were no higher education institutions of any type outside the capital cities. Eighteen years later there were two, both in Armidale.

That’s a remarkable story, one that could not have happened without broader Northern support. Later, when the University forgot its roots, it was to pay a terrible price.

In my next column, I will discuss the foundation of Armidale’s two colleges.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 10 July 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

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