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

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

History revisited - colleges provide character for Uni

The story of the establishment of the University College is fairly well known. I have written on different aspects of it in this column. Given that, I thought that I would take you in a different direction in completing my series on the early days of Armidale’s two colleges

There was no great public demand for an establishment of a university college in Armidale. The Depression was still very much in people’s minds. Politicians, officials and voters were very conscious of limited government funds, while demands on government for immediate services were great.

There was also a measure of distrust at the very concept of a university in the North. Universities were elite institutions. Very few people had had any contact with a university. Many were actually distrustful of the impact on their children, or saw a university of any type as irrelevant to their family needs.

Distrust is difficult to measure, but there is little doubt that it existed. On top of that, the proponents still had to manage deeply held local parochialisms that might translate into opposition at Armidale receiving a benefit at the perceived cost of others.

Limited funds, a slowly receding depression, limited support for the very idea of a university and the risk of arousing local parochialism; all would seem to make the task impossible. And yet, somehow, it happened and in quite quick time.

Two things were absolutely critical here.

The first was the successful establishment of the Teacher’s College. By the time the University movement was really growing, the Teacher’s College halls again echoed with students. The idea of co-locating a University there to take advantage of under-utilised facilities was no longer feasible. However, the College had demonstrated that a country college would work and had also consolidated Armidale’s place as the pre-eminent education centre, the Oxford, of the North.

The second was the Northern leadership linked together by battles for Northern development over more than twenty years.

David Drummond may have been Minister for Education, he may have helped drive the concept, but he did not get the University College for that reason. He helped bring it about because he was an integral part of a Northern leadership that he was able to convince and that was committed to a new vision.

That powerful base provided credibility that helped draw in others and could be used by those who already had or could be drawn to the vision of both the North and the desire for a very specific Northern university. They knew how to cooperate, to work the levers of power and to manage local objections.

This history had a profound influence on the character of the new institution. The academics that came and many of the Northern leadership had an Oxbridge vision of the role of a university. However, the leadership also saw it, as they had in 1920 with Australia Subdivided, as a place that educate Northern kids, that would help preserve the history and culture of the North and would contribute to its development.

They would not be disappointed, although it would take decades for some elements of their vision for the new institution to be realised.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 7 August 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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