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

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

1954: University of New England finally achieves autonomy

NSW Education Minister and later Labor Premier Robert Heffron. His desire to create correspondence courses for teachers finally gave New England the opportunity to achieve autonomy as a university. This  is the thirteenth in the story of the Pacific Belshaws, the eighth on the early days of the University of New England. I am pausing the series here for the present because of length and will resume later.

Despite progress in some areas, at the start of 1953 the New England University College was struggling to some degree The number of students was much the same as it had been in 1948, while the dream of autonomy seemed as far off as ever. Then, as had happened at the time of its establishment, the political stars aligned.

NSW Education Minister Robert Heffron and his Department wanted to create correspondence courses to assist teachers to upgrade their skills. The University of Sydney politely but obdurately refused to cooperate on academic grounds. In the view of the University and its senior academics, standards could not be maintained, a real university education provided, through correspondence education.

Heffron had not previously been a strong supporter of the College. The changes that he had steered through the NSW education system including the establishment of the NSW University of Technology had effectively starved New England of the funds it needed to develop and achieve autonomy. Now Heffron looked to the College as an alternative to Sydney.

Many NEUC academics had similar reservations to their Sydney colleagues. Indeed, those reservations would not really subside until the more mature and motivated external students started to outperform their internal colleagues. However, Robert Madgwick as Warden felt that the proposal fitted his vision of broader education and was in the best interests of the College and therefore pushed the matter.

There were significant practical difficulties in suddenly adding the activity to an already resource constrained College. .In August 1953 Belshaw, again Acting Warden, advised Minister Heffron and Harold Wyndham as Director-General of Education that the new university would lack the resources to introduce external studies courses before 1955.

This created an acute political problem for Minister Heffron. In the discussions that followed, the NEUC Council finally agreed that they had no choice but to accept and also accept the Minister’s request that the new University should provide support to the newly established Newcastle University College, a college of the University of New South Wales.

On 3 November 1953, Belshaw advised that despite his Council’s reservations, “in the circumstances they would make every effort to ensure that the scheme is successful”. In December 1953, legislation was passed creating the University of New England with effect from 1 February 1954. Autonomy had finally been achieved.

I can understand both the practical and academic reservations about the proposal. However, as in 1928 with the Teachers’ College, 1938 with the University College, perfection is not always possible. Sometimes, you just have to grab your chances while you can. In this case, the decision provided a fundamental base for the subsequent growth of the University of New England.
Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 18 April 2018. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because they are not all on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited/History Matters columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013, here for 2014, here for 2015, here for 2016, here  2017, here 2018 

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