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

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

History revisited - approach of UNE's perfect storm

In 1972, NSW Department of Decentralisation and Development population projections showed Armidale’s population growing from 18,156 in 1971 to 47,301 in 2001, larger than Tamworth. Two years later, University of New England Geography Department suggested a slower rate of growth, with Armidale’s population projected to reach 33,394 in 2000.

On the campus, the focus at the time was coping with growth. In the city, many were concerned that such rapid growth would destroy Armidale’s life style advantages. There was considerable resistance to any business development plans that might encourage or support growth. Neither town nor gown was really aware of just what was coming.

Between 1938 and 1985, the University College/University had six wardens or VCs. Now came four in eleven years: Lawrence Nicol (1985-1988), Don McNicol (1988-1990), Robert Smith (1990-1994) and Bruce Thom (1994-1996).

Over those eleven years, the University experienced the equivalent of a perfect storm that it was ill-equipped to deal with and which threatened to sink it entirely. In the city, growth stalled and then went into reverse. The population within the old city boundaries peaked at 21,605 in 1991 and then started falling.

The events of those turbulent years are vividly and indeed bitterly etched in the minds of many Armidale people and in the broader university community beyond. For that reason, I don’t want to talk about events in detail. Rather, I want to sketch some of the elements that made it such a perfect storm.

To the north of Armidale lay a university that combined research and teaching. Its tradition structure had two elements: a largely self-governing and collegiate if sometimes fractious academic arm; and an administrative wing that supported university activities. The VC sat over both.

To the south, lay the Armidale College of Advanced Education. Focused especially on teaching as opposed to research, the College had adjusted to the decline in the number of teacher trainees by introducing new courses, by reaching out. Its structures were more centralised, its approach more entrepreneurial than that holding at the University.

Down on the coast, you had another College of Advanced Education, Northern Rivers. Like the Armidale CAE, it had responded to the decline in the number of teacher trainees by introducing new courses. Of the three, it was the most entrepreneurial. It was also, and this was backed by the Lismore community, the local press and politicians, determined to become a university in its own right. In a way, Northern Rivers was a bit like UNE had been just forty years before.

There had been quite close links between the Lismore Teachers College, later Northern Rivers, and UNE. To a degree those links had atrophied as UNE withdrew from its broader Northern outreach role to focus on what it saw as its primary mission as a university.

Three institutions, three cultures, about to be jammed together by events happening far to the south in Canberra.

I will continue the story in my next column.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 19 February 2014. 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, here for 2014.

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