Salient: Victoria University Students' Newspaper. Vol. 24, No. 9. 1961
Sydney and the other Australian universities share distantly in the great traditions of the old countries. For us here Sydney University is an old institution, a little over 100 years old. Its neo-Gothic Great Hall, its quad and colleges laid out in the English manner mellow respectably among the brick, steel and glass utility buildings of later dates. Its organisation rests on the English pattern, but red-brick rather than Oxbridge. Ruled nominally by an honorary Chancellor and effectively by a full-time Vice Chancellor and Senate where members elected by the graduate and professorial body outnumber Government representatives, it is administratively independent, but must lean for finance heavily on the State and Federal Governments.
Residents in the half dozen colleges which are run by Church councils (anglican, catholic, methodist, etc.) or for the Women's College by a citizens' council, form only a small portion of the total number who live at home or board out. Law and Medicine preponderate in its higher council as befits a country where of the professionals lawyers and doctors still top the financial, social and political ladders, but there is the full panoply of faculties (except divinity) and professorial chairs with subalterns of readers, lecturers and tutors.
Melbourne, which like Sydney, has now about 8000 students, is a slightly younger version of this type, and so are Adelaide and Queensland (Brisbane) with about half that student number each; Western Australia with about 2500 students is distinguished by a pleasant, rather American-style campus of mauresque buildings and a large endowment which enables it to waive students' fees. The smallest of the State-capital institutions is Tasmania (Hobart) with 1000 students, and is reputed to be the oddest one. Caught in the small-town atmosphere of the island State its reputation is low academically but high for its parish-pump set-up and propensity to scandal, the most recent one over the dismissal of its Philosophy professor for alleged misconduct with a girl student causing flurries all over Australia.
Other universities unfortunately do not boast of many such "types"; if their professors are addicted to wine and women they practise their fancies more discreetly. The general run of professors is respectable to the point of dullness. And so are the students. They take compulsory attendance at lectures more literal than on the continent (of Europe); I have sat with them through mumbles delivered by poor speakers in almost uncomprehensible, woolly terms without ever hearing that sound of scratching feet and rattling desks which in Cologne would have made the Professor pull up his socks.
One reason for the inertness of students is their youth. They start University mostly at 17 and find it difficult to shake off the schoolroom submissiveness. That is reinforced by the system of annual examinations applying to most courses plus the stream of essays and class tests throughout the year which perpetuates the school atmosphere. The failure rate is high here; only 50 per cent, to 60 per cent, of first-year enrolments finally graduate, and there is much heart searching about it because of the expense in money and talent involved.
A large proportion of students in economics, arts and law are in jobs and do the evening course which might take five or six years instead of three to four years for full-time students. The effort commands respect; young people giving up most of their spare time for studies. Some employers make concessions ranging from cadetships with half-time off and payment of fees to perhaps granting special leave for exams only. And with those facilities and a comprehensive Government scheme for fee remissions to bright students a degree has since the recent war become a prerequisite for advancement to higher positions with the Government and some large firms. But obviously, time-pressed, degree-hungry students do not add much to the academic atmosphere.
Evening students have little time nor inclination for University activities outside the classroom, nor have the day students the tradition of the older universities overseas. There is some life—each University has its students' union (or two, for each sex) and newspapers and periodicals which are in varying degrees inconoclastic, ornery and quarrelsome, as well as debating societies and theatricals. Their vigour varies over time according to the character of the handful of people who carry such enterprises. There are also faculty societies, sports, religious and political clubs; some may be lively for the body on the football field or for the soul in the catholic Newman and the Students' Christian Union but they reach only a small proportion of students. Some pranks and an occasional outburst of righteous indignation over the hidebound complacency of downtown life or a pamphleteering wrangle among their own ranks and then they settle back to conservative complacency.
Communism seems insignificant, serious socialism weak among the students. Such radicalism as exists in the Labour Party has emanated from the old-fashioned, self-taught trade unionists, not from students. The Universities' contribution has been a handful of Fabian-coloured professors. Apostasies such as republicanism or agnosticism do not flourish in this country.
As in other countries two major problems have of late disturbed the cosy quietude of the ivy-clad quadrangles. First the over-crowding caused by a combination of rising population in the younger echelons, of expanding Industries and greater prosperity and of increased State aid first for ex-soldiers and then for any gifted children. It is expected that the present Australian student enrolment of 35,000 will double by 1965. And secondly, on the demand side, the concomitant call for more teachers, for science graduates and academically trained Government and business staff. The existing Universities have tackled the challenge by such expansion in staff and facilities as could be hastily built up; and financially the Commonwealth Government has been page 12 forced to chip in in ever greater measure, in itself a revolution for traditionally education here is a State, not a Federal concern. On the post-graduate level the Commonwealth has greatly expanded its research institution (C.S.I.R.O.) which deals with applied science from nuclear physics to the genetics of sheep and fish migrations, from standard measurements to rabbit extermination (myxamotosis). And it also started a postgraduate National University at Canberra where eminent physicists, such as Oliphant and Titterton, as well as social scientists dispense rarified wisdom to a few select research students.
On the State level New South Wales, in an attempt at decentralisation, has developed two country colleges, at Newcastle and Armidale, into small Universities which however are limited in scope, in student numbers and staff quality. So when it became evident a few years ago that the independent Sydney University could not fully meet the claims on its resources the Government raised a second University from the base of its Technical Colleges, named originally N.S.W. University of Technology and now University of New South Wales. It started with technical and science faculties linked to a small Humanities department and gradually adding the odds and ends which now include a flourishing Commerce Faculty with a combined course of statistics, economics and accountancy and a medical school. This University is now well established with over 5000 students but has had to fight its way up to the light.
The very notion of a State-sponsored institution under the Chancellorship of the head of the Public Service has roused the op-position which any measure of the State Labour Government has to contend with. Nor is Sydney University happy about the competition, and the second Medical School has raised the ire of the tightly-conservative British Medical Association. However, the new University has gathered an excellent teaching staff which can well stand comparison with their Sydney colleagues and has set a good standard all round. Melbourne is now following the example with a second University, to be known as Monash University, named after the distinguished World War I general and engineer.
Finally, I must mention the foreign students which have added colour to University life since the war. Firstly there are the European migrants who both as students and teachers have fitted in fairly readily. Then the growing number of Asian students from Indonesia, Malaya, India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Burma, Siam, the Philippines, etc. Some have come on their own, such as the scions of the wealthy Singapore-Chinese, but the greater part are here under the Colombo Plan under which Australia has undertaken free training for selected Asians. There are about 2000 here under the Plan doing all sorts of courses at Australian universities, e.g., a two-years diploma or graduate course after having done some studies in their home countries. They have their problems of language, customs and lack of local background for their courses, but mostly they get over them and are well received by their Australian colleagues. Eventually they will build a more lasting bridge between Australia and its near-north neighbours than is achieved by the small-scale direct aid gestures of machinery, etc., which Australia has been able to make to those countries.