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Origins of the University

tv
Film interview with Sir Robert Blackwood.

Monash University was a long time in the making. Much had to happen before Melbourne would be ready for its second university. Post-war Australia, having tasted the fear of invasion, would have to relax its immigration policy in an almost desperate attempt to dramatically expand its population and boost its security; Australia would also have to shift its focus to science, technology and industrial strength to align itself with similar trends in the western world; universities and technical colleges around the country would have to reflect this focus on science and technology in their courses; more young Australians, particularly young Victorians, would have to be encouraged to attend university; and finally, numerous working parties and committees would have to be established to investigate the higher education crisis in Australia. All of these things would have to happen before Monash University could eventuate. Only then, after all of these happenings, could the Monash University Act 1958 finally be written and passed by the Victorian Parliament.

Higher education gains popularity

As a school leaver in 1940s and 1950s Victoria seeking to further your education, you had two basic options. You could enrol in one of the state’s technical colleges, or you could go to the University of Melbourne. It really depended on what type of education or training you wanted. If you wanted a practical, vocationally oriented diploma or certificate, then technical college was your choice. But, if you wanted a more academic education, then it was to university that you should go.

On the surface, it seemed a clear and straightforward system. But there was a problem. More and more young Victorians were completing high school and wanting to go to either a technical college or to university. The existing institutions, particularly the University of Melbourne, were struggling to accommodate this steady increase in demand. They could only increase their student intake so much, before their resources became strained. Intake-capping quotas became a necessity. Students seeking to further their education, particularly at university, were simply being turned away.

Limited resources also meant that institutions across Australia were struggling to adapt to the need for new courses that focused on science and technology. Universities and technical colleges did not have the funds to allocate to the course development that was necessary to respond to the call for increased technical education and training.

A changing Australia

The preoccupation with technology and industrial prowess that characterised post-war Australia dates back to the early 1940s when the country was still in the throes of war. No longer able to rely as heavily on goods and services from overseas, Australia’s own labour force was suddenly under scrutiny. There was unprecedented concern about the country’s ability to meet its own supply and infrastructure needs from within.

This anxiety only increased after the war ended. Thanks to the terrifying technological advancements that had been exhibited in the machinery of World War II, science and technology began to be seen as an expression of both political and economic might. A strong country was a scientifically and technologically skilled country. This perception of nationhood and capability strengthened as the 1940s and 1950s progressed.

Added to this need to prove scientific strength was the reality that Australia was growing rapidly. Post-war immigration – a mechanism that was hoped to provide an instant boost to the nation’s security and its workforce – expanded the population, particularly in the major cities. This put a major strain on housing and infrastructure.

Higher education in crisis

Against a backdrop of changing national identity, higher education in Victoria had reached crisis point. More young Australians than ever were choosing to further their education. This and the demand for a more highly skilled, technically trained workforce was adding to the pressure on technical colleges and the University of Melbourne. Projections were made on the number of places needed in universities and technical colleges to meet the growing demand. The situation looked dire. The tertiary sector as it stood, just could not cope.

In 1956, the University of Melbourne placed a quota on first year medical course places and shortly afterwards the University of Sydney did the same. Victoria’s tertiary sector problems were being echoed around the country.

Committees of inquiry

Committees of inquiry feature prominently in this chapter of the history of higher education in Australia. They were established at various points, both on a state and federal level, to investigate and ultimately recommend solutions to the problems that were facing the tertiary sector. The first of these committees in Victoria was set up in 1946 to look into the need for a new technical university. Known as the Seitz Committee, it recommended that a technical university should indeed be established in Victoria.

The establishment of this technical university would be the answer to many of the identified problems in the tertiary sector and in the workforce. But, despite the recommendations of the Seitz Committee, this technical university never came to be. There was concern that it would compete for funding and resources with the well-established University of Melbourne. This, the government decided, was not desirable.

While the recommendations of the Seitz Committee were not implemented, the idea continued to circulate for nearly a decade until a new committee, the Ramsay Committee, was asked to reassess the need for a new technical institution in Victoria. Once again, its findings were that an additional technical university was long overdue in Victoria.

The report of the Ramsay Committee coincided with mounting pressure on Prime Minister Robert Menzies to address, on a federal level, the crisis in higher education. Much of the drive came from the Australian Vice-Chancellor’s Committee – a very powerful pressure group. The Prime Minister had no choice but to address the situation. He responded by forming yet another committee of inquiry in 1957.

Sir Keith Murray, head of a permanent advisory body that provided advice to the British government on the financial needs of universities in England, was asked to serve as chairman of the committee. Murray and his committee were asked to recommend the most appropriate and effective way that the Australian government could come to the financial aide of its universities.

While the Murray Committee looked at higher education and its funding at a federal level, it also touched on matters within each of the states and territories. In Victoria, what was important for the creation of Monash was its support for many of the earlier findings of the Seitz and Ramsay Committee. There was, however, one important difference. Rather than focus entirely in science and technology, the Murray Committee recommended that the second university should also provide education in the humanities and social sciences.

The beginning of a new university

After years of committees, reports and recommendations, change was finally about to be implemented. Change that came in the form of the Monash University Act of 1958. This Act brought into being Melbourne’s second university. So much about this new institution was planned to be different; even its name. Unlike any other university in Australia, it was not named after a city or state. Instead, it was named after Sir John Monash. This naming was hugely significant. Not only was Sir John Monash a strong, community minded leader and philanthropist, but he was a technologist and engineer.

robert blackwood-2
Sir Robert Blackwood, Chair of the Monash University Interim Council

The choice of name for the new university seemed to say, this university will be different. It will meet the strongly identified needs of the community, and it will have a strong and clear alignment with the sciences and technology.

An Interim Council was established to oversee the development of Monash University. Robert Blackwood, another engineer, was appointed chairman and he and his thirty-member Council were given three years before they were to transfer governance of Monash to a permanent University Council.

Blackwood moved fast. Within a month of the passing of the Act, the Interim Council held its first meeting. Monash University was rapidly coming to life.

March 1961 was proposed for the first intake of students. Initially, first year courses in Engineering, Science and Medicine were planned, which was in keeping with the recommendations of the various committees of the preceding decade. A site was selected and the new university opened, as scheduled, in Wellington Road, Clayton.

References

  1. Robert Blackwood, Monash University: The First Ten Years, Hampden Hall, Melbourne, 1968
  2. Simon Marginson, Monash: Remaking the University, Allen & Unwin, New South Wales, 2000
  3. Louis Matheson, Still Learning, The Macmillan Company of Australia, South Melbourne, 1980
  4. Sarah Rood, From Ferranti to Faculty: Information Technology at Monash University from 1960–1990, Monash University Custom Publishing Services, Clayton, 2008