I’ve had a piece come out in Australian Studies, Vol 5 (2013) which examines the connections established by Australian universities with Britain in the era of “Victorian” globalisation.

JP Bainbridge (Registrar, University of Melbourne) UMA/I/1986

‘They do not go as strangers’: Academic connections between Australia and Britain, 1880-1939

At the end of July 1925, Alex Hill, the Secretary of the London based Universities’ Bureau of the British Empire, prepared a form letter that explained the organisation’s function:

The Bureau aims […] at doing all that might be done to promote the interests of university teachers who come to England. We are able, for example, to place them in touch with other visitors from overseas and with members of the Home Universities whom they would like to meet, to introduce them as readers in the Library of the British Museum, to secure their admission as temporary members of the Royal Colonial Institute which, with its library of 150,000 volumes and its generous supply of periodicals, offers also the amenities of a first-rate club. Visitors are asked to regard the Bureau as their Headquarters to which letters may be addressed, and at which enquiries may be made regarding travel-routes, hotels, etc.[1]

In advertising the Bureau’s services in this way, Hill was attempting to pursue the mission established for it by the First Congress of the Universities of the British Empire in 1912. This was ‘to collect University information from every part of the Empire and put it in a suitable form for easy distribution’; to act as a ‘clearing house’ for academic appointments and the interchange of staff and students, and to provide a forum for continued discussion of questions common to all universities in the Empire.[2]

Yet the reply Hill received in 1925 from the Registrar of the University of Melbourne, J.P. Bainbridge, suggests the limited extent to which—more than a decade after its inception—universities in Australia valued the Bureau’s services. Although Bainbridge thanked Hill for his ‘kind offer’ and hoped that in the future more members of the University might call into the London offices, he went on to explain that:

This country [Australia] and this University in particular is not yet (and I hope never will be) very rigidly cut off from the Old country.  Most of our Professors come from British Universities and have Home connections so that when they go to England they do not go as strangers in a strange country.[3]

Indeed, following a 1926 request from the Bureau for the University to increase its annual grant, Melbourne had responded by reducing it (to £20).[4] According to Bainbridge, in the mid-1920s the connections between universities in Britain and Australia were so strong that they did not require the mediating services of the Bureau.[5]

It is perhaps not surprising then, that the university histories produced in Australia before the Second World War all emphasise the importance of on-going academic connection with Britain. They saw the Australian universities as institutions founded as part of progressive expansion of the British people and their civilization; designed to cultivate both national and imperial citizens. Robert Dallen’s 1914 account of the University of Sydney provides a good example. It emphasised the University as both a sign and a disseminator of British civilisation in Australia and boasted of its continuing connections to old world academia.[6]

However, in the second half of the century, this portrayal of universities as part of a wider world of British scholarship shifted. University historians began to emphasise the distinctive qualities of colonial universities, to chart their departure from old world models, and to detail the achievements of their members as an important part of the story of the emergence of the independent nation. But, while they celebrated the unique qualities of local universities, many of these studies also exhibited the ‘conceptual confusion’ spoken of by Douglas Cole.[7] Emphasising the national dimension of their histories also entailed distancing these institutions from an earlier iteration of the national story – one that that had been not only Australian, but also British as well.[8] As a consequence, at the same time as they traced the successes of Australian universities and academics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these volumes also tended to portray them as derivative and lamented the dependence of their members on British scholarship.[9] They spoke of the progression of Australian graduates to British universities for further study as evidence of a ‘brain-drain’, and pointed to what they saw as the unidirectional migration of professors from Britain to Australia before the Second World War.[10] Eager to draw the boundaries of the new nation, the histories of the 1960s and 70s no longer described universities in Australia as functioning within a wider British academic system.

Yet this image of an at once dependent and distinctive Australian academic sector seems to stand at odds with the world Bainbridge described in 1925. In the context of the tightened global connections of our own age, and the emphasis universities across the world are placing on various forms of ‘internationalisation’, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate this earlier relationship between the universities of Britain and Australia.[11]

… read the rest of this piece in Australian Studies Vol 5 (2013) online


[1] Alex Hill to Bainbridge, 30 July 1925, Registrar’s Correspondence, UM312/1925/503, University of Melbourne Archives, (hereafter UMA).

[2] George Parkin (Canadian educationalist and Secretary of the Rhodes Trust) in Congress of the Universities of the Empire, 1912: Report of Proceedings, ed. Alex Hill (London, 1912), pp. 311, 323.

[3] Bainbridge to Hill, 9 Oct. 1925, UM312/1925/503, UMA.

[4]Bainbridge to the Bureau’s Treasurer, 29 Oct. 1926, UM312/1926/535, UMA.

[5]Bainbridge to the Registrar of the University of Tasmania, 19 Feb. 1932, UM312/1932/413, UMA. ‘I am afraid that we do not look upon our membership of the Bureau as being of very much practical use’, wrote Bainbridge to the Registrar to the University of Tasmania in 1932.

[6]Robert Ambrose Dallen, The University of Sydney, Its History and Progress (Sydney, 1914).

[7]Douglas Cole, ‘The Problem of ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Imperialism’ in British Settlement Colonies,’ Journal of British Studies, vol. 10 (1971), pp. 160-82; Douglas Cole, “‘the Crimson Thread of Kinship”: Ethnic Ideas in Australia, 1870-1914,’ Historical Studies, vol. 14 (1971), pp. 511-25.

[8] See James Curran and Stuart Ward, The Unknown Nation: Australia after Empire (Melbourne,, 2010).

[9]James Johnston Auchmuty, The Idea of the University in Its Australian Setting: A Historical Survey (Melbourne, 1963), p. 147; W.H. Morris-Jones and T.J. Johnson, ‘A Commonwealth of Learning,’ The Round Table, vol. 60, (1970), p. 387; R. J. W. Selleck, The Shop : The University of Melbourne, 1850-1939 (Melbourne,, 2003), p. 26; W. J. Gardner, Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities of Australasia (Christchurch,, 1979).

[10]Geoffrey Blainey, The University of Melbourne: A Centerary Portrait (Melbourne, 1956), p. 34; Richard Symonds, Oxford and Empire: The Last Lost Cause? (London, 1986), pp. 274-76; Donald Fleming, ‘Science in Australia, Canada and the United States: Some Comparative Remarks,’ Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress of the History of Science, (Ithaca, 1964), p. x; E.T. Williams, ‘The Rhodes Scholars’ in ed. M.G. Brock and M.C. Curthoys, The History of the University of Oxford: Vol. 7, Part 2, the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 2000), pp. 717-26; Auchmuty, The Idea of the University in Its Australian Setting: A Historical Survey, p. 146; Gardner, Colonial Cap and Gown: Studies in the Mid-Victorian Universities of Australasia, p. 10. Stuart Macintyre, however, points to the high degree of movement, both between Australian universities and between Australia and the United Kingdom, among historians in the first half of the twentieth century. Stuart Macintyre, History, the University and the Nation (London, 1992), p. 8.

[11] Among others Antoinette Burton has called for a re-examination of the concept of the nation altogether and has contested the notion of home and empire as segregated domains. Antoinette Burton, ‘Introduction: On the Inadequacy and the Indispensability of the Nation’ in ed. Antoinette Burton, After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation (Durham, N.C, 2003), pp. 5-6.

RMS Lusitania 1910

In the spring of 2013, the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) commissioned a report to help university leaders think about the future of higher education. In response, Adam Nelson (Professor, Educational Policy Studies and History, University of Wisconsin-Madison) convened a group of historians from around the world (including me!) to consider how universities in the past had responded to major periods of change. Specifically, he asked each of us to write a brief essay identifying a “key moment” in the internationalization of higher education: a moment when universities responded to new historical circumstances by reorienting their relationship with the broader world. My contribution to the commissioned report is below, but you can read the other essays online at InsideHigherEd or download the pdf version at Kris Old’s and Susan Robertson’s GlobalHigherEd.

The 1880s: Global Connections and the British Settler Universities

Tamson Pietsch, Brunel University 

To a visitor from Britain, the original buildings of many of the universities established in the middle of the nineteenth century in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa appear reassuringly familiar. With ivied cloisters and neo-gothic edifices, they seem to stand as tangible signs of the exportation of old world traditions to the new.

But it would be a mistake to see these early settler universities as little more than transported institutions. They were not set up by British officials, as in India and later Africa, but rather by self-confident local elites who saw them as both symbols and disseminators of European civilisation in the colonies. Providing a classical and liberal (and often religious) education, these institutions were designed to cultivate both the morals and the minds of the young men who would lead colonial societies. Presuming the universality and superiority of ‘Western’ culture, they established themselves as the local representatives of ‘universal’ knowledge, proudly proclaiming this position in the neo-gothic buildings they erected and the Latin mottos they adopted. Fashioned by colonial politics and frequently funded by the state, in their early years, these ‘settler’ universities were very much local affairs.

However, in the 1870s the established relationship between culture and power had begun to change. On one hand, imperial expansion and revolutions in transport and communication and science were expanding the content and social function of ‘universal’ culture. On the other, in the context of an expansive franchise, local settler communities were beginning to demand that the universities they were financially supporting should be more than cultural incubators of a narrow elite. Still struggling for student numbers, settler universities could not afford to ignore these demands. To survive, they needed to find new ways to re-assert their position as cultural institutions that straddled the local and the global. They did so in two ways.

First, settler universities reconfigured their relationship with their local communities. They expanded their educational constituencies by widening their curricula and by expanding their franchise to include women and the middle classes – often doing so well in advance of universities in the United Kingdom (UK). From the 1880s students at Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, and New Zealand could take degrees in pure and applied science, and by the 1890s schools of law and medicine were flourishing in institutions across Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand. At the turn of the century this provision widened further to include engineering, veterinary science, dentistry, agriculture, architecture, education and commerce. Women began to be admitted in the same period, and universities’ active involvement in the extension of public primary and secondary schooling also opened the way to entry for many more members of the middle classes. In these ways, settler universities shored up their local legitimacy.

Second, settler universities renegotiated their relationship to ‘universal’ scholarship. Unlike the largely static classical curriculum, scientific research was a dynamic and rapidly expanding field of study. If they were to sustain their claim to be credentialisers of knowledge, settler universities also had to find new ways to demonstrate their connection and contribution to this new branch of ‘global’ knowledge.

They did so by ‘internationalising’ some of the structures of knowledge in the colonies. First, they improved access to intellectual resources, through expanding library provision and increasing their investment in foreign publications. Second, they sought to improve the mobility of their staff and students by establishing travelling scholarship schemes and leave of absence (sabbatical) programmes that carried them abroad. Third, they developed new practices for the recruitment of staff which relied heavily on the private recommendations of trusted individuals in Britain: Australian universities set up appointment committees in London, and Canadian university presidents wrote to friends across the UK seeking recommendations. Such appointment practices helped to foster close connections between academics in Britain and the colonies, tying settler universities into the informal networks at the heart of the British university system.

Together, these innovations worked to connect previously locally-oriented colonial institutions into a wider world of academic scholarship. They reconfigured the relationship between academic knowledge and location, creating measures of proximity and distance that depended on personal connections as well as territorial location.

However, the academic ‘world’ created by the long-distance connections these changes brought about was nonetheless still a limited one. Despite their intellectual engagement with ‘foreign’ ideas – despite their purchase of European journals and notwithstanding professorial trips to Berlin and Leipzig and sometimes the United States – it was primarily to Britain that scholars and students from settler universities gravitated. The reach of their personal ties and the routes of their repeated migrations thus mapped not a ‘universal’ but rather a ‘British’ academic world that expanded to include Canada and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but for the most part did not extend in the same way to Europe, America, India, and East Asia. Indeed, from the 1880s on, universities in both Britain and the empire began to enshrine this world in statutes that gave preferential standing to each other’s degrees, and to express it in imperial associations and congresses that at once proclaimed and reinforced its existence.

Settler universities responded to the challenges presented by the intensified global connections of the late nineteenth century by reasserting their position as local institutions that credentialised ‘universal’ knowledge. In many ways they were successful – the position of institutions such as McGill, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, and the University of Cape Town is in no small part due to the innovations of the 1880s. But by creating structures that enabled and encouraged personal connections with British scholars, settler universities also helped establish the uneven lines of global connection and irregular geographies of access that continue to condition these institutions today.

Read the rest of the report at InsideHigherEd or download the pdf version at this link. And if you still want more, check out Empire of scholars: universities, networks and the British academic world, 1850-1939.

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This work by The Women’s College is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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