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.