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.