Open discussion on the evolution of Australian and New Zealand Thought

Monday, 5 November 2007

The University of New England's contribution to Australia's intellectual tradition - introduction

Our society is unique among Australian universities in the residential system, and only though your full participation in college, social, club and other activities will you realise completely your part in it.

By all means work - you have enrolled principally for academic reasons, but a university is not merely a degree factory - academic success is not synonymous with education in the fullest sense of the word. We hope you will keep this in mind and join wholeheartedly in extracurricular as well as in academic aspects of university life. Orientation Week Handbook, University of New England, 1963.

Each Australian or New Zealand university has a different tradition. Each has been formed in part through interaction with its immediate world, as well as the broader academic world. Each has contributed in different ways to community life, as well as the development of thought in the two countries.

You can see hints of this on this blog even at this early stage in its evolution. One example is the series on the transmission of ideas and the New Zealand Worker's Educational Association. Part of this story lay in the influence of Canterbury College. Then again, why were the followers of Leavis more successful at Melbourne than in Sydney?

The University of New England has its own particular place in this mix.

At the time of the Orientation Handbook from which this quote was drawn, New England was still the only fully autonomous Australian university outside a capital city. While the University had already pioneered distance education, it was also almost entirely a residential university so far as its full time students were concerned.

The student mix itself was very different. Apart from the relatively large Colombo Plan cohort, nearly all the students were drawn from farms, villages and towns across Northern NSW. For many, this was the first ever family contact with university life. To the University, a core part of its role lay in giving these students access to the academic, intellectual and cultural traditions of the University world.

This was the only University in the country where the majority of students and staff voted Country Party. The students were, by Australian standards, unusually religious - the various Christian groups on campus collectively formed a very major presence.

Yet it was also a very tolerant University with close integration between overseas and local students. With a brief exception when the University of New England New State Society became the largest society in membership terms, the Overseas Students Association with its local affiliate members was the largest student society on campus.

When Russell Ward's appointment to a post at the University of New South Wales was vetoed by its VC on the grounds of his perceived Communist Party affiliations, New England's Council with its strong Country Party connections approved his appointment to a post in history at New England, an irony not lost on Professor Ward.

The University was both international and intensely regional.

International, because many of its staff had overseas qualifications; because they and the University saw the University as part of an international academic tradition; because New England people could already be found in dozens of countries round the world; because the University was already involved in a range of international activities. Intensely regional because the University had been established to serve the people of Northern New South Wales and saw this as a living mission.

In 1963, the University was just entering a period of major change, although this was not recognised at a the time.

Within fifteen years, the emergence of mass University education together with the Vietnam War and the social and economic changes of the 1960s and 1970s, would sweep away some of its special features, including the green gowns that all undergraduates had to wear to lectures and formal functions. Today UNE is very different, but despite all the changes it does still retain some of the special features and traditions of its past.

Against this background, I thought that it might be interesting to explore some of the University's history and traditions. In doing so, I do not intend to write a history of the University. Rather, I want to provide a snap shot of another part of the Australian and New Zealand intellectual tradition.

Posts in this series

11 November 2007, The University of New England's contribution to Australia's intellectual tradition - early threads 1

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