The History of Universities

Universities have developed a unique culture based on a long and quite unusual history. Universities such as Oxford University and the University of Paris are some 800 years old, making them amongst the oldest institutions of any type still surviving (and still flourishing) today. (The origins of universities even predate these ancient institutions, being able to be traced back to an institution established by Plato in ancient Greece and to the colleges to train government administrators in ancient China.)

A Century Ago

A century ago universities, developed according to British models, functioned as, what one observer described as ‘finishing schools for gentlemen', serving only men from the elite social class and preparing them for leadership roles in a very conservative and structured society. The ‘ivory tower' image of universities – which saw universities as being remote from society – was very much in evidence.

Post-World War 2

The Second World War (1939-45) was a watershed for the development of Australian universities. The war experience proved the value of science and technology to economic development and formed the basis for post-war industrialisation. Research, knowledge generation and innovation became synonymous with the modernisation of Australia and universities were recognised as being able to contribute significantly to this movement.  Universities were also used to retrain ex-servicemen and –women for civilian jobs.  At the same time higher education became seen as a prerequisite for an increasing range of professions. The rigid social class system broke down and in the good economic times of the 1950s and ‘60s more people wanted to access a university education as a means of social and vocational advancement. From 1950-75 more universities were built and a system of colleges of advanced education was established to provide ever-increasing higher education opportunities to an increasingly diverse cross-section of society.

The expansion in the university system since the Second World War has been dramatic.  In 1946, six universities existed in Australia and served 26,000 students. Just over 50 years later, 37 publicly funded universities, and a number of other public and private tertiary education institutions are serving 700,000 students – an increase in student numbers of 25-fold! 

Today and Beyond

During the process of expansion, the Australian university sector has changed from being an elite to a mass education system. Where once the student body drew from a narrow elite segment of society, universities now serve all of society. Where once universities provided what was referred to as a ‘general liberal education' and were involved in training in only the more elite vocations such as medicine and law, universities now prepare graduates for work in a wide variety of vocations from business, teaching and nursing to tourism/hospitality and journalism.

With the explosion in knowledge that has now occurred in the age of computers, information technology and the internet, universities are even more important for job training. People now need to enrol in universities or VET institutes for retraining, as knowledge and skills become redundant at ever-increasing rates. ‘Lifelong learning' is now the norm.