A History of the Modern Australian University

Hannah Forsyth, a lecturer in history at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney, begins her first chapter with the words: ‘In 1857 all of the Arts students at the University of Sydney could fit into a single photograph.’ Some neo-liberal critics of universities would argue that it has been downhill ever since. By World War II, Forsyth estimates that there were still only about 10,000 university students in Australia. Forsyth succinctly highlights the historical changes from a small élite higher education system, dominated by white male ‘god’ professors, to the current complex system, where more than one million students face major changes in higher education funding and settings.

Forsyth’s book, written in an accessible and occasionally anecdotal style, fills a gap for those looking for a readable perspective of how we came to be where we are in higher education. The book, however, does need to be counterpoised with books that drill down in more detail into various historical aspects of the Australian university system, such as Stuart Macintyre’s politically judicious The Poor Relation: A History of Social Sciences in Australia (2010). Margaret Thornton’s Privatising the Public University: The Case of Law (2012), surprisingly not cited in Forsyth’s bibliography, demonstrates, like Forsyth’s book, how changes in funding régimes have altered the ways in which students approach higher education, as well as the way in which universities are governed. 

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Published in December 2014, no. 367

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