The University was incorporated by Act of the Parliament of New South Wales in Sydney in 1949, but its character and idea can be traced back to the formation of the Sydney Mechanics Institute in 1843, leading to the formation of the Sydney Technical College in 1878. The Institute sought ‘the diffusion of scientific and special knowledge’, the College sought to apply and teach it.
Commenced as The New South Wales University of Technology, the University’s international context is that of the Australian recognition of that scientific and technological impulse in tertiary education that produced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Berlin University of Technology. It acknowledged at university level that profound development in human knowledge and concern that had impelled the nineteenth century industrial and scientific revolution.
The new University’s focus was on this new knowledge, this new way of encountering, explaining and improving the material world. Australia needed to keep abreast of the diversity of challenges associated with the Second World War, a demand recognised by the NSW Government in establishing the University. Its core concerns was teaching and research in science and technology, but its courses included humanities and commerce components in recognition of the need to educate the full human being.
Initially, in 1949, operating from the inner city campus of Sydney Technical College, it immediately began to expand on its present eastern suburb site at Kensington, where a major and continuing building program was pursued. Central to the University’s first twenty years was the dynamic authoritarian management of the first Vice-Chancellor, Sir Philip Baxter (1955 – 1969, and previously, Director, 1953 – 1955). His visionary but at times controversial energies, built the university from nothing to 15,000 students in 1968, pioneering both established and new scientific and technological disciplines against an external background of traditionalist criticism. A growing staff, recruited both locally and overseas, conducted research which established a wide international reputation.
The new University soon had Colleges at Newcastle (1951) and Wollongong (1961) which eventually became independent universities. The Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra became, and remains, a University College in 1981.
In 1958 the University name was changed to the University of New South Wales, and in 1960 it broadened its scholarly, student base and character with the establishment of a Faculty of Arts, soon to be followed, in 1960 by Medicine, then in 1971 by Law.
By Baxter’s retirement in 1969, the University had made a unique and enterprising Australian mark. The new Vice-Chancellor, Sir Rupert Myers, (1969-1981) brought consolidation and an urbane management style to a period of expanding student numbers, demand for change in University style, and challenges of student unrest. Easy with, and accessible to students, Myers’ management ensured academic business as usual through tumultuous University times.
The 1980s saw a University in the top group of Australian universities. Its Vice-Chancellor of the period, Professor Michael Birt (1981-1992), applied his liberal cultivation to the task of coping with increasing inroads, into the whole Australian university system, of Federal bureaucracy and unsympathetic and increasingly parsimonious governments. His task mixed strategies for financial survival with meeting the demands of a student influx which took the University into being one of the largest in Australia, as well as being, in many fields, the most innovative and diverse.
From 1951 the University had welcomed international students, and by 2000, of a student population of 31,000, about 6000 were international students, most from Asia. Annual graduation ceremonies are held in Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
The stabilising techniques of the 1980s provided a firm base for the energetic corporatism and campus enhancements pursued by the previous Vice-Chancellor, Professor John Niland (1992 - 2002). The 1990s saw the addition of a Fine Arts dimension to the University and further development of the public and community outreach which had characterised the University from its beginnings. At present, private sources contribute 45% of its annual funding.
After fifty years of dynamic growth the University tradition is one of sustained innovation, a blend of scholarship and practical realism. Its tone is lively and informal, its atmosphere exciting and happy. It offers the widest range of Faculties, its initial emphasis on science and technology now sharing excellence with disciplines as various as Arts, Fine Arts, the Built Environment, Commerce, Law, Life Sciences, Medicine, Management – that whole world of knowledge whose investigation and communication was its initial stimulus.
UNSW A Portrait, by Professor Patrick O'Farrell, covers the first fifty years of UNSW's history, and is the basis for this web site entry.
Professor O'Farrell's history is available in hardcover from the UNSW Press.