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History of ANU

ANU was, at its inception, “envisaged to be of enduring significance in the life of the nation – to support the development of national unity and identity, to improve Australia’s understanding of itself and its neighbours, and to contribute to economic development and social cohesion” (ANU 2004:vi). This theme is of continuing importance to ANU with the Report to the Committee Established by the Council of the Australian National University to Evaluate the Quality of ANU Performance recommending that these ideals be reaffirmed and strengthened by ANU.

The following section contains a brief history of ANU, concentrating on the philosophical reasons behind its creation. Much of the information from this section was taken from what is the seminal work on the history of ANU, The Making of the Australian National University, 1946 – 1996, by S.G. Foster and Margaret M. Varghese.
Academic Advisors 1948

Academic Advisors 1948 (from left) H.W. Florey, M.L. Oliphant, R.W. Firth and W.K. Hancock

By the early 1870s Australia had three universities: the University of Sydney, founded 1850; the University of Melbourne, founded 1853; and the University of Adelaide, founded 1874. These universities were all founded under what Foster and Varghese (1996) call the traditional English, Scottish and Irish view of a university; their primary aim was to teach. By 1900 there were calls made for the introduction of a National University of Australia that was to have a research orientation. The idea of a university that was based around research rather than teaching grew out of trends prevalent in higher education in the United States, specifically with the founding of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the first to be established in the United States primarily for the purpose of research and postgraduate training (Hawkins 1960).

The first steps in the establishment of ANU were taken in the early years of the twentieth century when the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, agreed to set land aside for a university on the site chosen for the National Capital. Walter Burley Griffin’s winning design for Canberra set this land aside at the foot of Black Mountain (check out more information about the Griffin Plan here). David Rivett made the first detailed case for a research-based university in Canberra after he was appointed head of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the forerunner to the CSIRO. He advocated a research based university, based on the model provided by Johns Hopkins, with close links to the CSIR. This call was further taken up in 1929 by Professor T.H. Laby, Dean of Science at the University of Melbourne (Foster and Varghese 1996).

Howard Florey

H.W. Florey

Tertiary education in Canberra was formalised in 1929 with the establishment of the Canberra University College (CUC), loosely affiliated with the University of Melbourne and chaired by Sir Robert Garran. Established to provide undergraduate university education in Canberra, it took its first students in 1930. For most of its history, students were part-time. The CUC operated in association with the University of Melbourne, whereby students sat for University of Melbourne examinations and graduated from that institution.

The outbreak of World War II caused a delay in any plans for the founding of a national university and it was not until the establishment of the Department for Post-War Reconstruction in 1942, with J.B. Chifley as the Minister and H.C. Coombs as the Director-General that these plans were reinstated. In 1943 an inter-departmental committee was set-up comprising of representatives from departments with an interest in educational matters to, among other things, explore the idea of a national university. In October of 1944, the first specific outline of a national university was produced. This report stated the need for a national centre of higher learning that might cover such areas as government, Pacific affairs, international relations and Australian history and literature (Foster and Varghese 1996).

This report may have come to nothing except for the intervention of Howard Florey. Invited by
Lord Stanley Bruce

Lord Stanley Bruce, first Chancellor of the ANU

Prime Minster Curtin to undertake a review of medical research facilities in Australia, Florey concluded that medical research in this country was “in a parlous state, and he said so at various public lectures” (Foster and Varghese 1996:13). This led to a proposal for a national medical research institute, nominally with Florey at its head, being presented to Curtin in November of 1944. This proposal and the report of the Coombs Committee were the impetus for a new committee being established in April of 1945 under the Chair of R.C. Mills. Later in that year the Mills Committee presented a proposal that a national university be set up, mainly concerned with postgraduate studies and comprising institutes to study social medicine and social sciences. Cabinet accepted these proposals, with the only change being the addition of the word Australian before national university “hereby giving the proposed university, probably for the first time, its eventual title” (Foster and Varghese 1996:14). Coombs, who was a member of the Mills Committee, presented a proposal to cabinet in 1945 that the university have five research institutes; Medical Research, Social Sciences, Pacific Affairs, Town and Regional Planning and Atomic Physics. By the end of 1945 the first three institutes were firmly accepted, Town and Regional Planning had been dropped and the Atomic Physics was only tentatively kept. On the 1st August 1946 the Australian Parliament passed the Australian National University Act 1946. Section 6 of this act outlines the functions of the university as follows:
  1. To encourage, and provide facilities for, post-graduate research and study, both generally and in relation to subjects of national importance to Australia;
  2. To provide facilities for university education for persons who elect to avail themselves of those facilities and are eligible so to do;
  3. Subject to the Statutes, to award and confer degrees and diplomas.
Section 7 of the Act outlines the organisation of ANU in that it was to be divided into two groups: the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS) and the Faculties. In Section 8 of the Act the structure of the IAS is further defined with institutes to be devoted to medical science (to be known as the John CurtinSchool of Medical Research), the physical sciences, the social sciences, Pacific studies and such other fields of learning as the Council determines. The establishment of the Faculties, as required under the Act, did not take place until 1960 when the CUC was amalgamated with the IAS. The eventual result was to create a university with two parts: the Institute of Advanced Studies, comprising the research schools with research and graduate training responsibilities; and the School of General Studies (now known as The Faculties) comprising faculties with undergraduate and graduate teaching and research responsibilities.

Until the University Council could be established, as dictated by the Act, an interim council was established that included all the members of the Mills Committee. R.D. Wright was Honorary Secretary of the Interim Council in 1947 and he travelled abroad to sound out prospective directors for the various research schools to act as an Academic Advisory Committee (Foster and Varghese 1996; Fenner and Curtis 2001). The members of the Academic Advisory Committee were H.W. Florey (medical research), M.L. Oliphant (physical sciences), R.W. Firth (Pacific studies) and W.K. Hancock (social studies) (Fenner and Curtis 2001).

Aerial View of Campsu 1953

Aerial view of southwestern area of campus 1953

These initial efforts led to the establishment of the first four research schools at ANU: Research School of Physical Sciences (1947), the name was changed to the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering in 1991 reflecting its shift in focus; John Curtin School of Medical Research (1948); Research School of Pacific Studies (1948), the name was changed to the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in 1994 to reflect the fact that the balance of research activity had shifted significantly from the Pacific towards Asia; and the Research School of Social Sciences (1948).  Expansion of the IAS continued with the establishment of the following research schools: Research School of Biological Sciences (1967); Research School of Chemistry (1968); Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (1973), combined with the School of Rescources, Environment and Society (SRES) to form the Fenner School of Environment and Society in 2007; Research School of Earth Sciences (1973); Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics (1998), although it had been an IAS centre since 1986; School of Mathematical Sciences (1989), renamed the Mathematical Sciences Institute in 2002; Research School of Information Sciences and Engineering (1994); and the Research School of Humanities (2007).


ANU (2004): ANU: University with a Difference. Report to the Committee Established by the Council of the Australian National University to Evaluate the Quality of ANU Performance. Marketing and Communications Division, ANU.

Fenner, F. and Curtis, D. (2001): The John Curtin School of Medical Research: The First Fifty Years, 1948-1998. Brolga Press, Gundaroo.

Foster, S.G. and Varghese, M.M. (1996): The Making of the Australian National University, 1946 to 1996. Allen and Unwin, Sydney.

Hawkins, H. (1960): Pioneer: A History of the Johns Hopkins University, 1877-1889. Cornell University Press, Ithaca.