What’s changed in a century of Australian higher education?

Gwil Croucher and James Waghorne’s Australian Universities: A History of Common Cause is an easy-to-read history of Australian higher education, told with attention to the history of university peak bodies. Universities Australia commissioned the book to mark the centenary of the regular meetings of university leaders that began in 1920.

The Australian university system in 2020 is in many ways very different from what it was in 1920. But despite the transformations some issues recur repeatedly over the decades, which I will discuss further in a later blog post. I will start with what has changed the most, prompted by the Croucher and Waghorne book, but adding other material and my own take on events.

A national system

For much of the 20th century there was no Australian national higher education system. Universities were created by state governments, giving them a local basis, but with an international character, using British models and often British staff. As Croucher and Waghorne write of the early 20th century, ‘they had closer ties to universities in Britain than with each other’.

A prompt for greater co-ordination was students in the NSW Riverina region enrolling in the University of Melbourne, because it exempted regional students from attending lectures.

Australia’s constitutional settlement stood in the way of a more national approach. To this day the Commonwealth government has no express constitutional power to control education. One related power, to fund benefits to students, was inserted into the Constitution in 1946, but mostly the Commonwealth has relied on indirect legal means: especially the defence power during WW2, section 96 tied grants to the states from the 1950s to early 1990s (when student funding switched to the benefits to students power as its legal basis), and the corporations power since the WorkChoices case in 2006.

Despite constitutional limitations, the Commonwealth became much more involved in higher education from the 1940s onwards. But Robert Menzies, Liberal prime minister from 1949 to 1966, exercised federalist constraint. No Commonwealth takeover was likely while the Liberals were in power. The funding system was tripartite: Commonwealth, state and private; including student fees.

In 1972 the Liberals were replaced by Labor under Gough Whitlam, and in 1974 two of the three main university funding sources – state government grants and student fees – were replaced with the Commonwealth as the sole major funding source.

Whitlam’s reforms seem to have happened without much input from the universities (as is often the case with big policy changes). The realities of the Commonwealth dominating taxing powers meant that the states did not seem to resist this takeover, although the history of what happened remains sketchy.

Commonwealth centralisation in the 1970s creates a big counter-factual – how would things have been different if, like the US or Canada, Australia had retained a federal higher education system? But, for better or for worse, the big policy decisions were national from 1974.


Australian universities started doing research in the 19th century, but it was not nearly as central to university activity as it is today. Initially, universities resisted PhDs, which Germany, Canada and the US established in the 19th century, and England in 1917. The University of Melbourne wanted a PhD program following the English example, but Croucher and Waghorne report that in 1920 the universities decided collectively not to proceed with the idea. It was not until the mid-1940s that the U of M finally started a PhD program.

From the 1960s to the 1980s research was the activity that distinguished the universities from the Colleges of Advanced Education that enrolled a growing proportion of all higher education students. But as the chart below shows total spending on research was still low compared to its pre-COVID-19 21st century peaks. University research on a massive scale is a surprisingly recent phenomenon.


Although the Riverina students choosing a university in another state due to its more favourable policies looks a little like market forces at work, in general Australian universities 100 years ago were largely isolated from each other, neither competing nor collaborating. The Croucher and Waghorne book mostly discusses their growing collaboration and coordination over the following decades.

But competitive forces grew in the post-war era. The old universities worried about resources being diverted to the new Australian National University, legislated in 1946. Between the 1940s and 1960s most of the old state capital city universities lost their local monopolies. Croucher and Waghorne don’t say a lot about what they felt about this, although with growing student demand my recollection of other histories is that it was as much relief as competitive concern.

But it was a different story in the late 1980s, when colleges and institutes were rebranded as universities, and more importantly became contenders for research funding. In the mid-1960s a predecessor to the Australian Research Council, the Australian Research Grants Committee, started to make research funding more competitive. Croucher and Waghorne say that in 1983 only 514 of 2000 projects the ARGC deemed worthy of funding were in fact funded. Success rates remain low.

Over time, increasing proportions of Commonwealth research funding were allocated via competitive project grants, and the block grants were allocated according to performance criteria.

For lengthy periods of Australian higher education competition for students wasn’t intense. Demand often exceeded supply, and in any case quotas limited how many students universities could take. But starting in the 1980s uncapped markets in international students and domestic postgraduate students were created, and between 2012 and 2017 domestic undergraduate funding was demand driven. Universities could not take students for granted in the way they did for much of the 20th century’s second half.

University staff

A more competitive, market-focused higher education system contributed to radical shifts in the nature of academic employment. In a generation, academic work went from cushy to demanding, and tenure was replaced with work contracts that are, by the standards of professional employment, quite insecure, or ‘precarious’ as people say these days.

Although these trends accelerated in the 1990s, Croucher and Waghorne show that concerns about tenure date from at least the 1970s. In the 1970s stagnation, tenure meant that colleges and universities were stuck with the staff they had, limiting their capacity to adapt or do new things, and leaving them with increased salary bills due to academic promotions.

Student numbers

Last, but certainly not least, student numbers have exploded – growing most years in the post-WW2 era, but especially this century. I have written about this in recent posts. In 2019, 23 universities had more students on their own than all universities combined in 1949 (31,753). Monash on its own in 2019 had more students than the system as it stood in 1965 (86,753/83,320).

Until COVID-19, much recent growth had been driven by international students. Croucher and Waghorne note that Australian universities were active in Asia long before the current highly commercial era. In the 1950s and 1960s universities enrolled almost 5,000 students from Asian countries each year, a non-trivial share of a small system. Most of them were not part of the Colombo Plan, which dominates the historical memory of that phase of Australia’s educational engagement with Asia.

Although students from Asia have been an important part of Australian higher education for longer than most people realise, the growth in their numbers over recent decades still seems remarkable to me. I wrote a series of posts earlier this year about why it happened.

Despite the big differences there are also recurrent themes, which I discuss in another post.

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