This history of the development of universities is the first of two articles on the past and future of the campus. This is a long read, so set aside the time to read it and enjoy.
Once the first atomic bomb exploded on July 16 1945 in New Mexico, the world would never be the same again. Scientists and engineers had turned an obscure principle into a weapon of unprecedented power. Los Alamos, the facility where the bomb was designed, was run by the University of California.
This was a turning point for universities. As they increasingly focused on scientific research, the role of universities worldwide – and their campuses – changed.
Before the first world war, the largest investment on most campuses was the university library. After the second world war, investment shifted decisively to laboratories and equipment.
A key reason for the increasing focus on university research was the lessons of the first world war. After the war, governments of rich countries took an increasingly interventionist role in directing and encouraging the research and development of artificial materials, weapons, defences and medicine. Universities or institutes associated with universities did much of this work.
By 1926, the Council for Science and Industrial Research, the predecessor to the CSIRO, and the organisation that would become the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) had been founded in Australia.
A gradual turn towards research
In the UK, many of the older universities were not that keen on applied research. Chemistry, engineering and physics were taught at Oxford between the wars, but by 1939 the chemistry cohort was just over 40 students, of whom “two or three were women”.
It wasn’t until 1937 that Oxford drew up a plan to develop the “Science Area” with new buildings, but in that same year, the university also agreed to reduce its size to avoid a fight with the Town over “further intrusion on the Parks”.
Facilities at Cambridge for physical sciences were slightly better, but not by much, despite its historical focus on mathematics. The Cavendish laboratory in which the New Zealander Ernest Rutherford discovered in 1911 that the atom had a nucleus was small, dark, damp and ill-equipped.Science Museum London/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA
This relative lack of interest in experimental sciences at Oxbridge was unhelpful for science research in Australia, because our six small state-run universities tended to follow their lead. As an indication of its priorities, the University of Adelaide built its humanities buildings in stone and its much more modest science facilities in brick.
Nobel laureate and University of Adelaide Professor W.H. Bragg carried out his pioneering experiments on X-ray crystallography in Adelaide during 1900 to 1908 in a converted storeroom in the basement of the Mitchell Building. His lab is now a storeroom again.
The post-war transformations
The application of university research had been a German strength since well before the first world war with the rise of the Humboldtian model of higher education, which favoured research over scholarship. A key reason the Allies prevailed in 1945 was that the United States in particular rapidly improved its capacity to carry out and apply research, based on the Humboldtian model.
This decision had a direct bearing on the success of the Boeing company following construction of the Boeing wind tunnel at the University of Washington’s Seattle campus in 1917. It led directly to the development of advanced aerodynamics for the Boeing 247 of 1933, which provided the template for all subsequent commercial airliners.
The Australian university system between the wars offers no such exemplars. The focus on applied research was foreign to the prevailing university culture in Australia at the time. As Hannah Forsyth writes in A History of the Modern Australian University, not until the 1940s did “scholarly esteem began to move away from ‘mastery’ of disciplines towards the discovery of new knowledge”.Ken Fielding/Flickr, CC BY-SA
New research facilities and new campuses
New technologies led to a host of new post-war industries, including commercial aviation, television, plastics, information technology (IT) and advanced health care. The demand for skills to operate these new industries was the primary driver of an explosion in university enrolments.
University science research in Australia only got a serious start in 1946 with the foundation of the Australian National University (ANU) and the Commonwealth Universities Grants Committee, which became the Australian Research Council (ARC).EQRoy/Shutterstock
As Robert Menzies, the prime minister from 1949-66, later wrote:
The Second World War brought about great social changes. In the eye of the future observer, the greatest may well provide to be in the field of higher education.
In Australia, about 80% of our universities have been founded since the second world war. The growth of the sector has been startling.
Authors: Geoff Hanmer, Adjunct Professor of Architecture, University of Adelaide