Issue 2, 2006 | Emeritus Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya

The Spirit of a Civic University

Since 1987, Australian universities have been the site of a struggle between many competing visions and ideologies of the university as a social institution (Corden 2005). And these visions have been reflected in the myriad blue prints for reform of the university sector. In the wash up universities have been pushed in many directions, some of which seriously threaten the ‘Ideal of a University’, embodied in the classic work of Cardinal Newman (Pelikan 1992). These ideals and traditions have been characteristic of the western liberal democratic tradition especially that which reflects the basic values of human freedom and individual autonomy. In the absence of a twenty first century Cardinal Newman we need to recover the ‘idea of the university’, its distinctive ethos embodied in the traditions of our public universities, which have been central to our democratic public culture.

I propose to offer some historical reflections on the distinctive institutional character of a 'sandstone university'1 – the University of Western Australia (UWA) as a public institution This was a ‘culture’ framed by its founders in the early years of the 20th century, a formative period in the founding of Australia as an independent nation state within a Federal political order. By this I refer to what Don Aitkin refers to as the ‘legend’ or ‘ethos’ of a University (quoted in Marginson & Considine, 2000). This is, of course, a question of probing the UWA legend or discerning the distinctive ethos of UWA from the historical institutional narrative of UWA crafted by Fred Alexander., (Alexander 1963). This was updated subsequently by Brian de Garis to mark the 75th anniversary of the University (de Garis 1988). From this historical narrative and especially the role of the founders of this institutions - we can discern much more sharply the distinctive culture or ‘spirit’, or the ‘legend’ of UWA, as a civic and public institution It is this distinctive tradition culture that is entrusted to  members of this university community.

The Idea of a University embodied in Charter of UWA, as a special and distinct place, a place of learning — a space reserved exclusively for free inquiry in an unfettered environment — is cast in terms of Cardinal Newman’s classic exposition of the values and ideals of a liberal education (Pelikan 1992). Accordingly the university is seen as a place where one learns ‘to respect, to consult, to aid each other’, and importantly, this also incorporates the ‘art of dissent from orthodoxy as the unique function of a university’ (Ashby 1968). For Newman, this philosophy of university education was in part a polemic against a crude utilitarianism which sought to eliminate some fields of inquiry on the grounds of their poor utility value.2

At UWA this historic mission of the university as portrayed by Newman was succinctly expressed by its first Vice-Chancellor Hubert Whitfeld’s (an engineer by profession) initiative in depicting the Undercroft as a meeting place of the University community, ‘dedicated to Socrates and the spirit of free discussion and inquiry’ (Alexander 1963). The dedication ends with the stirring words ‘may his spirit reside here at all times’. This was, of course, an expression of the Platonic ideal of learning as being one of intrinsic value, or as Veblen put it, ‘the pursuit of idle curiosity (quoted in Encel 1965); it was also a question of cultivating the general powers of the intellect.

In this regard what stands out is the undeniable spirit of the thinking, ideals, and values of one person. This, of course, none other than that remarkable and complex personality, Winthrop Hackett, whom Alfred Deakin referred to as the ‘University conscious Hackett’. He was undoubtedly the most influential and dominant of the pioneers of the University Movement in the early years. Hackett who described himself as an ‘advanced liberal’, was cast in the mould of the ‘social liberalism’ (Sawer 2003) of the late 19th century, and was, indeed, one cast very much in the mould of a Deakinite liberal.3

Hackett, though not rejecting the merits of a liberal education, regarded this orthodox view of learning as being too limited and restrictive. In fact, he scorned the purists beckoning them, if they had the money, to go and worship at the shrine of ‘old gods’ –meaning of course Oxbridge. Clearly, the pioneers of the University in WA were not entirely persuaded that they wished to embrace without reservation the Newmanesque model of university education taken from Oxbridge. Instead, Hackett and the pioneers were in the forefront pleading for a more utilitarian view of university education, one having a local emphasis, and catering to the needs of the community, of human capital in industry, and education.

In espousing a liberal utilitarian viewpoint, Hackett, in particular, was clearly more inclined to the thinking of the American University Movement such as that at Chicago which in turn was heavily influenced by the German University Movement (Levins 2006). Hackett’s preference for the German model was partly the result of a visiting British academic, Prof. Henry Jones of the University of Glasgow, who encouraged him to consider carefully the German ideal of university education. This was admittedly one which was advocated by the German liberal reformer and humanist, Wilhelm Humboldt who viewed the university as a place of teaching and research. Humboldt regarded the university as an institution equipped to perform a range of tasks, not just the transmission and conservation of knowledge as in the Oxbridge Newmanesque model.4

But, importantly for Hackett and the pioneers the university, as a public institution was seen as a seat of higher learning committed to the extension of the horizons of knowledge by new discoveries for the betterment of society. When placed alongside the Platonic ideal, this view of the university cast in the mould of a ‘civic university’ implied an instrumental orientation to learning. As espoused by Hackett and others, this point of view stood out as a cleverly conceived marriage between the ancient and modern, of the practical and intellectual, of a teaching and research ethos.

It was this philosophy that was incorporated in the Preamble to the University Act of 1911 with a clear specification that ‘provision should be made for instruction of those practical arts and liberal studies which are needed to advance the prosperity and welfare of the people’ (Government of WA, 2003). To ensure that this requirement of being sensitive and responsive to community needs was satisfied, the University, from the outset was firmly committed to the training professionals and others needed by the community. Thus, not surprisingly of the first eight Professorial appointments only two were in the humanities/social sciences. The others were in Science (4), Engineering (1) and Science and Engineering (1). This preference for the ‘practical arts’ was not simply a question of developing needed human capital in the forms of skilled technical know-how, but also a question of educational relevance. But this commitment to professional studies was, however, to be on its own terms. Or, as Sir Eric Ashby expresses it elegantly, the training of professionals recognizes that ‘the path of culture should be through a man’s specialism’ (Ashby 1968).5

Clearly, from the earliest days, the University of WA was a ‘civic university’ (Macintyre & Marginson 2000) in that it was developed as a civic institution developed or, a public corporation, autonomous but accountable and functioning to serve the public good. This was framed within a philosophy of ‘enlightened utilitarianism’ – one of blending a professional ethos with a liberal humanizing curriculum. This marriage of Humboldt and Newman has succeeded to such an extent that it has nurtured a Nobel Prize – that of Marshall and Warren for Medicine in 2005. But in a difficult political and economic environment, this path has not always been an easy one to traverse. UWA however, continues to steadfastly function as an institution committed to intellectual excellence within a decidedly progressive utilitarian orientation to liberal education. This was to be a culture of liberal learning not divorced from the ‘the pursuit of the best that is known and thought in the world’ (Mathew Arnold).

The ‘Humboldtian-Newmanesque university’, installed in the pedagogic culture of UWA also included two other distinctive features of its institutional culture, namely, academic freedom and university autonomy (Ashby 1970). Academic freedom was there to ensure and maximize the creative function of the university without being constrained by governments, dominant èlites, or sectarian interests. University autonomy, on the other hand, was essentially the right of self governance in a collegiate atmosphere of trust and mutual respect.

Besides its pedagogical culture, UWA is noted in the Australian university system for probably its most notable feature of its institutional culture, namely, that UWA was a Free and Endowed University heavily reliant on public funding and endowments – public and private. The private endowments based on philanthropic benefactions, foremost being the Hackett bequest, have served to lighten the burden on the state. This has made UWA comparable to the Land Grant American Universities such as Cornell. On the question of tuition fees, the philosophy of a Free University, subject to minor changes (e.g., charges for medical education and other service changes), remained intact until 1961 (Anderson 1990; Shervington 1987).6

It warrants special mention that again Hackett was being more than instrumental in seeing that UWA was a free public institution. It was his casting vote as Chancellor of the Senate that was the final decisive act in this decision. The rationale for this was mainly because it was regarded as ‘a necessary condition for democratizing participation’ (Anderson 1990). This eminently egalitarian rationale of public policies relating to university education owes a great deal to the thinking and foresight of Sir William James, a leading political figure of this period who was also a State Premier (1902-1904). As he expressed it:

The State could say to any boy who was industrious and persevering, here is the ladder by which you may climb to the highest position in the land (Alexander 1963).

These egalitarian sentiments were further strengthened by giving statutory endorsement in the University Act of 1911 to the principles of ‘affirmative action’ for the disadvantaged. In its Preamble the Act specified that:

‘it is desirable that special encouragement and assistance should be afforded those who maybe hindered in the acquisition of sound knowledge and useful learning by lack of opportunity or means’ (Preamble to University Act 1911).

The social liberalism of Hackett was also reflected in his firm resolve to avoid class or sectarian hostility, as well as in his strong conviction that UWA was not just a public university but also a secular university.7 This too was given statutory endorsement with two specific provisions in the University Act, 1911. The first was a clause prohibiting any form of discrimination, or denial of access to university facilities and services on the grounds of religion. This, incidentally, was in spite of Hackett being a strong Anglican,8 and also the influential role of the Anglican Archbishop C.L.O. Riley who became the second Chancellor of the University (Alexander 1963). The second was a similar prohibition on gender discrimination against women, stating clearly that the ‘benefits, advantages, and privileges of the University should be equally available to men and women’.

Furthermore, the role of the University in generating and sustaining a public culture linking the university directly and intimately with the wider community was vigorously promoted, and exemplified in a variety of ways. This created a distinctly ‘Gown In the Town’culture, vastly different from the conventional ‘Town and Gown’ variety, in that ‘the Gown’ was seen to actively participating the ‘the Town’, and giving leadership in promoting a civic consciousness. To this day this remains as one of the most visible characteristics of UWA as a civic university.

From the earliest days, the influence of the local community on the pedagogical culture of the university was evident not just in the high priority given to the development of the professional education programmes, but also in matters critical to individual and social wellbeing. These links with the wider community were further strengthened by the pioneering role played by UWA in Adult Education, Extension Studies,9 and the Summer School. Fred Alexander, the first Professor of History, notes with much personal satisfaction and a sense of social responsibility that he was also for a while the Director of Adult Education. And furthermore, as he puts it, ‘one of the most significant and lasting results of my post of Adult Education Directorship was the Festival of Perth (Alexander 1987). The association of UWA with the Festival of Perth has continued and the Perth Festival now has the unique status of being the engine of the cultural life of Perth.

Another noteworthy extra curricular feature of the university has been the key role played by UWA academics such as the late Sir Paul Hasluck who was for a while on the staff of the History Department in public life – both local and national (Alexander 1987). Another who had a profound impart on public life was, of course, the renowned Walter Murdoch, one of the leading academic figures in the early days of UWA. Murdoch was, among others things, highly influential in generating a fulsome understanding of Australian citizenship with his best selling Australian civics text – The Australian Citizenship (Sawer 2003). Murdoch was also Alfred Deakin’s biographer (Murdoch 1923). On an Honour Roll, there are, of course, many other UWA personalities, too numerous to mention, who have made valued contributions to public life.

One contribution which deserves mention was that of UWA’s eighth Chancellor, Sir Alex Reid. Alex Reid, as a member of the Murray Committee on University Reform (Government of Australia 1957) — a landmark in Australian Higher Education — may well have provided the inspiration and also some of the pedagogical rationale for the expansion of the civic university in the 1960s. This was a sequel to the Menzies Government’s implementation of the Murray Report (Martin 1990). Interestingly, the Murray Committee’s notion of dualism in higher education was an attempt to ‘balance the instrumental aspects of higher education (e.g., specialist training) with the more ‘intellectual studies and individual integrity in the community’ (Government of Australia (1957). This was a forerunner of the binary system installed later with the Martin Report (Macintyre & Marginson 2000) which clearly reflects UWA’s approach to the complex question of professional education within the university system.

I have endeavoured, within the limited confines of an Occasional Address, to probe the distinctive ‘legend’ of the University of Western Australia – the ethos and spirit of its academic and institutional culture. Admittedly, I have only skimmed the surface of an engaging topic – the ‘genius of UWA’ as a Civic University. In anticipation of the UWA centenary, this surely warrants closer scrutiny. Let me in conclusion pull together some strands of the wide terrain covered, by suggesting that a dominant feature of the contemporary university environment is the sharp difference between a civic university built around a collegial culture and an enterprise university, i.e., one which has embraced the new managerialism and corporate culture (Macintyre & Marginson 2000).

There is no doubt that the model of the ‘civic university’ is being increasingly frayed due to the cumulative impact of recent public policy changes (Corden 2005). Nothing better illustrates this than the increasing pressure for students to incur more debt in order to enjoy a university education. Despite persistent pressures to change towards an Enterprise University, UWA I believe, still remains not just a Civic University; nay a secular public university firmly committed to the pursuit of public goods and public interests.

However, defending UWA as a public university is something more than a question of public funding. The idea of a 'Civic University' is best captured in the idea of ‘the commons’, that is, those resources and infrastructure we hold in ‘common’ just as much as at the time of the industrial revolution (Bollier 2006). We now have a struggle to defend what we hold in common – including the university. In a sense, we are witnessing a new ‘Enclosure of the Commons’ as we are being constantly threatened by new forms of enclosures that seek to appropriate the public common for private purposes. My plea in defence of a public university like UWA, is that it is the repository of intangible assets – the thought and wisdom of generations of scholars, and above all a foundational pillar of the western democratic tradition. As the philosopher John Anderson (quoted in McGregor 1966) puts it, intellectualism and opposition or dissent are defining attributes of a liberal culture.

As you leave these portals of learning, this ‘home away from home’, and move into the  turbulent waters of the market place, after hopefully having been enriched and enjoyed this gift of an ‘interval’ in one’s life cycle. I hope you will bear in mind that this ‘gift’ carries with it an obligation to repay not just with your contributions to society, but to your alma mater. May you be in the frontline as ‘defenders of the faith’ of an enlightened progressive civic university, a public university – the only People’s University in the land.

As one who has crossed cultures I would like to leave you with the wise words of the great Indian Poet – Rabindranath Tagore, the founder of Shantineketan, a unique University. Tagore expresses elegantly with poetic vision the ideals of a secular, international university in his poem Gitanjali. For Tagore, a University is:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
When the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Into the heaven of freedom let my country awake


  1. A ‘sandstone university’ is characterized as being one able to draw upon a past inheritance and also have research excellence as one of its hall mark. See Marginson and Considein (2000) for a 5 fold classification of Australian universities – Sandstones, Redbricks, Gum tree, Unitechs, and the New Universities.
  2. Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University was in fact the substance of a classic lecture series in 1852 in support of a campaign for the foundation of a Catholic University in Ireland. This was to be an institution able to equip Catholic men to compete on equal footing with those educated at Oxbridge.
  3. Hackett as Vice Principal and later sub Warden of Trinity College, University of Melbourne, was, along with Deakin, a member of the university debating team in 1880 (Alexander 1963).
  4. Significantly, three of the first Professors (Chemistry, Agriculture, and Mathematics and Physics) were all trained at the University of Goettingen, Germany, which incidentally was renowned for its studies in theology (Ross 1963).
  5. This was exemplified in the skills and talents of Hubert Whitfiled – ‘a man of many parts’ – who held the Foundation Chair of Engineering (also later the first Permanent Vice Chancellor). He was, above all a ‘cultured professional’ equally at ease with Plato, H.G. Wells and engineers (Shervington 1987).
  6. In 1974 the Whitlam Government abolished all fees for universities. And since the Dawkins reforms of 1987, there have been major changes in this respect, especially with the introduction of a ‘user charge’ under the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) (Marginson and Considine 2000). 
  7. The early social liberalism of Deakin and others (Sawer 2003) saw the state committed to the pursuit of the common good and equal opportunity. This was clearly reflected in public policies relating to education generally in WA at this time.
  8. On his death in 1916, a part of Hackett’s estate was bequeathed to the Church of England.
  9. The inauguration of extension Studies at UWA was a consequence of a visit by Albert Mansbridge, General Secretary, London, Worker Educational Association (WEA). The University Extension Lectures Program was what later evolved into Adult Education (Ross 1963).


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