The Founding Vision
The University of Adelaide was founded with a noble goal: to prepare for South Australia young leaders shaped by education rather than by birth or wealth. The university would reflect the values of South Australia itself—a distinctively progressive and democratic way of life, in a settlement free of Old World social and religious inequalities.
That this would stamp on the University a spirit of free inquiry was the dream of its first Vice- Chancellor, one of Adelaide’s pioneers, Dr Augustus Short (1802-1883). Short had studied and taught at Christ Church Oxford; one of his pupils had been future British Prime Minister William Gladstone. But instead of Oxford’s narrow classics curriculum, Short wanted a University open to investigation of new fields—the sciences, modern literature, art and moral philosophy among them. Also unlike Oxford, where religious tests had prevailed, the university would be secular: there would not be church-owned residential colleges on campus, as at the universities at Sydney and Melbourne; Adelaide’s spirit would be of liberty and discovery, immune from intolerance or external influence.
Thus Adelaide forged a new frontier in higher education—one that broke from the privilege and traditions of Britain’s ancient universities. Scholarships were offered for competition by any South Australian resident, regardless of background. The first students were not the sons of wealthy British gentry but the locally-born middle class, and before long included women, who took degrees at Adelaide 40 years before they could at Oxford.
The professors were recruited internationally, and one, Sir William Bragg, won the Nobel Prize in Physics (with his son Sir Lawrence). The initial funds for chairs and key buildings came from donors, and Short sought public supporters by demonstrating the University’s value to the community through public open days, fora, and long-running evening public lectures.
Thus were formed Adelaide’s distinctive features: a student body of democratic breadth, a staff of international distinction, a spirit of freedom to investigate new fields, a sense of importance to the community, and a goal to prepare educated leaders. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the graduates continued to become educated leaders, and eventually one—Howard Florey—led the isolation of penicillin, perhaps the most important scientific discovery ever made by an Australian. It was a dazzling climax to the University’s founding era.