New England history: Intense start to college

Creating student life. First New England University College rugby union team, 1939.
Creating student life. First New England University College rugby union team, 1939.

The early days of the New England University College have been well described in memoirs including Keith Leopold’s Came to Booloominbah and Paul Barratt’s Psychology at New England.

From the student perspective, two things stand out: the first was the intensity of life in the small college, the second the standard of the education. The staff perspective is more concerned with the practical difficulties of institution building and teaching with limited resources.

The college’s academic staff necessarily came from elsewhere. They saw a university as a collegiate community of scholars, themselves as belonging to an international and especially British and Commonwealth academic tradition.

With the exception of local students who were allowed to live at home, the new institution was to be a fully residential. This was partly a matter of necessity, but it also reflected a belief that a true university was a residential university. Here many contrasted New England with the mother university, Sydney, where some students had little connection with the place apart from attendance at lectures.

During the early periods, limited accommodation on campus meant that many students had to live in town houses, but they were still expected to eat on campus and to be full-time students.

The students who came from across the north were generally young. For most, this was the first family connection with a university. Both the college as an institution and its staff saw part of their role as introducing students to the academic community, to giving them the knowledge and life skills to fit into their new world.

This was not just the course knowledge, but a total university immersion. There was also a strong competitive ethos, of pride in institution. Early staff were well aware that their new institution was the subject of suspicion; they had to be better.

Student results were remarkable. On average, New England students had lower entry level qualifications than those going to Sydney. On average, they had better examination results. During the period 1938-1953, the life of the university college, 441 students took their degrees. Of these, 88 graduated with honours, 27 with firsts, of whom more than half took out university medals

Staff had to manage the sometimes fractious relations with a remote mother university. This strengthened a growing desire for autonomy, a desire shared by the College’s Advisory Council whose members had been selected to ensure broad representation. This would prove to be a long battle.

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