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March 16, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The History that is

Salient writer Norman Penaia takes a look at Victoria University’s history, and the trials and tribulations that have made Victoria the place it is today.

The early story of tertiary education in this country is one of struggle. One year after the University Endowment Act of 1868, Otago College was founded. Canterbury College followed in 1872 and Auckland college in 1882. However, it was to be thirty years before Wellington established its own institution of higher learning. A period described by the Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, James Hector, as a “thirty years’ war”.

Leading the campaign for a Wellington-based university was Robert Stout. In 1886, as both Premier and Minister of Education, Stout introduced a bill envisioning a specialised school in each of the colony’s main centres. Wellington, housing Parliament and the Court of Appeal, was to focus on law, political science and history. The bill failed to pass and Stout was soon to lose his seat. However, little more than a decade later, Wellington’s prospective students benefited from an unexpected change of heart.

In 1897, then-premier Richard Seddon returned from celebrations of Queen Victoria’s 60th jubilee with an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Cambridge University and a greater appreciation for higher education. On 22 December of that year Victoria University College was established, in time to mark the Queen’s jubilee year. The four founding Professors, Rankine Brown, Mackenzie, Maclaurin and Easterfield, arrived in 1899 to find that the university they had been hired to establish had yet to find a fixed abode. A permanent site was only to be found two years later. In the meantime, lectures began on the eighteenth of April in rooms at Wellington Girls’ High School.

Despite the protracted birth pains of the University, students promptly organised themselves, joining the debate over a permanent site. Consensus focused on Mt Cook as the most suitable option. The Government, however, did not agree and a protest was organised against their inaction, with the notable slogan: “We have eyes but no site,” It was to set a precedent for student protest throughout the university’s history.


The issue was settled in much the same way as the university itself was founded; through an unexpected act of goodwill. An offer of a thousand pounds was made on the condition the college be built upon Kelburn Park, an offer which was duly accepted.

Fondly referred to as the ‘old clay patch’, the top of Kelburn Park hill offered an extensive view of the city and harbour. It was here that the arts building, now known as the Hunter building, was completed and opened in 1906.

Finally settled on the Kelburn site, students gained a sense of stability and the university began to develop a distinct identity. College colours were deemed an important part of this development. After a number of unsuccessful experiments, the gold and green of the surrounding gorse bushes was settled upon.

Another important development was the 1902 appearance of the Wellington College Review, or The Spike , as it was later called. The publication, run by the students’ association, was immediately embroiled in controversy, having to reprint the very first issue. This, again, set a precedent that was to endure; students would often find themselves at odds with the older, more conservative generation.

As the roll steadily increased, so did the formation of clubs and societies. From various Christian clubs to the Radical Society, most of these organisations had an erratic existence in the university’s history, subject to the ebb and flow of student interests.

The Great War struck a serious blow to the flourishing cultural life of the university. Male students left en masse to sign up for active duty. One of the more progressive consequences was that female students began to fill the positions left by would-be soldiers. Women outnumbered men on campus for the first time in 1918.

The immediate post-war period saw a dramatic increase of enrolments. From 1919 to 1921 the roll grew by almost 72 percent. This, of course, put pressure on facilities which were given an overhaul courtesy of the government. More classrooms, more students and more academic staff signaled a coming period of growth within the university.

In the 1920s, separate departments began to be recognised, and in 1926 the first serious move to introduce day classes was initiated. Formerly most lectures were held in the evenings to accommodate students with full-time day jobs. It seemed Victoria could no longer be accused of being a ‘glorified night school’.

The 1930s and the ensuing economic depression brought financial difficulties for all, including the university. Around this time state funding for the university dropped by forty-two percent. Salaries were cut by roughly ten percent and the institution was said to be in serious financial trouble.

Once again the momentous events of world power politics lured many students from the lecture theatres and into uniforms. The roll shrank by forty-two percent between 1939 and 1942. Law and Commerce suffered most being male dominated subjects. In fact, as former student and current Chancellor Professor Tim Beaglehole recalls, in 1951 “there were just over 2000 students, three-quarters of them men and only about a quarter were full-time. It was a small and friendly community of staff and students.”

Before the Student Union Building was completed in 1962, according to Professor of Political Science Margaret Clark, “there was no reason to stay on campus” after lectures. There was simply no place to go. With numbers steadily increasing throughout the 1950s space was needed for students to seek shelter and socialise. As Professor Clark points out, “a university is always more than a place to work.”

The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of the student protest movement. Issues such as the war in Vietnam and Apartheid mobilised thousands of students who began to feel their strength in numbers. Feminism also emerged around this time, with various feminist groups, the Women’s Liberation Front and Women’s Action Group to name a few, making a brief appearance on the left-wing scene.

In the political furor of the times the student body was increasingly polarised between the liberal patriotic and the far left. Victoria was subject to accusations of harbouring radical activists and revolutionaries. Despite the damaging effects of being labeled ‘red’, students categorically refused to limit discussion, as evidenced by a Debating Society event of the time, advertised as ‘Commerce vs. Communism’, with both sides duly represented.

This militant attitude had died down in the eighties. With the exception of the Springbok tour early on in the decade, students seemed more focused on their studies than anything else. The students’ association itself was much more attentive to educational matters, rewriting the constitution in 1988 and also appointing a full-time education co-ordinator.

The 1990s can rightly be referred to as a decade of reform. In the previous decade, support had gathered for a neo-liberal reform of the market, which eventually turned its eye on education. Universities were to become more businesslike and would be encouraged to compete for private funding. Also, the university council attained the power to set student fees, resulting in fee rises and corresponding protests.

The next period, up until 2009, seems to have been rather quiet. Apart from perhaps taking part in anti-Iraq war protests, and the odd fee-increase protest, student activists have not nearly been as visible as in previous decades. The University has been spared the drama of war and social upheaval and seems to be looking to the future, which, Professor Beaglehole hopes “will still be an exciting and liberating time for most students.” If the future holds anything similar to what students have experienced in the past then it is sure to be a liberating time.


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