Tertiary-level education was first instituted in Australia in 1850, when the University of Sydney was established, followed three years later by the University of Melbourne. A year later, in 1874, the University of Adelaide was founded, less than forty years after the colony of South Australia was established in 1836. This was a remarkable achievement: other and longer-settled colonies such as Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia did not establish universities until 1890, 1909 and 1911 respectively.
The answer to this early move to tertiary-level education in South Australia’s capital city lies in the nature of the free settler colony established there in 1836. South Australians had a vision of a colony where education for all who wished to participate, regardless of sex, religion or class, would be encouraged. The establishment of a university was the natural outcome of this aspiration, and it was assisted substantially by financial support from private benefactors to a much greater extent than its sister institutions in Sydney and Melbourne. Sir Thomas Elder, Sir Walter Watson Hughes, and Robert and Thomas Barr Smith made generous funds available from the wealth they had amassed through mineral and pastoral enterprises for the University’s initial foundation and ongoing operations.
Admission to the University was based entirely on merit, with candidates undergoing a public examination to attain matriculation. For those outside the University there were extension lectures to provide access to knowledge to people in the wider community, including in rural areas.
Women were permitted to matriculate and to enrol in courses, a situation that would not be paralleled in Sydney and Melbourne for several years. The University of Adelaide was the first Australian university, and only the second in the world, to receive Royal Letters Patent recognising degrees conferred on women. The first women in Australia to graduate in science and medicine (Edith Dornwell, 1885 and Laura Fowler, 1891), and the first woman to become a Doctor of Music (Ruby Davy, 1918) did so at the University of Adelaide.
Other notable graduates of the University of Adelaide include Sir Douglas Mawson, Nobel Prize winners Sir Howard Florey and Lawrence Bragg, and Sir Mark Oliphant.
Founded as an extension and expression of the founding ideals of the state of South Australia, the University of Adelaide continues to be valued as a recognisable link to the state’s past and a core institution in its development over time. The documents in the University of Adelaide’s Registrar’s Minutes, Correspondence, Reference Files, Registers & Indexes, 1872-1924 trace this fundamental connection between the University and the history of South Australia.