Friday, January 14, 2011

Belshaw's World - university of the North was at the top of its game

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 5 January 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Over the Christmas break we hosted a BBQ.

It was a somewhat impromptu affair. One my wife’s close friends wanted to get some of her family and friends together, and we offered to provide the venue.

It proved to be a fun evening.

My family laugh at me because I always seem to find an Armidale or New England connection. This evening proved no different!

One guest, a fellow management consultant, grew up in Longreach and knew lots of people from Queensland who had been to boarding school in Armidale.

Then another guest, one I knew of but had not previously met, started talking about UNE.

It began as one of those general conversations you get in Sydney among parents with university age children. Complaints about over-crowded tutorials and the way the large number of overseas students with poorer English affected some classes.

Our guest remarked that they one of their children had attended UNE. “UNE”, he said, “is one of the few true universities left in Australia.” Of course I beamed, because this has been one of the core messages that I have tried to get across in my own writing.

Then, by happenstance, fellow Armidalian and blogger Paul Barratt ran a story that reveals a little of the reasons why the UNE tradition is so strong.

The photo shows the New England University College Rugby team from 1939. Those in the photo are:

Back Row: Lewis Border, Consett Davis, Max Hartwell, John Rafferty, Jim Belshaw (Coach), Alf Maiden, Les Titterton, Frank Rickwood, Ken James
Middle Row: Ralph Crossley, Paul Barratt, Pat Thompson, Alan Sutherland, Peter Durie
Front Row: Ed Scalley, Harry Savage1939_1st_!5

1939 was the College’s second year. Student numbers were still very small. Three of those in the photo are academic staff, the coach plus two players, H F Consett Davis and Ralph Crossley.

A UNE playing field carries the Consett Davis name. A brilliant student, he joined the NEUC staff in March 1939 but died during the war. Widow Gwenda stayed in Armidale and was to play a major role in the establishment of the Botany Department.

Small student numbers created close relations between staff and students. It also made for a very intense student experience.

There was great distrust at Sydney University about academic standards away from the main campus. Reflecting this, in 1938 and 1939 all marking was done in Sydney.

The result was a considerable embarrassment as NEUC students outperformed their Sydney counterparts. In 1938, for example, Alan Sutherland topped the Sydney University Psychology I exams with Paul Barratt Snr second. The following year, the two jointly topped Psychology II and were jointly awarded a Lithgow Scholarship.

Where did the students in the rugby team come from?

UNE was not founded to be what today is so dismissively called a “regional” or “provincial” university. Its founders were quite clear: this was to be the Sydney University of the North.

This aim is reflected in the student composition. Of the thirteen students in the team, five came from the Northern Tablelands, three from the Mid North Coast, two from the Hunter Valley, one from the Northern Rivers, two from outside the region.

What happened to the students after they left NEUC? This is where the standard of teaching comes in, for the future performance of this small group was quite remarkable.

Two became senior public servants. Lew Border was a senior diplomat, while Alf Maiden became head of the Bureau of Economics, Secretary of the Department of Primary Industry, then head of the International Wool Secretariat.

Frank Rickwood became a senior executive with BP where, among other things, he pioneered the Alaskan oil fields. Max Hartwell became a globally recognised economic historian.

Two returned to Armidale after the War.

Alan Sutherland became Senior Lecturer in charge of Biological Science at Armidale Teachers’ College, then University Fellow in the Centre for Curriculum Studies at UNE, while Paul Barratt Snr became foundation Professor of Psychology at UNE.

As Paul concluded in his post, our little “university under the gum trees” with all its limitations of facilities and money made a pretty good fist of rounding up a bunch of country kids and setting them on paths that might not otherwise have been available to them

Finally, a request for help.

In researching the team, Paul found limited information on the later life of Ken James, Pat Thompson, Peter Durie, Ed Scalley and Harry Savage. Please let me know if you have any details.

Those who would like to read more can find Paul’s full post here -