When the New England University College opened eighty years ago, it was the first regional university in Australia; today it is known as UNE and has students around the world.
Throughout 2018, the University of New England has been celebrating its establishment eighty years ago as the New England University College (NEUC). The College officially opened in Booloominbah Homestead on a hillside near Armidale, with only 24 students and five teaching staff.
The College ran as a college of the University of Sydney from 1938 and was known as “the University of the North”, because it took in students from across the whole of Northern New South Wales, from Maitland to Tweed Heads. The students and staff of this time lived and studied within the rooms of Booloominbah and developed close friendships while studying university subjects that included the arts, classics, agriculture, sciences and mathematics.
Students also had to deal with the advent of the Second World War, college food, cold weather and isolation from the main campus down in Sydney. Despite all of this, they performed extremely well in all aspects of their studies and established the reputation for excellence which is still a hallmark of a University of New England education.
“For a new student coming to the university college in the 1930s or the early 1940s, it would have been a long arduous journey to even make it to the campus in Armidale,” said Bill Oates, University Archivist. “You would have been travelling by coach, maybe a hired car, certainly by train. Then when you got to the railway station at the edge of town, you then have to make your way across the paddocks through a very narrow road up to a building that was a considerable distance from town.
“Then suddenly you are confronted with Booloominbah, which is just sitting out there in the middle of nowhere. Booloominbah was the place of teaching, it was the major piece of accommodation and administration as well, and when you arrived there you joined this very, very small community.
“The anniversary has been a wonderful opportunity for me to meet some of the people who are a living part of the university’s history and put a face and a personality to some of the names that I have known for years from old photographs and documents.”
The experience of living and studying on campus was one which had a lasting impact upon the students who attended the university in those days.
“It was very exciting and glamorous to live at Booloominbah,” said Marjorie Jones, NEUC Alumnus who studied Arts from 1944 – 46. “For instance, when we had our matriculation ball, you came down that beautiful big staircase and you felt very romantic.
“It was always very friendly and people really made good relationships and had a lot of fun, went for picnics out in the bush and so on. Some of us would go and babysit for the lecturers in Armidale and we’d ride on our bicycles on a cold winter’s night, but it was fun. There was a very happy relationship between the men and women of the university, and the women were never made to feel second class citizens. There was a real sense of equality and comradeship and lots of very close friendships, as well as the odd romance here and there.”
The establishment of the University of New England as an independent university in 1954 brought this pioneering era to a close, and the students from NEUC are now a part of the UNE Alumni body and proud of their association with the university.
In 2018 the UNE Alumni Program held a number of activities to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the New England University College, including a special reunion for some of the remaining NEUC Alumni in Canberra in May and in Sydney in November, where they met Professor Annabelle Duncan, UNE Vice Chancellor and CEO.
“This remarkable group of people were inspiring in their enthusiasm about their time here in Armidale, sharing recollections about living in Booloominbah, their lecturers, fellow students and some of the high jinks that they got up to,” said Robert Heather, Director of Advancement, Communications and Events. “Some of them were as young as 16 years old when they arrived at the college, and it was their first time living outside their local town or farm in places like Casino, Moree and Grafton, which were then quite small and remote communities.
“The University of New England owes these early students and staff a great debt of thanks for their efforts towards establishing a new university with a commitment to providing educational opportunities to everyone, wherever they may live.
“We are very proud of what our alumni have done, right from the times of NEUC. We like to keep in touch with them and hear their stories, as we consider them as part of the UNE family and we hope they still consider themselves to be part of our family.”
If you want to find out more about the New England University College era at UNE, then visit the UNE website at https://www.une.edu.au/alumni and watch the NEUC 80th anniversary video on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUtRwDhsmw0
Black and white photos courtesy of UNE Archive.
Inset (colour) photo of Marjorie Jones and Professor Annabelle Duncan courtesy of Yumiko Coffey.