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History of the University of Auckland

As early as 1862 an unknown writer, ‘J.G.’, proposed in Chapman’s New Zealand Monthly Magazine that a university should be established in Auckland. The pioneer town, founded less than a quarter of a century before, had other, more pressing issues, and initially there was no response to the suggestion. Consequently the first university, created in 1869, was in the South Island, where the inhabitants were wealthier and keener on education. In 1870, Parliament passed legislation to create the University of New Zealand as an examining body with affiliated teaching colleges. An Auckland politician, later Speaker of the House of Representatives, Maurice O’Rorke, advocated that the University be located in Auckland but it was established as a federal body with no fixed location. Canterbury, which had been planning to create a university, became the first place to open a College of the new federal University in 1873.

The citizens of Auckland at first provided university instruction at the Auckland Grammar School. Students sat the examinations of the University of New Zealand. One of these students, Kate Edger, in 1877 became the first woman to graduate BA from a British university.

In 1878, O’Rorke chaired a Royal Commission on higher education that recommended the establishment of university colleges in Auckland and Wellington. In 1882, the Auckland University College was set up by Act of Parliament and was formally opened on 21 May 1883 in the Choral Hall, then the largest hall in Auckland. The Governor, Sir William Jervois, announced that the College was to be a thoroughly democratic institution, open to all, women as well as men, and to all classes.

The applicants for the first four chairs, of Classics and English, Mathematics, Natural Science, and Chemistry and Physics, were interviewed in England by the New Zealand Agent-General and some of the most famous scientists and scholars of the day, including the great Benjamin Jowett of Balliol College, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. The men appointed were an impressive group. The chemist, F. D. Brown, had studied in France and Leipzig as well as London, and taught at Oxford and London. He had published a dozen papers. Algernon Phillips Thomas, the biologist, was a Balliol man who had revealed the life history of the liver fluke. The classicist, T. G. Tucker, was to become a famous scholar. When he left to go to Melbourne University in 1885, he was succeeded by Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett, an Irishman who had written several books, including one on comparative literature, what would now be called the sociology of literature, a subject which he is credited with inventing. The first professor of Mathematics, George Walker, was drowned shortly after he reached Auckland and was succeeded by W. S. Aldis, who had been the top scholar in his subject at Cambridge and was the author of several mathematical books.

When O’Rorke first tried to secure a university for Auckland he suggested housing it in Government House, left empty when the Governor moved with the capital to Wellington in 1865. This immediately aroused opposition in the press, for many Aucklanders hoped that the capital – and the Governor – would eventually return to Auckland. These conflicting ambitions lay at the basis of a recurrent feature of the history of the College, the great ‘site row’, with the College trying to get at least part of the grounds of Government House while some influential citizens strongly opposed it. One result was that for years the College had no permanent site or permanent buildings. Teaching started in the disused District Court House, expanded into Admiralty House and, in 1890, into the original Parliament Building. In 1907, the Choral Hall was purchased and, in 1917, the College occupied the building vacated by the Grammar School. In 1926 the College acquired its first permanent building, now the ClockTower Building, in Princes Street.

The College was poor: its statutory grant was for many years only £4,000 a year, while land reserves, set aside by government to provide an income, brought in very little. There were few students: 95 in 1883, 156 by 1901. Some had not passed the matriculation examination and were not studying for degrees. Most of them were part-time, trainee teachers and law clerks, music students from 1888 onwards, commerce students by 1905. The College was dominated by the lay members of Council, especially by Sir Maurice O’Rorke, who was an autocratic chairman from 1883 to 1916.


The early College struggled to keep its small staff – some left for positions in Australia and elsewhere. Most of the remainder grew increasingly out-of-date in their subjects. There was no system of sabbatical or study leave until the 1920s. The teachers’ role was to hand on traditional knowledge. The staff lectured for very long hours, and in general, the students were given a good, traditional undergraduate education. Research was not expected and was rarely done. In some subjects research was impossible. For instance, the Library took no mathematical journals, so the mathematicians knew little about recent work. Some students, however, started to carry out good research, notably in Chemistry.

In the 1920s and well into the 1930s the College was ruled by a Registrar, Rocke O’Shea, and a new Chairman of the Council (President after 1924), another former Cabinet Minister, Sir George Fowlds. Under their leadership the University started to change. The first New Zealand graduates with postgraduate education abroad were appointed to the staff, notably the very able economist, Horace Belshaw, the philosopher, R. P. Anschutz, and the physicist, P. W. Burbidge. An excellent researcher, W. F. Short, was appointed as a lecturer in Chemistry.

Some advances were made in providing professional education. The only such education offered at the College was in Law, which attracted large numbers of students. The only ‘professional schools’ recognised by the University of New Zealand were Medicine at Otago and Engineering at Canterbury. In 1906, the College established a School of Mining, which slowly and covertly was turned into a ‘School of Engineering’. After fierce battles with Canterbury, fired by provincial rivalry, the Auckland School received University recognition for its teaching in the first two professional years. Students then had to go to Canterbury to complete the final year of their degree. In 1917, the College began instruction in architecture.

During the depression of the early 1930s the College experienced its first dispute over academic freedom. The temporary appointment of a lecturer in History, J. C. Beaglehole, later a world famous scholar, was terminated, his friends believed, because of a letter, to a newspaper, defending the right of communists to distribute their literature. This episode led to a Council election in which the liberal, Hollis Cocker, defeated a conservative candidate. The College Council then adopted resolutions in favour of academic freedom and received the undeserved congratulations of the flower of the British academic establishment, including Lord Rutherford and Wittgenstein. At the same time the College enrolled a lively group of students led by James Bertram, who established a new literary journal, Phoenix. This journal was the focus for the first literary movement in New Zealand history: Allen Curnow, A. R. D. Fairburn, R. A. K. Mason and other writers, later distinguished, wrote for it.

The College received a great intellectual stimulus in 1934 when four new professors arrived: H. G. Forder, a very able mathematician, Arthur Sewell, a brilliant lecturer in English, a classicist, C. G. Cooper, and a new historian, James Rutherford.


The College gained its first academic leader in the 1950s, when the Council appointed a Principal (later Vice-Chancellor) K. J. Maidment, a Classics don from Merton College, Oxford. He came in 1950 and remained for two decades. Maidment faced a further, fierce ‘site row’. The Council wanted to move the College to a larger site out of town. Instead, in 1956, the National Government offered Government House as compensation for staying in Princes Street. Another citizens’ ‘save Government House’ campaign followed. Both academic staff and the public were deeply divided over the issue, which was resolved in 1960: the University was to stay where it was. In 1957 the slow move towards autonomy was marked by legislation which changed the title of the College to the University of Auckland while leaving the functions and powers of the University of New Zealand intact.

The ‘site row’ held up the building programme for about six years, while student rolls rose rapidly, to 4,000 by 1959, with the result that there was overcrowding in quite inadequate buildings. Universities everywhere were expanding rapidly. New Zealand academic salaries could not compete with those of overseas universities and many able Auckland staff left for positions in Australian and other universities. Despite these problems, there was significant progress. New subjects were introduced: Geography, Anthropology, Māori Studies, Fine Arts. There was a new emphasis on staff research. Many of the new and younger academics became very active researchers, reflected in the growing lists of staff publications.

In the 1960s, the Report of the Hughes Parry Committee led to major improvements in University conditions and governance. Staff salaries were raised. For the first time the students were given fairly generous bursaries, which led to a rapid increase in the proportion of full-time students. The government grant to the University rose rapidly. In 1962, the University at last became independent when the University of New Zealand was abolished.

There was a massive university building programme, and over the next two decades the campus was transformed as one large building after another was erected: Fine Arts, Science, Engineering buildings, a Student Union, a new Library. A number of new subjects were introduced, including Political Studies, Art History, and Sociology. In 1968, teaching commenced in the new Medical School on the Grafton Campus. By the end of the 1960s Auckland had the largest University Library in the country.


When Dr Maidment departed in 1970, there were 9,300 students. His successor, Dr Colin Maiden, was an Auckland engineer who had headed a research division of General Motors in Michigan. One of the first things that struck him in Auckland was the need for better student facilities. He pushed ahead to provide a theatre, a splendid gymnasium and recreation centre, and a large playing field ‘complex’. The entire administrative organisation, from faculties and committees to deputy vice-chancellors, was reformed. The academic boom of the 1960s continued well into the 1970s and several new buildings, like Human Sciences, were constructed and new subjects, like Management Studies and Computer Science, were introduced.

The 1970s brought numerous social changes: an increase in the proportion of Māori and Pacific students and in the proportion of women and older students. In 1975 and 1981 the first two women professors were appointed, Marie Clay and Patricia Bergquist. At a time of high inflation, the government grant to the University rose rapidly, to $95.2 million by 1989. In 1983 the University celebrated its centennial. Although there was a certain economic austerity, after a century of growth the University had established itself strongly within its own community and nationally.

There were still to be challenges. The wide-ranging restructuring of education undertaken by the Labour government after 1984 encompassed the universities, and their autonomy and their identity were seen to be threatened. As a result of efforts by the universities, supported by alumni, some changes were secured in the Education Amendment Acts of 1989 and 1990, but the University Grants Committee was abolished, the Ministry of Education became responsible for tertiary education policy, and the composition of the Council was altered. At the turn of the century, the government took another look at the whole range of tertiary education with the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission, out of which came the Tertiary Education Commission as the funder of tertiary education.


Anxious to respond to the growing demand for university education in the early 1990s, the University offered courses at other tertiary institutions in Auckland and Northland. Acquiring buildings used for the 1990 Commonwealth Games village, it began to develop a campus at Tāmaki, initially offering courses in Commerce. Increasing student enrolments obliged it, like other universities, to introduce quotas for all first-year courses in 1992, breaking the historic policy of ‘open entry’.

The Tāmaki Innovation Campus is a research-led campus with links to industry and a focus on postgraduate studies. Academic departments at Tāmaki specialise in the areas of population health, biodiversity and biosecurity, information technology, psychology and speech science, materials and manufacturing, and sport and exercise science.

From the mid-1990s, the University introduced semesters, launched its first major fund-raising appeal, produced its first strategic plan and inaugurated a Summer School. It joined Universitas 21, an international network of research-intensive universities in Australasia, Asia, North America and Europe, as a foundation member. In the late 1990s, the School of Medicine expanded to become a Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, introducing degrees in Nursing, Health Sciences, and Pharmacy.

The third Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kit Carson, served from 1995 to 1998 and was followed by Dr John Hood in 1999. Dr Hood was an alumnus of the University, a former Rhodes Scholar, and business leader. He faced a difficult financial situation as governments had progressively reduced tuition subsidies per student, and the University needed to re-activate its building programme. The last period of intensive construction had ended with completion of the new School of Music in 1986 and the Marae complex in 1988. The Law School had moved into refurbished premises in a new precinct to the north of Waterloo Quadrant in 1992. However, the University was growing very rapidly indeed, with increasing numbers of international students in addition to growing numbers of domestic students, who could now borrow to fund their tuition and other costs. This growth reached a peak in 2004 and then started to slow. In 2008 the government decided to cap the number of tertiary students it would fund and the University had to extend limits on admission from a few professional qualifications to all of its undergraduate degrees. In 2010, the student roll was 40,997 or 32,654 equivalent full-time students.

From the 1990s, research became very much more important in the life of the University and its academics. The country started to look more than ever before to universities to generate new ideas and knowledge, including innovations that might be harnessed for economic development. The University had already founded UniServices as an organisation to develop and commercialise research. In the early 2000s it became host to four of eight national Centres of Research Excellence funded by the government. In 2004 it was designated the country’s leading research university ‘on virtually any measure’ in the Performance Based Research Fund assessment carried out by the recently-created Tertiary Education Commission. In the PBRF assessment released in 2007, the University of Auckland again emerged as the New Zealand university with the greatest overall strength. International ranking systems started to become important to university reputations and placed great significance on research performance. The University was consistently placed first among New Zealand universities, although its actual placement varied from year to year and among the ranking systems.


Between 2000 and 2007 the University embarked on another major building programme. The impressive Kate Edger Information Commons and Student Commons, the Engineering Atrium and greatly expanded library wing, and a seven-floor extension to the Science Centre which houses Computer Science and Software Engineering enhanced the City Campus. At Tamaki a new building was constructed for the new School of Population Health. A Fale Pasifika opened in 2004 and the Owen G Glenn Building, a large and striking new complex for the Business School, was completed in 2007.

Organisational change saw Architecture, Dance Studies, Fine and Visual Arts, Music, and Planning combine to form the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries. The University of Auckland and the Auckland College of Education amalgamated in September 2004 to form a Faculty of Education. The new faculty, based primarily at the College’s campus in Epsom, was established with the aim of becoming New Zealand’s leading provider of teacher and social services education.

Dr John Hood left the University in mid-2004 to take up the position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Professor Stuart McCutcheon, formerly Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University of Wellington, succeeded him as Vice-Chancellor in January 2005. Under his leadership a new strategic plan set a goal to make Auckland a world-class university in New Zealand. This Plan envisaged the development of a University focussed on excellent undergraduate teaching and learning, dynamic and challenging postgraduate education, and research that contributes to international knowledge, understanding and economic and social development. The University also recognised that it must play a role in addressing inequities in educational participation and achievement by Māori and Pacific students and placed an emphasis on enhancing its recruitment and support programmes for potential students.

In 2009 the University adopted a Campus Development Strategy that proposed a major investment in infrastructure over the next decade. Major projects included the redevelopment of the Grafton Campus to refurbish laboratories, upgrade plant and construction of a new building; a student accommodation building at Elam, completed in 2011, to house 442 students; the refurbishment of Arts and Science Buildings. The new South Pacific Centre for Marine Science, based at the Leigh Marine Laboratory, fosters marine research and educates visitors on the marine environment. A major development of the Maths and Physics buildings was completed in 2011 and design work for major extensions to the Chemistry and Engineering buildings continues.

The University has become increasingly dependent on its own ability to raise the funds it requires to operate. Student tuition fees, including the fees of international students, are now an important part of University income, alongside the tuition subsidies contributed by Government. Income from research is substantial. Philanthropic donations have also become a very important way in which friends of the University show their support for its activities, for the staff and the students. The University has come a long way from the early fund raising appeal of the 1990s. A ‘Leading the Way’ fundraising campaign, to run from 2009 to 2012, exceeded its target of $150 million in 2011.

In 2013, in a bid to underpin 50 years of growth on a site close to the existing City and Grafton Campuses, the University purchased 5.2 hectares at Newmarket. The site, previously owned and occupied by Lion Breweries, is now being developed as a mixed-use campus with Engineering and Science occupying the first facilities from mid-2014.

In January 2014, the University transferred the 20 hectare Colin Maiden Park and its associated facilities at the Tāmaki Innovation Campus to Auckland Council. The transfer is part of the University’s long-term strategy to consolidate activities at the City, Grafton and Newmarket campuses and significantly reduce landholdings.

Other campus redevelopment projects are continuing with the new Science Tower and Centre on the corner of Princes and Wellesley Streets to be completed by the end of 2015 and work to begin on city-based Engineering facilities in 2016.

From 2014 the Faculty of Arts became three large schools and one small school. These are the School of Humanities, School of Social Sciences, School of Cultures, Languages and Linguistics, and the School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies.


Source: The University of Auckland 2015 Online Calendar
Last updated on: 1 November 2014
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