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The making of a university

Black and white photo of people outside a building.

It was 1991 and bombs were falling on Iraq. Bob Hawke was in his final year as Prime Minister. The WA Inc Royal Commission was in full-swing. Sandgropers were advised to fill up their cars before noon on Saturdays, before all but a few 'rostered' petrol stations closed up shop. Not to mention, the nation's newest university opened, with the official foundation of Edith Cowan University on January 1.

ECU is both WA's youngest university as well as the State's oldest tertiary institution, with roots reaching back to 1902 and the establishment of the Claremont Teachers College. From the mid 1950s, other teacher-training institutions and colleges opened, including at Graylands, Nedlands, Churchlands and Mount Lawley.

In an effort to control costs, the Commonwealth Government pushed these to amalgamate as the Western Australia College of Advanced Education or WACAE — affectionately pronounced 'wacky' — in 1981. In 1986, a thriving college in Bunbury would join, followed by a new campus in the WA State Government-planned city of Joondalup in 1987-88, completing the grouping of what would later become ECU.

Geographic diversity has long been a defining ECU trait but initially not everyone was happy with the arrangement. In 1982, Bob Pearce, a Labor member of WA's legislative assembly, called it "a real blueprint for an empire."

But the 1980s saw WACAE thrive, with initiatives that included the founding of WA's first university nursing program and development of Aboriginal education courses in Broome. In 1987, Fremantle MP John Dawkins, Commonwealth Minister for Employment, Education and Training, controversially introduced the Unified National System, which sought to turn colleges into universities and transform free education into HECS. WACAE faced two options: ask Curtin, Murdoch or the University of Western Australia for sponsorship to upgrade into a university, or go it alone.

According to historians Geoffrey Bolton and Geraldine Byrne, the Vice-Chancellors of the existing WA universities were candid in their opposition to WACAE gaining university status. Partly this was on academic grounds but mostly it was a desire to curtail competition. Ever the battler, WACAE chose to undergo an independent review, in the form of the Caro Committee in 1989, led by University of Melbourne Professor David Caro and including future ECU Vice-Chancellor Roy Lourens.

The Committee looked at sites and facilities, missions and objectives, the needs of the community, range and standards of academic programs, and the potential for research and scholarly achievement. Lourens remembers WACAE's case as a strong one and "an easy decision", while former Vice President (Corporate) Warren Snell recalls it as a "very clean endorsement", with no conditions.

Snell attributes much of WACAE's success to its director, Dr Doug Jecks, a headstrong leader who shaped the diverse colleges into a relatively cohesive and dedicated institution, who would go on to become ECU's first Vice-Chancellor.

The government of the day was happy with the outcome, particularly as WACAE's presence in the planned city of Joondalup aligned with long-term plans to establish the area as a 'growth node'. The Liberal opposition weren't in full agreement, however, with some arguing that Perth had enough universities. Given that neither Curtin, Murdoch or UWA would endorse the Caro Report's recommendation that WACAE move to university status, it is fair to say they agreed.

ECU or Murdoch North?

While WACAE was being given a green light, enrolment and budgetary difficulties at Murdoch, and debate about how many institutions were needed, led to talk of university amalgamation. Most debate in Parliament centred on a UWA-Murdoch merger, but Dawkins approached Jecks to suggest WACAE consider adding another campus to its stable. The idea apparently didn't sit well with Jecks, who didn't relish sharing power with an established university bureaucracy.

According to Bolton and Byrne: "Jecks pointed out that as WACAE's academic staff outnumbered Murdoch three to one, WACAE would expect three-quarters of the voice in academic governance … These rather crude and mechanistic demands effectively torpedoed any further negotiations."

Large building with gardens in foreground.

Joondalup: the campus that almost wasn't

Today the Joondalup campus is ECU's main administrative centre and home to the Chancellery, but in 1991 it hosted just 1857 students. What's more, if Jecks hadn't made one staggeringly bold move, students would have been heading to classes at Hepburn Heights, the site originally proposed as WACAE/ECU's future home.

"Student places were on the rise and strategic thinking knew the northern suburbs were going to develop and we needed to be a part of that," Snell says.

Yet rumours circulated that Curtin University was also exploring the idea of a northern campus. In this atmosphere, the Joondalup Realty Development Corporation made an offer to WACAE in 1983 of a 45.5 hectare block for development of a campus. Jecks saw its potential, though it was by no means a clear cut and popular plan.

Professor John Renner, ECU's first Dean of Science, Technology and Engineering, recalls getting a call from Jecks' secretary one morning asking him to take a road trip.

"It was my first taste of the wilds north of Perth. When you drove up, it was mile upon mile of bush, native plants and banksia forest, and it felt so far removed from the city," says Renner, whose book with Associate Professor Sybe Jongeling, The Joondalup Story, will be published this year.

"My impression was that this was not an environment where you would ever find a university campus."

Still, one problem remained: the state government's refusal to fund the land's purchase — a stance that prompted Jecks rather audaciously to use WACAE's own money to cover the $1,150,000 price. Snell sees this as grasping a strategic opportunity.

"I think the government agreed with the idea, but they didn't necessarily know how to proceed," Snell says.

"Jecks, who was always a bit of an impatient man, said, ‘fine, we'll go ahead and buy it'. He wanted to get the deal done. He was a person of action."

The campus was set to open in 1987 but delays saw this pushed back, and the first intake of students had to attend classes in the City of Wanneroo local authority buildings. By 1988, Joondalup's first phase was complete, taking the form of the concrete-heavy structures now part of buildings four and six.

"They looked a bit like high school buildings, but were sufficient for a decent-sized student intake," Snell says.

A second stage of buildings and the lake were completed in 1991 and the train station opened in 1992. At the time, the freeway only extended to Joondalup Drive and Lakeside Joondalup Shopping Centre wouldn't be completed until 1994.

Renner recalls that a lack of shops meant having to make a packed lunch, with the feeling of remoteness leading some staff to refer to the campus as ‘South Geraldton'. In fact, the area was so newly developed that for the first decade, students and staff would have to contend with mobs of kangaroos from Yellagonga Regional Park moving in, which could be stressful in the mating season.

"You had to be careful where you stood sometimes," Psychology graduate Jon Bilson says.

Fellow psychology graduate Pearl Proud describes the new campus as feeling like a nature reserve.

"I remember a lot of serenity – there was a calm hush and the pace was very gentle," she says. "The architects had wonderful vision, and you had the sense that they knew they were building something very special for the long-term."

While this peacefulness may have been appreciated, life at the university could come as a shock, particularly for international students arriving from densely populated Asian cities.

"Those early international students did sometimes seem a bit lost, as not much was happening in the area," Lourens says. "I would say they were the real pioneers of the Joondalup campus.

Hand holding photo of people sitting around a table in a café.

The spirit of the early years

When ECU arrived on January 1, 1991, it found itself the 13th largest university in Australia by size, with 15,000 students, 600 academic staff and six teaching divisions: Arts and Applied Sciences, Business, Community and Language Studies, Education, Nursing and WAAPA, as well as its Bunbury branch. By year's end, enrolments would rise to 17,411. While one might expect that the separation of five campuses and the stress of transforming a college into a university would create an impersonal environment, the opposite occurred.

"When we became ECU, there was a sense that this was recognition for all that we had achieved, and the feeling was ‘excellent, now let's get on and do things'," Snell says.

Psychology graduate Pearl Proud describes the feeling of those early days as one of community and being part of ‘a new team', and along with other students attributes the source of this spirit to the lecturers.

"They were eternally generous as people and very present as human beings," Proud says.

"I can honestly say that I carry the core values and ethos that I picked up at ECU to this day."

In the early days, Renner remembers this spirit being enhanced by regular Friday gatherings at which staff and students would mingle.

"A new campus doesn't have any traditions or guidelines or precedents to follow. Our attitude was one of ‘let's decide where we're headed and what we hope to achieve' – we wanted to be distinctive and not be a clone of the other universities," Renner says.

One story that perhaps shows ECU's attitude to students more than any other involves Lourens, who as Vice-Chancellor once presided over a graduation ceremony for a terminally ill student in Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital. The event featured graduation robes and all of the formalities of ECU's regular graduation ceremonies and was attended by a small gathering of family, friends and hospital staff. The student, who graduated with a Nursing degree, died a short time later.

Changing perception

While the early years were full of promise and passion, challenges remained, included raising skill levels to meet university standards, as only 22 per cent of staff at the time had doctorate qualifications. When he arrived as Vice-Chancellor in 1993, Lourens also saw a need to build confidence and promote creative thinking.

"Basically, we let them fly, and when I did encourage them, they flew very well."

Lourens set out to hire strong professors to provide leadership and guidance to less experienced academics. Within three years,the university had brought in 29 world-class professors, including historian Professor Geoffrey Bolton, environmentalist Professor Harry Recher and comparative genomics specialist Professor Alan Bittles. They helped lift the university's reputation, which some circles had taken to calling ‘Enid Blyton University'.

The university focussed on several select strengths while widening its offerings to the community. By 1994, ECU had already reached the top 25 per cent of Australian universities for teaching satisfaction, a trend that continues to present day with its Good Universities Guide five-star rating.

Flexibility sets tone for the future

Overall, Snell sees the evolution of ECU from WACAE to a world class university as a testament to attitude, engagement and flexibility.

"It's an incredible story of what an organisation can do to move from being a modest teachers' college to grow and develop a broad academic profile and research capacity," he says.

"Yet, even with this background, ECU isn't locked into the past, and that has allowed it to set new directions to meet emerging needs and priorities and continue to evolve – all while staying true to its commitment and engagement with students, stakeholders and alumni.

"We've always been like the smallest child in the family, agile and willing to adapt."

Group of people standing outside a building.

Five campuses and one lost VC

The five-campus system proved problematic for Vice-Chancellor Lourens, who admits to occasionally arriving in the wrong suburb for meetings.

"When you have five or six appointments in a day, you sometimes get in the car and eventually realise you're heading in the wrong direction," he says.

"The Vice-Chancellor of UWA could walk across campus, but my situation was a bit more complex."

Turning a minus into a plus, this minor tyranny of distance led ECU to embrace innovations that others would later follow, including becoming the first university in WA to invest in a fibre-optic link to allow videoconferencing between campuses and being the first to simulcast a lecture to Asia in 1993.

The university also became the first to put course materials and resources online.

The complexity of five campuses was eventually deemed inefficient, and Claremont closed in 2004 under Vice-Chancellor Professor Millicent Poole and Churchlands in 2008 under Vice-Chancellor Professor Kerry Cox. Since that time, the frequency of Vice- Chancellors getting lost has reportedly diminished.

What's in a name?

The name of the new university prompted considerable debate. Doug Jecks and WACAE pushed for University of Perth — in fact the guild was so keen it spent $70,000 in support.

"The student guild even paid to have a whole load of T-shirts printed, so for a while a lot of people were running around campus wearing the University of Perth on their chests," Warren Snell recalls.

Then-Minister of Education Geoff Gallop rejected the idea, fearing it would give the university an unfair advantage attracting overseas fee-paying students.

According to The West Australian, a "collective sigh of relief" could be heard from Curtin, Murdoch and UWA.

Many argued the time had come for a university to be named after a woman, with suggestions including social worker Caroline Chisholm, authors Kath Walker and Aeneas Gunn, and politician Dame Enid Lyons. In an August 1990 letter to the editor in The West Australian, Jean Ritter put forward author and historian Mary Durack, but also advocated strongly for Yagan University of Western Australia, in honour of the local (male) Aboriginal warrior.

Other options included C.Y. O'Connor University for the engineer who oversaw the Goldfields Water Supply Scheme, though a group of WACAE students opposed this, citing his suicide after alcoholism and mental illness; in 1902 O'Connor shot himself as he rode his horse into the water at Robb Jetty.

WACAE education graduate Raeme Goves-Jacka began a campaign for Edith Cowan, a role model long admired by her mother. She wrote letters to Jecks and Gallop outlining Edith Cowan's contribution to social justice and the nation's political life, as the first woman elected to Australian parliament. Goves Jacka's passion and reasoning resonated with Gallop, who announced the name in September 1990.

According to Snell, the name came as a bit of a surprise, but people quickly saw its value and warmed to it. The Liberal Party weren't yet ready to give up the University of Perth, though.

MLA Barry House put forward perhaps the most controversial idea, proposing a name swap between UWA and the new university. He told Parliament, "the University of Western Australia (should) be the name attached to a multi-campus university in the state, such as WACAE is, and the University of Perth would be ideally suited to a Perth-based university such as UWA as it stands today."

What UWA might have thought of this swap isn't recorded.

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The future

ECU's current Vice-Chancellor, Professor Steve Chapman, has big ambitions for WA's second largest university.

For starters, he wants to dramatically boost the quality and volume of the University's research outputs.

This will come through recruiting more academic staff and PhDs, in addition to the more than 20 Professorial Research Fellows ECU will attract in coming years.

And how will we know this strategy is working? Chapman says that by 2020, he wants to see ECU in the top 50 of the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 rankings (ECU is currently 90) and in the top 500 of the World Universities Rankings (currently 501-600).

"But this focus on research will not be at the expense of teaching quality. ECU will continue to offer students the inspiring and supportive learning environment for which we're known," he says.

ECU will also welcome more domestic and international students in 2020 and beyond, both on-campus and offshore locations.

"I might expect us to have one or perhaps two overseas campuses by 2020," he says.

"I'd like to see those campuses focus on disciplines we do very well, for example education or performing arts."

When ECU celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2041, Chapman says he wants ECU to be a highly respected, world-class teaching and research university.

"Rather than be renowned for research in a few key areas, by 2041 I expect all of our research activity to be at world standard or above."


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