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What's in a name?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016


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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