A century of education at Wagga Wagga

The Wagga Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University is the culmination of more than a century of educational institutions in the city.

The university's heritage in Wagga covers a diverse mix of academic pursuits and styles - an Experimental Farm College, Agricultural College, Teachers' College, College of Advanced Education and an Institute of Higher Education.

Its buildings, recreation areas and even the roads on the campus north of the city pay tribute to the many educational pioneers and supporters of the several predecessor institutions which eventually led to the establishment of the multi-campus Charles Sturt University in 1989. (See separate story 'Heritage around the Campus')

One of the early supporters, long-serving Member for Wagga Wagga in the 1940s-50s, Eddie Graham, envisaged today's education range as far back as 1943 when he predicted a future with facilities from kindergarten to university. His successor in the seat, Wal Fife, was similarly committed to a university to serve the Riverina from the time he first stood for the NSW parliament (against Graham) in 1953.

The establishment of the Wagga Experimental Farm in 1892 was the forerunner of the Experimental Farm College which opened in October 1896 with just eight students. Twelve months later, 27 students were in residence, working a 48-hour week of practical tasks through the day and related lectures in the evening.

Student numbers continued to grow throughout the first decades of the 20th Century, but a big drop to only fourteen students in June 1942 led to the suspension of training students at the college during World War Two.

The postwar years brought demand for agricultural training courses for ex-servicemen and Graham, as Minister for Agriculture, moved to realise his dream of a fully-fledged agricultural college in his home town. In October 1948, he announced the proposed establishment of Wagga Agricultural College and the first lectures began on 3 March 1949. Illness overtook Graham in the early months of 1949 and such was his influence and commitment to the college, that the official opening was postponed to allow him the honour of opening and naming the college on 9 September 1949. As Graham's biography noted, this day fulfilled his belief in the value of education and training in agriculture, and was a cornerstone in his work for improved educational facilities in his electorate.

Wagga Agricultural College became a significant force in agricultural education through a variety of practical farming initiatives and the establishment of Poll Shorthorn cattle and Arab horse studs, alongside sheep and dairy cattle, and mixed farming. The 1960s noted a stronger emphasis on academic study alongside the practical aspects and increasing enrolments led to the construction of more residential blocks - still used by today's students.

From 1 January 1972, the college enrolled its first female students. After long negotiations, it was integrated into Riverina College of Advanced Education from 1 January 1976 as the School of Agriculture.

The postwar emphasis on education also saw Wagga selected as the site for a teachers' college - one of the early country colleges (although the first had been at Armidale in 1928 and Wagga Wagga and Bathurst has been noted as future sites at that time).

As in the start of the Agricultural College, Graham played a key role in promoting Wagga's claims for a teachers' college. In May 1946, NSW Education Minister, R J Heffron, and Graham announced a teachers' college would open on the site of the RAAF hospital and its various buildings, opposite the Wagga Showgrounds.

The fully-residential college accepted its first students - 150 'pioneers' - on 9 June 1947. More than a year later, Heffron officially opened the college on 29 September 1948. The Wagga Teachers' College and its fully residential style established itself as a leader in its field, being used as a model for a new Newcastle Teachers' College in 1949 and Bathurst Teachers' College in 1951. It quickly made its mark in the community through a variety of activities, including an annual Gilbert and Sullivan operetta performance by college students and staff. Australian artist, Herbert Gallop gave twelve original paintings to the college - a link that was reinforced with the naming of the Gallop Gallery in the Centre for the Arts on Boorooma campus in the 1980s.

By 1970, the College had almost 400 students over the two years of its training course and a lecturing staff of 44. With the formal start of the Riverina College of Advanced Education (RCAE) in January 1972, the Teachers' College gave way to become the School of Teacher Education, one of the three inaugural schools at RCAE.

It had been a long road to Riverina College of Advanced Education, with its genesis in the campaign by the Riverine University League and its leader, the determined Dr W A Merrylees, since the early 1950s. In 1951, Dr Merrylees had outlined his case for a 'Riverina rural university college' to be set up on a property near Jerilderie; the formation of the League to promote a rural university followed the next year. For many years Merrylees wrote articles, made speeches and submissions, cajoled and badgered politicians of all persuasions in his drive for tertiary education facilities. Merrylees' persistence was invaluable in the growth towards university status and local member, Wal Fife, became a strong political voice for the cause.

From 1965, the Federal Government encouraged setting up colleges of advanced education and in September 1968, a NSW Government committee recommended the establishment of Riverina College of Advanced Education on the site of the Wagga Teachers' College with outposts in Albury and Griffith.

A year later the Interim Council of RCAE was appointed; in 1971 Dr Clifford Douglas Blake was appointed principal; and in 1972, 554 full-time and 234 part-time or study centre students began their studies. RCAE began with three schools - Applied Sciences, Business and Liberal Studies, and Teacher Education - in the former Teachers' College buildings that became known as South Campus. But plans were underway for a more substantial campus and, in December 1972, Wal Fife blasted a bunker on the site of Boorooma campus, north of the city, to signal the start of construction there. As buildings rose, administration and classes began to move to the Boorooma campus.

On 29 May 1980, the Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowen, officially opened RCAE. By that time, enrolments totalled 3883 and courses were offered through the Schools of Agriculture, Applied Science, Business and Liberal Studies, and Education, as well as the Centre for the Arts, Centre for Computing and Information Resources Centre.

With the incorporation of Goulburn College of Advanced Education and the growth of the Albury campus, the institution became Riverina-Murray Institute of Higher Education in January 1985.
The second half of the 1980s was a time of growth in student numbers and diversity of courses and enterprises (for example, the increasing recognition of the Winery). The federal government was considering a restructure of higher education and RMIHE was keen to move towards university status, fulfilling, as Cliff Blake noted, the vision of people like the Riverine University League's William Merrylees.

Once again it was to be a protracted process of proposals, discussions, amendments and a range of models put forward. The idea of a multi-campus rural university followed the pattern promoted earlier by the Riverine University League, with negotiations involving an association between RMIHE and Mitchell College of Advanced Education at Bathurst.

Local political support again became important with Fife's successor, Joe Schipp, working tirelessly towards the formation of Charles Sturt University. With Schipp's help, a meeting was set up with Premier Nick Greiner during a visit to Wagga early in 1989, to allow RMIHE representatives to float the idea of a new rural network university, sponsored by an established metropolitan university.

Significantly it was such a multi-campus network model which was adopted by the government just a few months later, opening the way for the university's establishment. As Cliff Blake said at the time, 'It secures the future of education in the region.'

At the first reading of the bill on the new university, it was noted as 'the University of XYZ'. Once a name was decided, it did not take long for Charles Sturt University to make its mark in tertiary education.

Information researched by Nancy Blacklow