Types of Australian Universities


This is description of   Australia’s various university groups is  by RMIT adjunct professor Gavin Moodie.


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The first and best established group of Australian universities is of course Universities Australia, formerly the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. The organisation that ultimately became Universities Australia was formed at a conference held in Sydney in May 1920 of Australia’s then six universities. However, the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee wasn’t formally established until just before WWII to lobby the Commonwealth government to fund ‘State’ universities and to develop the role of vice chancellors, some of whom were still part time like chairs of professorial boards and subject and in some cases subservient to chancellors who were much more powerful then. There are several sub groups of Australian universities, at various stages of formation.


The first sub group of Australian higher education institutions was established in May 1975, after the establishment of the AVCC and just before the precursor of its analogue for the former colleges of advanced education, the Australian conference of principals of colleges of advanced education was established later in that year. This group was the conference of directors of central institutes of technology (DOCIT – NSWIT, QIT, RMIT, SAIT, WAIT). These institutions originated as technical colleges in the central business districts of their capital cities, some over a century ago. As they developed they accumulated more senior levels of responsibility, most distinctively the diploma of engineering which was until 1972 the qualification required for registration as an engineer. These institutions formed themselves into a group to prepare a submission to the Williams committee of inquiry into education and training in 1976 seeking recognition as senior institutions of vocational higher education and some of the funding and many of the privileges of self governance and accreditation then accorded universities.

DOCIT founded its institutions’ distinctiveness on their size (they enrolled almost one third of all advanced education full time equivalent students), on the advanced level of their teaching (most of their programs were degrees rather than the diplomas of the other CAEs) and their conduct of applied research (DEET, 1993: 18). They were therefore like a CAE version of the Group of Eight universities. Interestingly, the directors of RMIT and SAIT thought there was a conflict of interest between DOCIT and the Australian conference of principals of colleges of advanced education and so did not simultaneously sit on both bodies. DOCIT encountered too much opposition to its aspirations and disbanded in 1982, but revived in 1999 as the Australian Technology Network (Curtin, QUT, RMIT, UniSA and UTS). For the purposes of analysis I include Swinburne University of Technology as an ATN-like university because it originated as the Eastern Suburbs Technical College in Melbourne in 1908 and has a similar development and profile to the members of the ATN.

Group of Eight

The group of Eight ‘of Australia’s leading universities’ comprises the universities with the most research income. The group started meeting informally in 1994 and was incorporated in 1999 to lobby the Commonwealth to further concentrate resources in its member institutions. It comprises the oldest universities in the Australian mainland capital cities: the University of Sydney (founded in 1850), the University of Melbourne (1852), The University of Adelaide (1874), the University of Queensland (1909), the University of Western Australia (1913), the Australian National University (1946); and the second university established in each of Australia’s 2 biggest cities, the University of NSW (1949) and Monash University (1958). These are the universities with the biggest accumulations of academic and socio-economic capital.

While I know of no direct analogue of the Australian Technological Network, the Group of Eight is similar to the Russell Group in the UK (‘An informal self-selected representative body from research-led institutions, so-called because meetings take place in the Russell Hotel’) and the Association of American Universities (‘An association of 63 leading research universities in the United States and Canada’ that ‘focuses on issues that are important to research-intensive universities’).

1960s – 70s universities

From the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s State Governments established and the Commonwealth Government supported universities in the mainland capitals to cope with the great expansion of enrolments as the baby boom generation reached the age when they expected to enrol in higher education. These universities are Macquarie (1964) in Sydney, Flinders (1966) in Adelaide, La Trobe (1967) in Melbourne, Griffith (1971) in Brisbane and Murdoch (1973) in Perth. While the first universities in each capital were built in red brick clad in sandstone on the fringes of their central business districts, the newer universities were built in concrete and glass amongst the gumtrees in their cities’ comfortable suburbs, as Simon Marginson (1997) observed. The founders of these universities wanted to break from the pattern of traditional universities most recently reinforced by the founders of Monash University in 1958 by applying some of the innovative ideas from the 7 new universities established in the UK at the time of the Robbins Committee on Higher Education 1961-1963.

The first of the new UK universities was Sussex University and most Australian literature on the foundation of IRU members refers to Sussex as the model. Sussex’s first vice chancellor in 1961 was John, now Lord Fulton. When Fulton left in 1967 to chair the British Council, Asa, now Lord Briggs took over from him as vice-chancellor, having been Sussex’s first pro-vice-chancellor and founding dean of the school of social studies. I suspect that Asa Briggs provided most of the Sussex ideas. However, at the time Essex was better known as a model in Australia because of the 1963 Reith lectures delivered by its founding vice chancellor, Albert E Sloman on ‘A university in the making’ which described essentially the Sussex/new university model. The distinctive features of these universities was their interdisciplinarity, collegial governance rather than being controlled by the traditional ‘god professor’, and in being built in modern architecture.

In 2003 the ‘gumtrees’ universities formed Innovative Research Universities, altho this group’s membership has subsequently changed several times. Innovative Research Universities identifies with the UK’s 1994 group, so called because it was founded in 1994, which comprises the universities of Essex, Sussex and 14 other universities that share ‘aims, standards and values’ (1994 Group, 2004).

The University of Wollongong (founded 1975) is not correctly considered a regional university (any more than the University of Newcastle, which was founded in 1965) because it is located in a large city with a population of 275,000, it is close enough to Sydney to recruit many of its students from Sydney and because the university and its staff have close interactions with Sydney. Wollongong is similar to IRU institutions in age of establishment, size, innovative approach and size of research budget.

Deakin University was founded in 1976, the last university to be founded before the dismantling of the binary divide between universities and colleges of advanced education in 1988. It was established largely from the advanced education part of the Gordon Institute of Technology and the State College of Victoria at Geelong and it enjoyed only a decade of institutional research funding before having to compete for institutional research funding with all the other institutions in the ‘unified national system’ of higher education established in 1988. However, it shares enough of the characteristics of the universities founded from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s to be included in this group for the purposes of analysis. Deakin has a small regional campus in Warrnambool and a bigger campus in Geelong, 1 hour’s drive from Melbourne, but most of its students are at Burwood in the middle eastern suburbs of Melbourne.

New generation universities

Governments in the UK, Australia and the US not only established new universities to cater for the baby boom school-leavers, but also new types of higher education institutions. These were polytechnics in the UK and Aotearoa New Zealand, colleges of advanced education in Australia and community colleges in the US and Canada. The distinction between the university and non university sectors of higher education became untenable in Australia and the UK and was dissolved in 1988 in Australia and 1994 in the UK.

Many of the newly designated universities established the new generation universities network in 2002, comprising the Australian Catholic University, Central Queensland University, Edith Cowan University, Southern Cross University, University of Ballarat, University of Canberra, University of South Australia, University of the Sunshine Coast, University of Western Sydney and Victoria University of Technology. Some of these universities are also regional universities so for the purposes of analysis it is convenient to consider only the metropolitan new generation universities.

The new generation universities network was established as a lobby group in 2002 but lasted for only a few years. It was modelled on a group of similar universities in the UK which was first called the UK ‘coalition of modern universities’, became ‘campaigning for mainstream universities’ and which has evolved into million + (2009), ‘a university think tank’.

Regional universities

There was sporadic talk of establishing a group of regional universities for several years which came to nothing because of disagreement over the meaning of regional, because many regional campuses are parts of universities with campuses in capital cities, and because regional campuses generate most of their leverage from local interest groups rather than from collective national action. However, in 2011 six universities which have their headquarters in a regional centre recently formed the Regional Universities Network (Woodward, 2011). The founding members are CQUniversity which has its main campus in Rockhampton, Southern Cross University (Lismore), University of Ballarat (Ballarat), University of New England (Armidale), University of Southern Queensland (Toowoomba) and University of the Sunshine Coast (Sippy Downs).

A signal absence from the Regional Universities Network is Charles Sturt University which has its headquarters in Bathurst. The University of Tasmania shares many characteristics of the regional universities but also is different in important ways. It is older than the other regional universities: UTas was founded in 1890, some 64 years earlier than the next oldest regional university, UNE which was founded in 1954. UTas is based in Hobart which is the capital of Tasmania. However, Hobart has a population of only 212,000 in a State with a population of only 507,000. UTas has similar challenges, strategies and approach to political lobbying as other regional universities. On balance I suggest that the University of Tasmania shares more characteristics with the regional universities than other university types.

Charles Darwin University is based in Darwin and James Cook University is based in Townsville and so are also regional universities. They are members of Innovative Research Universities, but since this is a taxonomy of university types useful for analysing universities’ enrolments, research and strategy, I suggest these be considered regional universities.


Australian public universities thus share these characteristics.

ATN-like: institutions that were established early as technical institutes in a capital city and formally designated a university after 1987.

Group of Eight: the oldest universities in their mainland capital cities with the biggest research budgets and the biggest accumulations of academic, cultural and socio-economic capital.

1960s-70s: universities that were established from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s as distinctively different from the older capital city universities and which have medium sized research budgets.

New generation: institutions based on former colleges of advanced education that were designated as universities around 1987, whose research is still developing, and which have most of their student load in cities of more than 250,000 people.

Regional: universities with most of their student load in centres with a population of less than 250,000 people. This is expected to include the University of the Sunshine Coast until about 2020, when because of the Sunshine Coast’s big increase in population the university will become a metropolitan new generation university.

These groups are shown in the table below.


Types of Australian university

ATN-like Group of Eight 1960s-1970s

New generation

Curtin ANU Deakin Aus Catholic U Ballarat
QUT Monash Flinders Bond Central Qld
RMIT U of Adelaide Griffith Canberra Charles Darwin
Swinburne U of Melbourne La Trobe Edith Cowan Charles Sturt
UniSA UNSW Macquarie Notre Dame James Cook
UTS U of Queensland Murdoch Victoria Uni Sunshine Coast
  U of Sydney Newcastle U Western Sydney Southern Cross
  UWA Wollongong   Tasmania
        U Southern Qld



This article by Gavin Moodie,  Types of Australian universities (22 October 2002, revised 30 January 2012), is an unpublished manuscript retrieved 16 August 2014 from





1994 Group (2004) About us, (accessed 2 December 2009).

Association of American Universities (2002) Association of American Universities, (accessed 2 December 2009).

Australian Technology Network (ATN) (2002) Australian Technology Network of universities, (accessed 2 December 2009).

Group of Eight (2002) Welcome to the Group of Eight, (accessed 2 December 2009).

Innovative Research Universities Australia (2005) Home page,

Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) (1993) National report on Australia’s higher education sector, AGPS, Canberra.

Marginson, Simon (1997) Educating Australia: government, economy and citizen since 1960, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne.

million+ (2009) Who we are, (accessed 29 November 2009).

National Information Services and Systems (2002) Russell group of universities,

University of Western Sydney (2002) ‘New Australian universities unite to find common voice’,

Woodward, Susan (2011) Regional unis form new peak body, Campus Review, 10 October. Retrieved 14 October 2011 from



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