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New Zealanders and Science

7 — The Establishment of a Scientific University

page 70

The Establishment of a Scientific University

The Advent of the University in New Zealand life during the seventies rather abruptly ended the period when science in this country was confined to a few explorer scientists who had received their training in old-world seats of learning. The establishment of a local university meant that science was henceforth to receive more methodical treatment and that New Zealand was to train her own scientists, although the more gifted among them would still find it necessary to undertake advanced study overseas. New Zealand was as yet a very young colony, a country divided into small and relatively isolated settlements whose interests were almost exclusively provincial. Furthermore the colonists were separated by twelve thousand miles of ocean from the centre of their national culture. These two factors considered, it is not surprising that the establishment of a university in New Zealand was attended by difficulties, strife, and confusion. Neither is it surprising that the page 71Scots with their traditional respect for learning took the first steps towards that establishment.

The University of Otago had its origin in the fund established as part of the Otago scheme of settlement, when six hundred seceders from the Established Church of Scotland left their homeland to found a Free Church colony in New Zealand. By an agreement between the Otago Association and the New Zealand Company, all land in the Otago block was to be sold to the settlers at £2 per acre, and one-eighth of the resulting sum was to be devoted to religious and educational purposes. One-third of this fund was to be used to purchase permanent endowments and the rest used for the building of churches, schools, and a university, and in unspecified proportions to pay the stipends of ministers and teachers.

For some fifteen years the scheme of the Free Church to make Otago a university centre remained unrealised owing to the smallness and comparative poverty of the settlement. The discovery of gold at Gabriel's Gully in 1861, however, altered the position with a vengeance. The population and the wealth of the province increased sensationally, and while the northern settlements were harassed by Maori wars, Dunedin was a town throbbing with new life and anticipating boundless prosperity. Otago now could and must have its university. When the founders came to consider what type of university they should establish, they naturally had in mind the types they page 72themselves had known in the old world. They also realised that their university should be adapted as far as possible to the needs of a new country.

Towards the end of the sixties Otago took definite steps towards the establishment of a university. In 1866 the synod agreed to allocate one-third of the fund originally set aside for religious and educational purposes to the endowment of chairs in connection with a university or college at Dunedin. The next few years witnessed enthusiastic public meetings to which the superintendent, James Macandrew, gave his warmest support. Finally the synod in 1868 urged the importance of the matter on the superintendent and stated its willingness to endow a chair of mental and moral philosophy. On 3 June 1869 the Otago provincial council felt sufficiently confident of public support to pass the University of Otago Ordinance. This incorporated a university with power to grant degrees in arts, medicine, law, and music, to be governed by a council of twelve, of whom at least six were to be laymen appointed in the first place at the nomination of the superintendent, and by a senate of graduates to be established as soon as the number of these should reach thirty. No religious test was to be administered to any student, graduate, or officer of the university, so that the generosity and impartiality of the church were beyond cavil. The first meeting of the Otago university council was held on 10 November of the same year, when a significant message from the page 73superintendent was read. Mr Macandrew ventured to express the opinion that 'while due provision should be made for classical and metaphysical studies, there should be equal, if not greater prominence given to the teaching of Natural Science. I have long thought that a School of Mines and of Agricultural Chemistry would be of great practical importance in this province, and I earnestly hope to find in the University of Otago that, inter alia, provision will be made for these.'

When the university council looked carefully into the matter, however, it discovered that the hundred thousand acres set aside by the province as a land endowment would finance only two chairs, one of classics and English language and literature, and a second of mathematics and natural philosophy. It therefore appealed for aid to the provincial council for a further grant to provide a professor of natural science (chemistry and mineralogy). The appeal was successful so that with the chair of mental and moral philosophy endowed by the Presbyterian synod, the new university had four chairs. All these chairs were of equal status, and it was unprecedented in the history of English or colonial universities that a chair of natural science should be one of the foundation chairs and, above all, be made one of equal status with the others. The emolument of each professor was fixed at £600 per annum with class fees added (£600 was approximately equivalent to £1,500 of New Zealand page 74currency to-day), and was therefore based on a very liberal scale. The positions were advertised, a building provided, and the Otago authorities had reason to be optimistic about the future.

Meanwhile a movement (in which can be discerned provincial and sectarian jealousies as well as more creditable motives) had been launched to establish a colonial university. The Otago council expressed its willingness to merge its institution and endowments with those of any other colleges to be established in New Zealand, on the understanding that the New Zealand University would be a teaching body with headquarters in Dunedin and with a council of twenty, of which most of the Otago university council would be members. Accordingly there was no Otago opposition to the passing of the New Zealand University Act, 1870, by the central government. This act provided for a New Zealand University, with a nominated council of twenty, to whom was given the power to confer degrees in arts, medicine, law, and music, and to affiliate such colleges as it deemed fit. A sum of £3,000 was to be set aside annually for the purposes of the university, including maintenance, stipends, scholarships, and a library fund. The council of the University of Otago was empowered to agree with the council of the University of New Zealand for its own dissolution and the transference of its endowments to the University of New Zealand. If the Otago council did not enter into this page 75agreement within six months, then the University of New Zealand might be established at some other place in the colony. This proviso was soon to prove invaluable to Otago's opponents.

The act was passed on 13 September and the Otago council deferred the final choice of its professors until it learned the constitution of the new council. Dissatisfaction with the small representation granted to Otago and with the exclusion of Dr Burns and Dr Stuart, the two leaders of education in the province, converted Otago's approval into strong opposition. Moreover, since the council of the New Zealand University was not gazetted until 18 February, the Otago council had no opportunity of conferring with it within the six months stipulated by the act. The possibility of reaching an agreement now appeared remote, and the professorial appointments to the University of Otago were finalised in the persons of Professors Shand, Sale, and Macgregor.

The council of the New Zealand University continued its negotiations with the Otago council, but in an uncompromising manner calculated to ruin all chances of agreement. In opposition to the spirit of the act, and careless of the opinions of the government, it decided that the University of New Zealand was to be an examining body, and as it considered the time was not ripe for establishing a teaching university elsewhere in the colony, eight secondary schools were affiliated under the new act and £500 was allotted page 76for scholarships tenable at these schools. The council refused to accede to the requests of Otago, that a compulsory and reasonable curriculum of studies should be set up giving equal status to science and that students under fifteen should not be admitted to the university. The University of Otago could not possibly affiliate with the new body, and carried on as a separate university with remarkable success for four years and actually conferred one degree.

Otago's request in 1872 for a royal charter was in vain. However, a solution to the impasse was to come from another quarter. In 1873 the Canterbury provincial council passed an ordinance setting up a teaching university college to be affiliated only with the University of New Zealand. The board of governors of Canterbury College suggested that the two provincial universities co-operate to solve the affiliation problem. After joint discussions Canterbury and Otago agreed to be affiliated to the University of New Zealand provided firstly that the standard of the degrees be kept up to that of Melbourne University, and secondly that students be given equal facilities for taking their degrees either in science or classics. Hence a New Zealand University Act, 1874, was passed. It provided for a University of New Zealand to be a purely examining body, which apart from examining the candidates of affiliated institutions, could not interfere with the management of those colleges.

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When the University of New Zealand applied for a royal charter and quoted the degrees of arts, law, science, medicine, and music, mentioned in the University Act, the Crown was quite ready to grant the request in so far as it related to degrees in arts, law, medicine, and music. But only if the New Zealand act was amended to exclude the degree of science in the meantime would the required letters patent be granted. The New Zealand University Amending Act was therefore passed in 1875, the charter being granted a year later. It was not till 1884 that a supplementary charter was granted allowing degrees in science to be conferred. The New Zealand University managed to evade the imperial dictatorship in one instance, that of Mr Saul Solomon who was the first student to complete a science course, although the name of the degree conferred upon him in 1877 was Bachelor of Arts. The first student actually to gain a B.Sc. degree was Charles Chilton, Otago, 1888.

The importance and advantages of a teaching university are not always clearly recognised even to-day (though Royal Commissions of 1879 and 1925 favoured such a scheme), but there is no doubt that the foundation and successful work of the University of Otago were decisive in shaping the growth of the University of New Zealand. Firstly the Otago council in selecting its three professors (the fourth was chosen by the Presbyterian Church of Otago) paid special attention to their aptitude for teaching, since it was page 78considered that the 'tutorial element' would enter largely into their duties for many years and that the teaching university was the correct ideal. Secondly it recognised that the success of the university would depend upon the character and status in the community of the first professors and for this reason placed their emolument on a very liberal basis and ensured that only men of sterling character and commanding personality should be selected. Thirdly they insisted on science being placed on an equal footing with classics in their curriculum. The radical nature of the idea that science should be given an equal place with classics in the studies and degrees of a university can hardly be appreciated by this generation of New Zealanders. Suffice it to say that science was practically a non-existent study at any English secondary school in 1870 and that it was still fettered to the medical degree at the university. The provision, if any, made for its teaching was so meagre as to make 'the unwitting laugh but the judicious grieve', as indeed Prince Albert had grieved a few years before. For instance at Eton, 'with a staff of thirty-five masters, three only were available for the teaching of modern languages, physical science, natural history, English language and literature, drawing, and music.' The unfortunate master who had to 'double the parts' of science master and music master conveys a fair picture of the status of science in education at that time. Such instances were all too numerous.

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The signal success of the University of Otago settled all doubts as to the wisdom of the course pursued. When Canterbury College in its turn came in 1875 to select professors and draw up a curriculum, the example of Otago had perforce to be copied if any success was to be attained in rivalry with the older college. For the ideals fought for so heroically by the University of Otago, our foundation college, generations of New Zealand students have reason to be grateful.