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Before the 1872 Education Act, education was offered in a variety of settings by a diverse range of providers. Although most children living in Melbourne in the mid-19th century were enrolled at government-aided institutions, others attended private (independent) schools or those established by the various religious denominations. A few were educated at home by tutors or governesses and, at a time when schooling was neither compulsory nor free, some received no education at all. State secondary education was not provided in schools specifically established for that purpose until the first decade of the 20th century.

The 'free, secular and compulsory' Education Act cast primary education in a mould that would last for over one hundred years: it created a department of education under a minister of the crown, withdrew effective power from local authorities and parents, withdrew State aid from church schools, centralised recruitment, training and dispersal of teachers, separated secular from religious instruction, abolished fees and mandated attendance for children between the ages of 6 and 15.

The University of Melbourne was founded in 1853 as one of the civic institutions that the city's professional elite thought appropriate to a self-governing colony. Led by the Supreme Court judge Redmond Barry, they secured land two kilometres north of the city and a government grant. An open quadrangle in Tudor Gothic (the fourth side was added more than a century later) was built to provide classrooms and accommodation for the four foundation professors, who were recruited from Britain. Enrolments were small when teaching began in 1855 but the addition of classes in law, medicine and engineering to the original Arts degree swelled numbers to nearly 200 by the 1870s.