The 1853 Act incorporating the University of Melbourne preserved land within the University Reserve for the four major religious denominations to establish residential colleges. Trinity College (Anglican) opened in 1872, Ormond College (Presbyterian) in 1881, Queen's College (Methodist) in 1888, and Newman College (Catholic) in 1918.
The Melbourne University colleges evolved in a distinctive fashion. While they could not become colonial replicas of Oxford or Cambridge colleges, since the University of Melbourne was an avowedly secular institution, their original purpose was nevertheless theological education. The vague wording of the 1853 Act left the relationship between the colleges and the University undefined, describing them simply as 'of and within the University'.
The fortunes of the colleges were influenced greatly by three of the founding heads. Alexander Leeper at Trinity, Dr (later Sir John) MacFarland at Ormond, and Dr E.H. Sugden at Queen's. Leeper established the tutorial system at a time when an understaffed University offered only formal lectures to its students. Their success resulted in the extension of tuition to non-resident students, and the development of major college libraries, distinct features of Melbourne collegiate life.
The 1904 Royal Commission into the University of Melbourne praised the 'excellent work' done by the colleges, but cautioned that this work was 'purely ancillary to the University and should in no wise be permitted to overshadow those of the University or to deprecate its teaching'. These recommendations 'curbed dramatically' the power of the colleges in the setting of educational standards, but within two decades co-operation was renewed. College tutors gained official recognition from the University in 1920. The University Act 1923 provided that heads of colleges should each serve, in rotation, on the University Council (the automatic right of college representation on the University Council was abolished by the State government in 1998). A memorandum prepared by the Joint Committee of the Professorial Board and Heads of Colleges, established in 1934 as the principal liaison body between the colleges and the faculties, declared that 'the colleges must develop as an integral part of a developing university' and that 'the essentials of a good university include the essentials of a good college'.
Janet Clarke Hall, established by Trinity College in 1886, was the first residential hostel for women at an Australian university. It was followed by St Mary's College, a residential house for women within Newman College. Later affiliated colleges include University College (non-denominational, 1937), known as University Women's College until 1975; International House (non-denominational, 1957); St Hilda's College (Methodist-Presbyterian, 1964); Whitley College (Baptist, 1965); Ridley College (Anglican, 1965); and Medley Hall (non-denominational, 1953). Now all coresidential, the Melbourne colleges no longer impose religious requirements.
Monash University has five halls of residence but just one affiliated college - Mannix College (Catholic, 1969). La Trobe University established Glenn College (1967), Menzies College (1968) and Chisholm College (1972) at the Bundoora campus. At the beginning of the 21st century, Australian universities were admitting students in ever greater numbers but struggling to provide the personalised attention that many of those students required. The colleges, through their tradition of personal tuition, may be poised to again play a greater role in the wider university.