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, the founders secured land 2 km 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.
Residential university colleges, added from the late 1870s, provided additional tuition as well as pastoral supervision, and seemed to confirm the exclusiveness of the university. While the tuition fees, as well as the paucity of public secondary education, placed the University beyond the reach of most, it remained dependent on government funding. The lay members of the council accordingly sought to avoid controversy - the professors were forbidden to lecture on political or religious topics - although protracted argument preceded the admission of women to the university in 1880.
Public funding was cut in the 1890s depression and fee income fell with a decline in enrolments. The discovery in 1901 that the accountant had embezzled almost £24 000 resulted in the establishment of a royal commission, which redefined the mission of the university to serve national development. With reorganisation of the secondary examination system, and new courses in agricultural and veterinary science, dentistry, mining and education, the University expanded its professional training. David Orme Masson (the professor of chemistry), Walter Baldwin Spencer (biology) and Thomas Lyle (physics) spearheaded advances in science that were consolidated during World War I.
Returned soldiers boosted enrolments to 2449 by 1922, taxing staff and facilities. Between the wars the University was governed by a cautious and parsimonious Council. Lay members, whose supremacy over professors and graduates had been confirmed by the amended University Act in 1923, looked askance at the increasing involvement of students in current affairs. As a result of their interference the first full-time vice-chancellor, Raymond Priestley, resigned within three years of his 1935 appointment. John Medley, his successor, moved more skilfully to break down the University's insularity and strengthen academic autonomy.
Medley's leadership coincided with World War II, which made heavy calls on the University's expertise, and then brought a new wave of ex-service enrolments. By 1948 there were 9500 students, and a temporary rural campus in Mildura to cope with the influx. The Commonwealth government assumed increasing responsibility for university teaching and research, and Melbourne embarked on a building program in the modernist medium that included the Baillieu Library, the Beaurepaire Sports Centre (to coincide with the 1956 Olympic Games) and a new Wilson Hall (to replace one destroyed by fire in 1952).
During this period of rapid growth the expanded provision lagged behind heightened expectations, which in turn strained the University's planning and decision-making. David Derham, vice-chancellor from 1968, embarked on urgent reform just as student radicals demanded sweeping change. The ensuing confrontations opened the university to greater consultation, though the next wave of reforms, from the 1980s, imposed a more hierarchical style of line management.
These changes were triggered by the Commonwealth government's increasingly interventionist direction of a Unified National System of higher education and research, and corresponding efforts by David Penington and Alan Gilbert to resist uniformity and differentiate Melbourne from its competitors. With an annual budget of $1 billion, the University is one of the city's principal employers. Its buildings spill beyond the original grounds. It is busier than ever, more worldly and more affluent but no less exclusive in its composition than the colonial foundation.