Starting Out…

The 1960s in Australia saw a rapid upturn in demand for tertiary education. What had begun in the 1940s as program to encourage civil and military research, undergraduate places at universities had been opened up to more Australians. By the time the ‘60s rolled around demand for university positions was placing increased pressure on the existing Australia universities. In response to this demand the federal government was undertaking a program of establishing new universities in the outlying suburbs of major cities. Queensland’s only university was the University of Queensland (UQ) and the institution was feeling the pressure of the increased student demand on their resources and facilities. It was in this environment in 1961 where the need for a second Brisbane university was tabled by the Queensland Government, yet it wasn’t until 1963 that formal planning began.

The Need for a Second Brisbane University

In the late 1950s and early 1960s it was increasingly obvious that UQ was running out of space at its St Lucia base, especially for its Humanities and Social Sciences programs and facilities. In reality, the university was experiencing growing pains across most of its discipline areas. The establishment of a new institution was becoming increasingly important to help alleviate this problem. A UQ committee was established in September of 1963 for the purpose of establishing a new UQ college.

By July of 1964, the committee recommended the site should be in the Brisbane metropolitan area and be administered under UQ’s constitutional framework. The proposal was sent to the Queensland Government for consideration. The State shelved the proposal while they awaited the publication of a Federal report assessing the tertiary education industry in Australia.

On the release of the Australian Government report it became clear Brisbane did require extra university facilities no later than 1970. This recommendation led to the Queensland Government announcing in May 1965 that a University College of UQ would be established and potentially later would be run as an autonomous institution.

With this decision, the search for suitable land began. At least forty-one sites around Greater Brisbane were considered by a joint State Government/UQ committee. These included land at Redcliffe (north of Brisbane), Moggill and Inala (Brisbane West), Capalaba in the east and Woodridge in Brisbane's south. There was even consideration of a 'vertical' institution within the Roma Street Station railway yards in Brisbane’s CBD. After the committee’s recommendations to the State government in September 1965 - a 437-acre area of land in a cemetery reserve at Mt Gravatt within Toohey Forest, was purchased from Brisbane City Council. This site was now what would become Griffith University, Nathan campus.

Image taken by Birrell in 1966 showing part of the site for the new Brisbane university before any development had begun.

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Image taken by Birrell in 1966 showing the 'Soldiers' Cemetery' situated next to the chosen university site.

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False Starts and Funding Woes

In 1965 the Queensland Government commissioned architect James Birrell the UQ Architect to prepare a master plan for the new venture which was presented to the State Government and UQ officials in March 1966. During the same period, UQ had been active and in February 1966 delivered a funding request to develop the new college to the Australian Universities Commission (AUC). UQ at this early stage was still hoping to have the new college teaching Arts, Commerce and Education in 1969, with the teaching of science courses to follow in 1970. Along with this a new teaching approach to study was also in development one that was flexible and interdisciplinary with students allowed to choose subjects from individual areas or from all of the four foundation discipline areas.

However, despite all the efforts of UQ and the Queensland Government - this initiative was totally reliant on the Australian Government agreeing to provide funding. In August 1966, the AUC stated in a public report that the future college should not begin teaching until 1971. Essentially, the Commission refused to provide viable funding for the enterprise. Instead, they decided on the expansion of the UQ managed Townsville University College (now James Cook University).  The Federal government also supported funding the building of new Colleges of Advanced Education (CAE's) in the Queensland regional towns of Toowoomba and Rockhampton. Federal funding for UQ’s new Brisbane college was limited to providing $280 000 up until the end of 1969 with another $80 000 to be provided by the Queensland Government. Additionally to this financial limitation, the funding was provided specifically for the installation of utilities (electricity, water, gas, etc.) along with limited construction and site planning.

The AUC worked on providing funding for universities every three-years, or 'triennium'. This means that the funding submission in 1966 was a request for funding for the 1967-1969 triennium. UQ’s ambition of beginning teaching during 1969/1970 would not be possible with AUC funding alone and would have required an alternative funding source. UQ made another submission for funding in December of 1967 - for the 1970-72 triennium. They asked for $3 600 000 for the triennium and an additional $2 316 900 overflow into the 1973-75 triennium. Ultimately the AUC would only provide $200 000 for the 1970-72 period and an additional $50 000 to be provided on 1 January 1972. In total, the AUC provided just $530 000 from 1964 through until the end of 1972. The limited AUC funding decision would have a 'course altering' effect on this initiative.

Moving forward but in a new direction

By 1969 and after several years of frustration and disappointing funding support from the AUC - UQ was still experiencing pressures of high demand for student places and the need to accommodate additional places with existing facilities. It was at this point the Senate of the University decided that it could no longer be responsible for the new college. In October 1969, the Senate recommended that the new institution be established as a self-governing entity from the very beginning. This would require, as the UQ Senate saw it, Queensland Government needing to establish an Interim Council to undertake all the necessary planning. UQ, determined for this to happen quickly, strategically released press statements to pressure the Queensland Government. In May of 1970 to force the hand of the State Government Sir Zelman Cowen (then UQ’s Vice Chancellor) made an official and public request to the Queensland Government to appoint an Interim Council to set-up a new autonomous Brisbane university.

This bold action by Cowen jolted the Queensland Government into action. In June of 1970, the State Minister for Education asked recently retired Queensland Newspapers Head, Theodor Bray (later Sir Theodor) to take charge of a planning committee for this re-imagined venture. Initially, Bray declined, citing that he had no experience in planning or running a university. The Minister changed tack and in suggesting that he would ask a colleague of Bray's to do the job - Bray changed his mind and accepted the challenge - provided he could pick his own people. The Government agreed and the Interim Council held its first meeting on the 22 January 1971.

Sir Theodor Bray in his Chancellor's robes after receiving his 'Doctor Of The Griffith University' honorary doctorate award in 1977.

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From Funding to Establishment

Given the whole idea of a new Brisbane university had stalled due to a lack of funding and political back and forth Bray was determined that this would not happen again. Bray’s Council was subsequently set up with members who 'could get things done'. The Council made up of highly experienced public servants and businesspeople including the Auditor-General of Queensland, Allan Sewell (who was knighted becoming Sir John Allan Sewell in 1977). Universities at the time were funded jointly by the Commonwealth and respective State Governments - and with Sewell on the Council - Theodor Bray now had direct access to the State Treasurer and controller of Queensland's finances - Sir Gordon Chalk. Knowing no significant progress could happen without federal funding Bray travelled to Canberra to get assurance of AUC funding directly from the Chairman.

Vice Chancellor of Flinders University Professor Peter Karmel who would go on the be a trusted advisor and have strong positive influence on the Council  was sought out by Bray for his expertise and knowledge of establishing universities. Karmel had established Flinders University and the University of Papua and New Guinea. Karmel had stated that four years was enough time to have a university up and running and it was this advice the one of the early decisions made by the Interim Council in that first meeting in January 1971 was that teaching would commence in 1975.

This allowed a short four years to have the organisational structure, courses, administration policies, staff in place and the final element students enrolled students. And of course, there was the not insubstantial task of building the university.

Despite having the 1966 Birrell report - Bray and his colleagues felt they needed more contemporary advice on planning and the development of the Toohey Forest site. So, it is no coincidence that Karmel’s colleague and Flinders University architect, Geoffrey Harrison, was commissioned in 1971 to produce a new planning report. In September 1971 Harrison tabled 'The Development of the Nathan Campus Preliminary Report' (the site was now within the Nathan suburb created in 1967 by Brisbane City Council). He was quite clear that his report should serve only as a guide and that the master plan for the campus would be undertaken by the Site Planner to be appointed in early 1972. The tabling of Harrison's report in September coincided with the Queensland Parliament officially establishing the university with the passing of the Griffith University Act on 30 September 1971.

First meeting of Griffith University's Interim Council in 1972 with our foundation Vice Chancellor Professor John Willett (back left) and Chancellor Theodor Bray (back centre).

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Build It and They Will Come

In February 1972 Roger Johnson was appointed as the Griffith University Site Planner. The race was now on for Johnson and the Council with just over three years until Griffith was meant to begin teaching. While Johnson had his own vision for Griffith University, he did refer to the reports by Birrell and Harrison and contacted both architects as he began to develop the master plan for the site.

Johnson produced the 'Interim Development Plan' for Griffith University in June of 1972 as a starting point for his site planning. At this point the in early 1972 Council established a consortium of Brisbane architects including the award-winning Robin Gibson (most notable for his designs of QPAC, Queensland Museum and Queensland Art Gallery) to design Griffith University - Nathan Campus. The consortium produced designs for our original Library, Humanities, Science and University House buildings. While the elements to Johnson's site planning were multi-faceted - one of his edicts was that the natural areas of vegetation would be preserved as much as possible. There were even financial penalties put in place for any contractors that removed or damaged flora without express permission. With the planning for Brisbane's new university well advanced and now only two and a half-years until teaching was due to commence - official construction of Griffith University began on October 3, 1972.

Construction begins in 1972 with (left-to-right) - Vice Chancellor Professor John Willett, Chancellor Theodor Bray and Site Planner Roger Johnson.

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Oral History of the University - Sir Theodor Bray (Tape 1)

Oral History of the University - Sir Theodor Bray (Tape 2)

Oral History of the University - John Topley