Ex-service students raised the dust at Mildura

Long before regionalisation of universities in the 1970s, the University of Melbourne was a trailblazer, establishing the Mildura Branch in 1947.

In the aftermath of World War II, Australia had faced the massive task of resuming peacetime life while rebuilding the lives of thousands of its servicemen and women.

As Victoria’s only recognised university, the University of Melbourne faced a dilemma in accommodating the flood of first-year students, many of whom had deferred their enrolments to serve in the military.

Contributing to the surge in numbers was the introduction of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, developed to provide education and a post-war transition for those who had served. The high demand for places created the necessity for the University’s previously identified initiative for establishing a University College in a country district.

The solution was a practical approach to a pressing problem: take over the former air force training base in Mildura, which the state government had purchased from the Commonwealth, to absorb the higher numbers of first-year students. This was a major exercise. Mildura was around 450 kilometres from Melbourne and in the heart of a major agricultural and irrigation district.

Work started in September 1946 to convert the site to suit the requirements of a teaching University, equipped with lecture theatres and rooms that would be built inside hangars, amid grounds that were flat, dusty or muddy depending upon the season.

In its first year, more than 1500 students across four disciplines – medicine, dentistry, architecture and engineering – were enrolled at the new campus, many of them of mature age. The campus boasted its own cinema, post office, hospital, shops, library and sporting grounds, and produced its own annual magazine, appropriately titled Dust.

It quotes then Warden Dr J S Rogers MC (BA 1919, GDipEd 1919, BSc 1921, MSc 1922, DSc 1945) telling “of what may well be a new era in education”. The magazine’s second edition, published in 1948, reported on difficulties in the establishment of the Mildura Branch, and on the close relationship between members of staff and students given the residential nature of the university.

“The Branch life is no utopian society, and all is not plain sailing, but under the fine leadership of the Warden, we have developed a tolerance, patience and understanding which is all too rare throughout the world today,” Dust reported. “There is clearly evident a genuine concern for one another’s welfare, and a natural respect for authority and discipline.

“An experiment in education in its true sense.

“The closer relationship between members of staff and students, a relationship far more friendly and informal than is possible in non-residential university, has resulted in a clearer appreciation of other’s problems, and has created an atmosphere more conducive to efficient teaching and learning.

“The real success of this educational venture will be measured by the influence of the spirit of Mildura Branch on our professions and on our nation. That influence can be far-reaching.”

Despite its success, the University’s Mildura operation was fleeting. With the bulge of post-war students having been absorbed, the campus closed after three years, at the end of 1949, with the site sold back to the Commonwealth.

The Mildura community were upset on news of its closure, campaigning unsuccessfully for the Branch’s retention, with media coverage in newspapers of the day – The Age and The Argus – expressing resentment towards the Victorian government.

Almost 70 years on, the short-lived Mildura Branch of the University of Melbourne remains a tribute to the spirit of those post-war students and a worthy example of the role played by education in Australia’s post-war rehabilitation.