Our history

People, places and events from our past

The University of Sydney was founded in 1850 as a public institution of higher education.

The University has a vast history covering many aspects of intellectual, scientific and socio-political life in Australia. Below are pathways to explore our history.

The University was founded on two main principles — religious tolerance and the admission of students on academic merit. The first principle ensured students were admitted regardless of religious belief. The second, that students ‘matriculated’ to university by passing an academic examination.

Both ideas were new ways of thinking about universities in the mid-nineteenth century and challenged traditional university models. They emerged out of serious conversations in Britain and Europe about the purpose of universities and were adapted by our founders to create a university to suit the colonial circumstances of New South Wales.

These principles are enshrined in the opening pages of the first University of Sydney Calendar.

Other key milestones:

1881: The University of Sydney Senate formally approved women’s admission to all undergraduate courses in 1881. The first women undergraduate students commenced in 1882.

1885: Mary Elizabeth Brown and Isola Florence Thompson each graduate with a Bachelor of Arts.

1890: 12 percent of undergraduates were women increasing to 27% in 1919.

1919: 50 percent of undergraduate enrolments in the faculties of arts, science and architecture were women. Women enrolments in these faculties remain almost 50 percent until the end of World War 2 when they increase due to the introduction of Commonwealth Scholarships.

1963: Charles Perkins, an Arrernte and Kalkadoon man, and Gary Williams, a Gumbayngirr and Mullumbimby man, matriculate to the University of Sydney, the first two students to identify as Aboriginal.

1965: Felcia Corowa matriculated from Tweed River High School and enrolled in Arts at the University of Sydney, the first woman student to identify as Aboriginal.

1966: Charles Perkins, Bachelor of Arts, the first University of Sydney graduate to identify as Aboriginal.

From the beginning, the University established scholarships to assist students’ study at the University of Sydney. As part of an Australian Research Council research project on colonial universities, we know something about these students including their social and religious background and their subsequent occupations.

Visit First Generations: Students at the University of Sydney, 1850-1918 to learn about where the first students came from.

In the 1970s, the University of Sydney began an oral history project to prepare for the writing of Australia’s First: A History of the University of Sydney (2 vols. Jointly published by the university and Hale and Irmonger, 1991, 1996). From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s Prof. K. Cable, Prof. W. F. Connell and Dr U. Bygott conducted a series of interviews with former staff and students of the university. These interviews were recorded onto cassette tapes which have been stored at the University for the last 30 or so years. The University Historian, Professor Julia Horne, revived the project in the early 2000s, and soon you will be able listen to the voices of pioneering students and staff at the University. 

When World War I began in July 1914, students and staff at the University of Sydney enlisted in the AIF and other forces. From being munitions workers and linguists working at Top Secret locations in Britain, to serving in the medical corps and artillery on the Front Line. Learn about the lives of these men and women at Beyond 1914 .

Staff and students from the University also served in World War II. The University Archives and University Historian are currently working on a digital project 'Beyond 1939: War and Reconstruction' to uncover this history. This project is generously funded by the Chancellor's Committee. More to come.

History of University Life began in 2008 as a joint forum between the University of Sydney and St Paul’s college to discuss the history and role of universities in Australian life.

In 2017, the seminar broadened to become a Research Seminar in Higher Education with disciplinary experts to discuss the past, present and future of universities.

In 2020, History of University Life went digital with six webinars on the importance of public universities to Australia’s national well-being. The webinars have been highly praised and are available online.

View the 2020 webinar series on Higher Education 

Monthly seminars are held during semester. For more information, contact

Sydney Stories, a series of 4 short films on the history of University of Sydney and its people, produced for Sydney Alumni Magazine (J Horne, researcher, writer and presenter; B. Magloire, director; M. Visontay, producer):

(a)    Bradfield and The Sydney Harbour Bridge (published 2 October 2013)
(b)     Sydney vs Oxbridge (published 2 October 2013)
(c)     The Historian who challenged public opinion (published 2 October 2013)
(d)    Donald Horne and The Lucky Country (Published 28 April 2014)

The History Blog provides an inside look into the people, places and happenings at Australia's oldest University since 1850. The articles are written by staff from across the university who work on research projects that record and explore the history of the University of Sydney.

Interested in the history of the University? You can find out more by having a look at:

Sydney: The Making of a Public University (The Mieugunyah Press, Carlton, 2012) by Julia Horne and Geoffrey Sherington.

Australia’s First: A History of the University of Sydney (2 vols. Jointly published by the university and Hale and Iremonger, 1991, 1996) vol. 1 by Clifford Turney, Ursula Bygott, & Peter Chippendale; vol. 2 by W.F. Connell, G.E. Sherington, B.H. Fletcher, C. Turney & U.Bygott.

Radical Students: The Old Left at Sydney University (Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 2002) by Alan Barcan

From New Left to Factional Left: Fifty Years of Student Activism at Sydney University (Australian Scholarly Publishing, North Melbourne, 2011) by Alan Barcan

University of Sydney Architecture (Watermark Press, Boorowa, NSW, 2008) by Trevor Howells

You can access many more books on the University’s history, why not visit Fisher Library.

You can also visit the University’s archives online and in person.

And check out the Faculty of Medicine’s Online Museum.


Charles Badham, 1879

Professor of classics and champion of providing bursaries
“This University is not only for those who have private means or professional connections to start them; it is founded for the people."
Read all about Charles Badham's travelling legacy