WA Institute of Technology

Finding a place to grow – and did it grow! From college to university.

WA Institute of Technology

Finding a suitable location to build the new Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT) proved difficult. Various sites had been deemed unsuitable, especially in the city where space was limited. Salvation arrived in the form of a bushfire south of Perth.

In 1957 a fire burnt out a large section of the Collier Pine Plantation in Bentley, 6km south of Perth. This fortuitous event, coupled with the unsuitability of other potential sites, led to Bentley’s selection in 1962. Vin Davies, a Public Works Department architect, was chosen to design the initial buildings and work began in earnest. Davies’ signature style, using bricks and off-form concrete, set the tone for future building designs and is still evident on campus today.

The core infrastructure was built over the next four years and WAIT officially opened on 17 August 1966. The first students enrolled the following year.

In the mid 1960s tertiary study in Australia was based along a “binary” concept – a system which divided higher education into two sectors: universities and technical colleges. This binary concept was the end result of a report by the Martin Committee which was tasked with examining the post-war tertiary education environment in Australia, and to make recommendations on its future. The Martin Report differentiated colleges from universities by their function: vocational and teaching oriented colleges on the one hand, and academic and research-oriented universities on the other. The report recommended the creation of Colleges of Advanced Education (CAEs) as an alternative to building more universities. Established universities were given higher status and higher levels of funding.

WA Institute of Technology

In 1969 the Western Australian School of Mines (WASM), the Muresk Agricultural College, the School of Occupational Therapy (now the School of Occupational Therapy, Social Work and Speech Pathology) and the School of Physiotherapy (now the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science) were merged with WAIT.

The Western Australian School of Mines, located in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, was established in 1902 to meet the technical requirements for mining the newly discovered goldfields. Muresk, established in 1926 on the Muresk Farm, 11km from Northam, was the first state controlled agricultural college to concentrate on training farm managers in Australia. The School of Occupational Therapy was established in 1961 and is still the only occupational therapy school in Western Australia, whilst the School of Physiotherapy had been in existence since 1953.

Between 1966 and 1976 WAIT experienced an incredible expansion from 2,000 to 10,000 students. This carried the institute into the front rank of the new CAE receiving financial assistance from the Commonwealth Government.

WAIT emerged as one of Australia’s largest and most innovative Colleges of Advanced Education, indeed something of a flagship in the non-university higher education sector. Ironically, the success of institutes such as WAIT and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), would contribute to the eventual collapse of the binary system as they were expanding into areas traditionally associated with universities and the lines were becoming blurred.

By the 1970s things were changing. Recession was starting to bite into economic prosperity. WAIT came under attack from both Commonwealth and State authorities, who were reducing public spending. As a result of this pressure, WAIT consolidated around large schools of:

  • health sciences
  • business and administration
  • the arts and architecture.

This resulted in WAIT becoming the most comprehensive Colleges of Advanced Education in the nation, with substantial enrolments in those areas.

WAIT’s business school was the largest in Australia. Growth in degree courses and postgraduate work, as well as industry research and development, confirmed WAIT’s presence in the Western Australian tertiary sector. Controversially, its growth was curbed at this time to permit new institutions – Murdoch University and the Western Australian College of Advanced Education (WACAE) – to survive and expand in an environment of reduced Commonwealth spending on higher education.

By the 1980s it was clear that WAIT was becoming increasingly confined by the binary system. Its expansion into university dominated areas coupled with continuing funding issues meant that something had to give. The State Government of Western Australia recognised this, and after much heated political debate, passed legislation in 1986 that conferred university status on the institute.

In January 1987, twenty years from its inception, WAIT was reborn as Curtin University of Technology.

“WAIT to Curtin: a History of the Western Australian Institute of Technology Paradigm Press ISBN: 1863424903 (hardback) ISBN: 186342413X (paperback)”

The history of WAIT has been researched by Associate Professor Michael White of Curtin’s School of Education.