From training the working class to teaching world-class courses: A brief history of RMIT University

From the first working-class graduates to future tech leaders, RMIT University has forged countless lives over the centuries.

Wednesday 13th April

Today, RMIT is a global university of technology, design and enterprise, with campuses spread across the world. 

RMIT wasn’t always a world-class university however, and had humble beginnings in 1887 as a night school opposite the Melbourne Public Library (now the State Library Victoria). 

Facets of that long, storied history have intertwined themselves in the student experience over the years, quietly giving every person that passed through the university halls their own unique RMIT story. 

Wednesday 13th April

RMIT archives photograph of men working in a carpentry class Then: RMIT’s legacy of hands-on learning had humble beginnings in vocational environments like this carpentry class.
Danielle and a teacher working on a timber frame, wearing high-visibility vests and white hard hats. Now: We’ve been training TAFE students for over 130 years, helping them upskill for Australia’s most in-demand jobs.

The college days 

RMIT was established as the Working Men’s College, but don’t let the name fool you. Merely a year after establishment, the College was offering Victorian men and women technical, business and arts classes. 

As the College grew over the years – privatised in 1904; expanding into the bluestone courtyards of the Old Melbourne Gaol (or as you know it now, the Alumni Courtyard); offering courses in engineering and radio; helping over 1500 World War I servicemen reintegrate into civilian life with vocational training – the students realised that their life experiences were no longer encapsulated by the name “Working Men’s College”, and they successfully petitioned to rename the institute to the Melbourne Technical College. 

The College played a significant role in Australia’s war efforts during World War II, training 20,000 servicemen in communications and 2,000 in munitions production. The graduates ended up forming most of the Royal Australian Air Force communication officers. 

The Australian Government would subsequently commission the College to manufacture military aircraft parts as well, including heavy involvement in the Beaufort Bomber.

Becoming RMIT

For its service to the Commonwealth during World War II, the Melbourne Technical College was awarded royal patronage by Queen Elizabeth II in 1954.  

The College began expanding beyond vocational education and was renamed to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in 1960. The institute went on to become a pioneer of dual-sector education in Australia, offering both vocational and higher education study options. 

To this day, RMIT remains the only higher education institution in Australia with the right to use the prefix “Royal” and the monarch’s coat of arms. It is also the largest dual-sector university in Australia.

RMIT archives photograph of building 1
Modern day photograph on bowen street of RMIT building 4

New campuses and colleges 

Soon began the institute’s drive towards a global presence in technology, design, and enterprise.  

To stay at the frontier of technology, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology invested in its first digital computer in 1963. The NCR-Elliott 803B was the most sophisticated second-generation device of its time! 

This drive for excellence was recognised by the Victorian Government, and in 1992, the institute was finally granted university status under state legislation, adopting the name RMIT University that we so love. 

Over time, to build expertise in design and business, RMIT started amalgamating with other institutions like the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy, the Phillip Institute of Technology and the Melbourne College of Decoration and Design, which enabled further expansions to vibrant Brunswick and Bundoora campuses in 1993.  

Going global 

Since the 90s, RMIT has been teaching courses offshore and onshore with a strong global vision, and in 2000, The Government of Vietnam approached the institute to form the country’s first foreign-owned university. RMIT was going international! 

It’s not just the campuses in Ho Chi Minh (established 2001), Hanoi (established 2004) or Barcelona (established 2013) that make RMIT a top-tier global presence; it is the commitment to quality education that makes it stand out. This commitment has been recognised by the Vietnamese Government, with the prestigious Golden Dragon Awards being presented to RMIT for 12 years consecutively, recognising its excellence in education and research. 

RMIT archives photograph of a group of women in a typing class Then: Typing classes showcase RMIT’s early drive towards a global presence in technology, design, and enterprise.
Post-graduate students working around a table with large displays on the wall. Now: RMIT offers one of Australia’s only space science degrees, connecting students to employers like the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

At the cutting edge 

From the first working people of Melbourne to the promising start-up founders passing through the RMIT Activator initiative, countless lives have been forged in the various halls of RMIT, all around the world. 

RMIT continues to lead on the cutting edge of technology, cementing its place in digital spaces with RMIT Online courses, and introducing a world-first postgrad blockchain degree

Not content with developing great minds just on planet Earth, RMIT has also made its mark beyond the confines of our pale blue dot. Not only does the university offer one of Australia’s only space science courses, but in 2015, RMIT alumnus and aerospace engineer Dr James Waldie and his team created the SkinSuit, which was worn by an astronaut abroad the International Space Station

What does the future hold for RMIT? Only the aspirations and efforts of its current and future students, as they make leaps and bounds into an uncharted era of technological, design and thought leadership. 


Are you an alumnus with a story to tell about your time at RMIT? Do you have memories of RMIT that could become part of university history one day? Share your unique RMIT story with us, we want to know

 

Story: Hassaan Ahmed 

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aboriginal flag
torres strait flag

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.

aboriginal flag
torres strait flag

Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business.