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Find out Who Owns the University of Adelaide and a Brief history of the institution

In today’s higher education landscape, research has become the central focus of institutions worldwide. However, In this article, I will be discussing about the university of Adelaide and it’s owner as the of the public research institution in South Australia.

The University of Adelaide (Adelaide University) is the third-oldest and one of the public research university in Australia. It is also a member of the Group of 8 and Sandstone universities which consist of the colonial-era universities in Australia.

Adelaide university houses four campuses (3 in South Australia and 1 in Melbourne) and offers programmes in three(3) faculties only. The three faculties are:

  • Faculty of Sciences, Engineering and Technology (SET)
  • Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences (FHMS)
  • Faculty of Arts, Business, Law and Economics (ABLE)

Adelaide university has a great history canvassing for women’s right to higher education and these move in their history have keep many wondering who is the founder and owner of Adelaide university.

However, In this article, I will be leading you through the founding history, founder and owner of Adelaide university as a public research university in South Australia.

Who owns the University of Adelaide?

The University of Adelaide (Adelaide University) founded in 1874 was owned, managed and controlled by The University of Adelaide Council appointed by the South Australia State Government as it’s a public university.

Earlier, I mentioned that Adelaide university is a public research institution. Therefore, it is no surprise that the university is a state owned university as it’s not a private institution unlike Duke University.

However, Sir Walter Watson Hughes and Sir Thomas Elder who out of their generosity led to the establishment of Adelaide university were referred to as “founders and patrons of the University of Adelaide“.

Hughes is often referred to as the “father of the University of Adelaide” because of his generous gift to establish two foundation professorial chairs and tagged him again as “the Founder of the Chair of Classics and of the Chair of English Language and Literature, and Mental and Moral Philosophy“.

A brief history about the founders of Adelaide University

By now, we should all know that Adelaide university is a state owned university but was established and founded based on the generosity of two great Scottish philanthropist who were also a pastoralist (the rearing of livestock animal rather than crop planting) named Walter Hughes and Thomas Elder.

Brief history of Sir Walter Watson Hughes (1803 – 1887)

Statue of Sir Walter Watson Hughes at Adelaide University
Statue of Sir Walter Watson Hughes at Adelaide University

Sir Walter Hughes was born (22 August 1803) in Scotland to Thomas Hughes and his wife Eliza. In 1840, Hughes emigrated to Adelaide in South Australia where he settled down and the following year married to Sophia, daughter of the pastoralist and solicitor, James Henry Richman.

Between 1840-1843, Hughes went into financial crisis and turn to sheep farming which he was able able to manage well and bought another flock of sheep which he took to North.

Forward to 1872, a council of union which include his friend,  Rev. James Lyall of the Flinders Street Presbyterian Church, approached him for a donation. However, his gift of £20,000 exceeded the council expectation and instead uses it to found a university

The money was used funding of two chairs – one in Classics and Comparative Philology and Literature, and the other in English Language and Literature and Mental and Moral Philosophy. These made him referred to as the “father of Adelaide university”.

In 1873, Hughes left for England permanently and after a long illness, he died on 1 January 1887 and was buried in the village churchyard of Lynne, near Chertsey.

Hughes’ legacy will be forever recognize by the university of Adelaide by the Hughes Society as he leaves a will to the university during his lifetime.

Brief history of Sir Thomas Elder (1818 – 1897)

Status of Sir Thomas Elder
Status of Sir Thomas Elder

Sir Thomas Elder was born (5 August 1818) in Scotland as the fourth son of George Elder, merchant, and his wife Joanna Haddow.

In 1854, Thomas Elder moved to Adelaide to join his brother, George and later form a partnership business Elder, Stirling & Co. Later changed to  Elder Smith and Co in 1863 and finally Adelaide Steamship Company (an Australian shipping company later diversify to industrial and logistic conglomerate) in 1875.

In 1872, as a great supporter of education, Sir Walter Hughes donation to found Adelaide university prompted Thomas Elder to also donate as much as Hughes’ £20,000 to fund two professorships in mathematics and science.

Elder further grants the founding of the Medical School and the Elder Conservatorium, and music scholarships for studies in Australia and the Royal College of Music in London.

Forward to 1887, Elder had a severe illness and shortly afterward retired from duty. However, he died at his home ‘The Pinnacle‘ near Mount Lofty, on 6 March 1897, and was buried in the Mitcham cemetery.

Thomas Elder never get married in his lifetime and upon his death will all his property and money to charity with a large portion of it went to The University of Adelaide and its Medical and Music Schools (£65,000 in total) and remaining bequests went to different charity.

Where is Adelaide University located?

Adelaide University was located on the olden ancestral land of the Kaurna people situated at Adelaide, South Australia. 5005 Australia.

Brief history of Adelaide University

The University of Adelaide Logo

The history of Adelaide University was dated back to as 1872 when Walter Hughes and Thomas Elder donated a sum of £20,000 each for the funding and creation of some professorship that led to the creation of the institution.

It was founded on the principles of providing accessible and high-quality higher education to the people of South Australia, regardless of their background.

However, the institution did not fully commence operation until 1874 when it was fully accredited to run as a public research institution making it the third university in Australia and the institution commence teaching on March 1876.

Bachelor of Arts became the first degree offered in the university and with the help of Adelaide university’s first Vice-chancellor, Augustus Short, he played a great role in shaping the early years of the institution.

Adelaide University has a great history canvassing for the right of women in higher institution and succeeded by becoming the first university in Australia to admit women to all degree courses on equal basis as men in 1881.

In 1882, the university begin to offer degree courses in sciences to became the first Australian university to offer science degree.

Adelaide university continue to break grounds and history in Australia as it became the first Australian university to establish a music conservatorium, Chair of Music, and Doctor of Music postgraduate qualification in 1900.

It also became the first Australian university to offer tertiary education in business in 1902 and continue to make history with women which includes:

  • First person in Australia to receive the degree of Bachelor of Science (Edith Emily Dornwell, 1885) and was also the first female graduate of the institution.
  • Australia’s first female surgeon, Laura Fowler (1891)
  • First Australian woman to receive a doctorate in music, Ruby Davy (1918)
  • The university was also the first to elect a woman to a university council in Australia, Helen Mayo (MBBS, 1902), in 1914.

Fast forward to the 21st century, On 2 July 2010, the university implement a policy and restricted all students from smoking in the university campus and became the first higher education institution in South Australia to implement a “smoke-free policy”.

In 2018, there was a discussion for a possible merge between the University of Adelaide and University of South Australia to form a super university but was called off in October 2018.

However, early 2022, the then government revisit the merger and set up a committee to look into the possibility but these time between the University of South Australia, the University of Adelaide and Flinders University.

December 2022. two of the universities(the University of Adelaide and the University of South Australia) announced that there would be a possible merge and a feasibility study began.

On July 1 2023, the two universities announce an agreement to merge and form a new university under the name “Adelaide University” with operation set to commence from January 2026.

As of today, University of Adelaide was ranked 4th in Australia and 88th in the World according to 2023 Times Higher Education ranking.


As we look to wrap up our journey of Adelaide University owner, we’ve had a look at its evolution from its early days to its recent days.

We’ve examined its ownership, accreditation, location and the historical background of the University of Adelaide.

This public research institution’s focus on accessible and affordable education , academic excellence, and innovative research to the South Australians.

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Founder and editor at AcademyPathways. Habeeb is a National Diploma(ND) holder of Statistics graduated from the highly esteemed The Polytechnic, Ibadan, Nigeria. With over a decade of experience in the education sector and career setting, Habeeb provides first hand information on educational and career related topics.

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