Institutions transplanted to Australia were not always successful but the WEA, brought from England, survived an early period of adaptation before becoming a significant South Australian educational institution.

Early History

In September 1913 Albert Mansbridge, who had established an association to bring together working-class organisations and universities in England, addressed a public meeting in Adelaide, leading to the inauguration of the WEA in March 1914. The first courses, offered in 1917 to 231 students, were all held at the University of Adelaide; one at Trades Hall was cancelled for lack of students. The introductory subjects of economics, English literature, psychology and modern world history reflected the aspirations of the founders – to encourage working men with no access to university education to undertake social and political studies, equipping them to become effective leaders of working-class movements.

Within a few years it was clear that the WEA was attracting the middle classes, especially women with no political ambitions. Social activities through membership of the WEA Club, established in 1920, were popular, as were skills-based courses in public speaking and music, introduced in 1922. Of the 480 students that year, over one quarter nominated their occupation as domestic duties and about half were women. From 1918 to 1920 classes were held in rural centres, including Hamley Bridge, Port Pirie and Freeling. Participation by women was not surprising given the involvement on the WEA council and executive of the Women’s Social League, the Women’s Non-Party Political Association (forerunner of the League of Women Voters), the Women’s Political Education Society and the Kindergarten Union.

The Institution Expands

Encouraged by the University of Adelaide, assisted by small government grants and financed by profits from its bookshop, the WEA grew, surviving both the Great Depression and Second World War. When formal links with the university ceased in 1957–58, the WEA opened a teaching centre on South Terrace and appointed a new director. The courses then offered covered a broad range of practical subjects in addition to liberal studies. Significant growth followed the publication of the first course guide in the Advertiser in 1976, leading to the purchase of larger premises in 1983 in Angas Street.

Current Day

Although WEAs were established in all capital cities following Mansbridge’s visit to Australia in 1913, South Australia’s is the largest of the four remaining in Australia. Like its counterparts in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong, it has survived by resisting amalgamation with other organisations, not relying too heavily on government subsidy, and diversifying its sources of income. The South Australian WEA now offers nearly 1800 courses annually to over 30 000 adults. The majority of students are under 45 and two-thirds are female.

By Denis Binnion

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 29 May 2015.

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