By Professor A.H. Corbett,
ME, BEd, FIE Aust.

Arthur Hardie Corbett’s appointment in 1968 as Professor of the University of NSW whilst heading the affiliated Department of Engineering in the Royal Military College, Duntroon, climaxed a distinguished career as an engineering educator.
After graduation from Queensland and experience in industry and the CMF, Corbett’s wartime experience included command of a Brigade Workshop in the New Britain campaign. He then returned to university lecturing, and in 1950 became head of the Engineering Department at Duntroon. There he remodelled the courses leading to the affiliation of the College with the University.
He is the author of the definitive history of The Institution of Engineers, Australia and of an early text on an emerging problem ‘Energy for Australia’. He has been an active and distinguished member of the Institution, serving as its President in 1973.

BEFORE the first intake of cadets in 1911 two circumstances could have influenced the early Duntroon curriculum towards engineering. The first was the link with Sydney University which had a department of Military Studies under a Board appointed in 1907 which included Colonel Bridges, other military officers and Professor Barraclough, who had been commissioned in the Australian Corps of Engineers. Subsequently the University advised on the appointment of the first professors at Duntroon. The second was the visit of Bridges to West Point which, early in the 19th century, was the first engineering school in the United States, and continued to include basic engineering subjects in a general military and academic education.

The orderly development of the RMC curriculum was disrupted by the 1914—18 war and the economic policies which followed. The need of the engineer corps for professional officers was met in part by sending top graduates from RMC to Sydney University to complete engineering degrees in two years, although the academic work at Duntroon equated to the first and second years did not include all the engineering subjects taken in universities.

Academic education including engineering developed rapidly after the 1939—45 war and it was realised by the Army that the pre-war system would no longer meet university requirements. The Vasey Committee in 1944 and the Rowell Committee in 1946 made recommendations which had a profound influence on the subsequent development of the College. These committees recommended that the courses should continue to be of four years duration, that the courses should lead to a civil degree or part thereof, that working hours should be divided equally between military and academic subjects, and that the curriculum should be reviewed every two years by a standing committee.

A section headed Engineering General first appeared in the RMC Report for 1949, and recorded a conference between Professors Matheson and Moorhouse of Melbourne University and the College staff at which ‘a course was devised to enable selected cadets to reach the standard of Third Year Engineering’ before graduating from the College. Further, the need was recognised for a Professor and a Lecturer in Engineering, ‘but owing to administrative difficulties the delay will be much greater than anticipated’. Nevertheless the Army pressed on, and instruction in some of the academic subjects was given by Army officers advised by University staff.

Foundation Professor of Engineering

To fill the appointments recommended by the Matheson Committee I took up duty on 17 July 1950, and Leo Peterson as Lecturer on 21 May 1951. At the end of that year the first RMC graduates, five in number, qualified for admission to third year engineering at Melbourne University.

Mathematics and Science were offered in RMC departments founded in the early days by academics with a practical outlook, but otherwise Duntroon was ill prepared for academic engineering. There was no relevant library or laboratory, no tradition of publication or research. Although the first professors had been appointed by Sydney University some of their successors were diffident about claiming professorial status and the small academic staff had grown away from the university world.

My initial brief was to develop engineering subjects to second year university level, but I had no intention of stopping at that point. Two long-term plans were necessary: to build on my contacts in the universities, the profession and industry, and to find more time in the cadets’ crowded lives for academic work and study. In the early days three university professors (Charles Moorhouse, Al Willis and Mansergh Shaw) gave me unfailing support and gradually their colleagues began to accept the concept of close ties in the national interest between Duntroon and the Universities and later the technical colleges. For this a tribute is due to the quality of the graduates who went from Duntroon into undergraduate courses.


The year 1951 was marked by the first meeting of the Standing Committee on the Curriculum which in addition to military members included representatives of three Universities and the Commonwealth Office of Education. An important recommendation was the inclusion in the fourth year of 390 hours of academic engineering subjects, which gave cadets specialising in engineering the choice of one of three electives. This resulted in 1953 in the granting of credits by universities other than Melbourne to RMC graduates. Following staff visits to four States it was reported that their universities ‘recognise the status of the RMC curriculum, and heads of departments welcome the inclusion of Duntroon graduates in their classes’. Again in 1956: ‘Contacts have been maintained and strengthened with the various engineering schools of Australia and New Zealand. Particular interest has been taken in discussions on the shortage of professional engineers, and in the establishment of Institutes of Technology in Sydney and Melbourne’.


The high failure rate in third year courses brought home the fact that few of the cadets who could work at degree level at Duntroon would continue at that level as lieutenants in the universities. Three-year diplomas were a recognised professional qualification and Melbourne Technical College would readily accept RMC graduates into final year courses. The possible saving of a year compared to a degree course also appealed to many of the men concerned and also to senior officers. By 1954 the practice of recommending graduates for either degree or diploma courses had become firmly established.

In order to improve the preparation of cadets in engineering courses for post-RMC studies a major reorganisation of the military curriculum was introduced in 1959 and 580 hours in the final year became available for academic engineering. These changes reduced the pressure on cadets in all years and gave more time for reading and private study. Staff were involved in the planning and development of new subjects which would enable a cadet who elected engineering to take one of four courses at either degree or diploma level. However these courses involving lengthy periods of academic work in the fourth year were short-lived, and the last cadets graduated from them in 1966.

Degrees at RMC

The 1964 Report stated that Army headquarters had adopted the policy that whatever changes necessary should be made to RMC academic courses in order that all graduates of the College might have opportunities to gain degrees for two reasons: in the senior ranks an officer must be equipped to deal with diplomacy, government, industry and the complexities of the military art, and the Army must compete with other professions to attract candidates of high quality. The Standing Committee met periodically from 1961 to implement this policy and to study related problems of staffing and accommodation. In 1963 an Advisory Board on Academic Studies was appointed to develop and supervise the academic courses, and External Examiners were appointed to guarantee their standards. All entrants in 1964 were required to qualify at matriculation standard in their home States or New Zealand and new first year courses were commenced at two levels. There were certain disadvantages in the proposed timetables, an important one for engineers being the compression of more subject matter into the first three years.

The Standing Committee and the Advisory Board brought into formal contact with the College two senior Professors of the University of New South Wales, R.E. Vowels and A.H. Willis. Some years earlier the latter had suggested privately that the University might consider some form of association with the College. To those in sympathy with this possibility the events of 1964 brought it much closer. The graduates from the short-lived 1964 courses received a diploma of Military Studies (‘with Merit’ to those who qualified at the higher level) authorised by the Military Board.


In 1965 the Minister for the Army approved of negotiations between the Standing Committee and a university with a view to affiliation, seen then as an interim step in the progress of RMC towards autonomy, and likely to result in an early decision. Affiliation was also welcomed at RMC as a means of alleviating two recurrent problems — delays in the appointment of academic staff and lack of accommodation in suitable buildings.

The year 1967 was recorded as one of notable progress, marking the opening of a new chapter in the history of the College. The University of New South Wales agreed to set up a Faculty of Military Studies responsible for courses in Arts, Applied Science and Engineering, leading to the award of the University’s degrees of Bachelor of Arts in Military Studies and Bachelor of Science in Military Studies. At that time no engineering degree was offered because the course was not of four years duration, agreement having been reached that the fourth year would be a ‘military’ year for all cadets.

Professional Recognition

University degrees in engineering completed partly at RMC were given the same recognition by the Institution as degrees completed wholly within the University, and from the inception of diploma courses the necessary steps were taken to have these formally inspected and approved by the Institution. In the fifties three-year diplomas were generally accepted as exempting qualifications, but the Institution was moving by 1968 towards the requirement that all courses should be of four years duration (the 1980 Rule). Cadets who entered in 1968—1969 and elected to take engineering courses faced uncertain recognition until 1970 when the University and the Military Board approved a four-year engineering course leading to the University’s degree of Bachelor of Engineering. This could be awarded with the usual University Honours whereas the BA (Mil) and BSc(Mil) at that time were pass degrees only. Transition arrangements were made for cadets already taking engineering degree courses and the first BE degrees, including several with Honours, were awarded at the Graduation Parade in December 1971 on the eve of my retirement as Professor of Engineering.

The 1970 scheme fitted in a fourth academic year by curtailing the military studies normally required in the final year, an uneasy compromise that had been earlier tried and rejected. For cadets entering in 1975 and subsequent years the fourth year became a normal military year and in a fifth year they returned to the College as lieutenants to complete a fourth academic year in engineering or an Honours year in Arts or Applied Science.


In the fifties engineering was the cuckoo in the nest, but the older academic chicks found that the nest could be expanded. Staff shortages could be accepted or minimised by the secondment of military officers whose contributions are well worthy of record; inadequate accommodation could be relieved in recycled huts pending the funding, design and construction of new buildings. Time was found for more academic work at the expense of desirable but non-essential cadet activities. Perhaps the most important factor was the recognition by our university collegues of the worth of the Royal Military College as a national institution.

In my experience it was a pleasure to work with the majority of cadets who were disciplined, well-mannered and highly intelligent. Outstanding students reached major-general and professorial ranks and no doubt many more will reach the highest professional levels. Their achievements justify the acceptance of the frequent changes in courses outlined in this paper, changes which were the result of compromises between various pressures, academic, military and professional.

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