Calls for the establishment of a national university in Australia began as early as 1900. After the location of the nation's capital, Canberra, was determined in 1908, land was set aside for the university at the foot Black Mountain in the city designs by Walter Burley Griffin. Planning for the university was disrupted by World War II but resumed with the creation of the Department of Post-War Reconstruction in 1942, ultimately leading to the passage of the Australian National University Act 1946 by the Parliament of Australia on 1 August 1946.
A group of eminent Australian scholars returned from overseas to join the university, including Sir Howard Florey (co-developer of medicinal penicillin), Sir Mark Oliphant (a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project), Sir Keith Hancock (the Chichele Professor of Economic History at Oxford) and Sir Raymond Firth (a professor of anthropology at LSE). Economist Sir Douglas Copland was appointed as ANU's first Vice-Chancellor and former Prime Minister Stanley Bruce served as the first Chancellor. ANU was originally organised into four centres—the Research Schools of Physical Sciences, Social Sciences and Pacific Studies and the John Curtin School of Medical Research.
The first residents’ hall, University House, was opened in 1954 for faculty members and postgraduate students. Mount Stromlo Observatory, established by the federal government in 1924, became part of ANU in 1957. The first locations of the ANU Library, the Menzies and Chifley buildings, opened in 1963. The Australian Forestry School, located in Canberra since 1927, was amalgamated by ANU in 1965.
Canberra University College (CUC) was the first institution of higher education in the national capital, having been established in 1929 and enrolling its first undergraduate pupils in 1930. Its founding was led by Sir Robert Garran, one of the drafters of the Australian Constitution and the first Solicitor-General of Australia. CUC was affiliated with the University of Melbourne and its degrees were granted by that university. Academic leaders at CUC included historian Manning Clark, political scientist Finlay Crisp, poet A. D. Hope and economist Heinz Arndt.
In 1960, CUC was integrated into ANU as the School of General Studies, initially with faculties in arts, economics, law and science. Faculties in Oriental studies and engineering were introduced later. Bruce Hall, the first residential college for undergraduates, opened in 1961.
The Canberra School of Music and the Canberra School of Art were amalgamated by ANU in 1992.
ANU established its Medical School in 2002, after obtaining federal government approval in 2000.
On 18 January 2003, the Canberra bushfires largely destroyed the Mount Stromlo Observatory. ANU astronomers now conduct research from the Siding Spring Observatory, which contains 10 telescopes including the Anglo-Australian Telescope.
In February 2013, financial entrepreneur and ANU graduate Graham Tuckwell made the largest university donation in Australian history by giving $50 million to fund an undergraduate scholarship program at ANU.
ANU is well known for its history of student activism and, in recent years, its fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is one of the longest-running and most successful in the country. The decision of the ANU Council to divest from two fossil fuel companies in 2014 was criticised by ministers in the Abbott government, but defended by Vice Chancellor Ian Young, who noted:
On divestment, it is clear we were in the right and played a truly national and international leadership role. [...] [W]e seem to have played a major role in a movement which now seems unstoppable.
As of 2014 ANU still had investments in major fossil fuel companies.
The main campus of ANU extends across the Canberra suburb of Acton, which consists of 358 acres (1.45 km2) of mostly parkland with university buildings landscaped within. ANU is roughly bisected by Sullivans Creek, part of the Murray–Darling basin, and is bordered by the native bushland of Black Mountain, Lake Burley Griffin, the suburb of Turner and the Canberra central business district. Many university sites are of historical significance dating from the establishment of the national capital, with over 40 buildings recognised by the Commonwealth Heritage List and several others on local lists.
With over 10,000 trees on its campus, ANU won an International Sustainable Campus Network Award in 2009 and was ranked the 2nd greenest university campus in Australia in 2011.
Four of Australia's five learned societies are based at ANU—the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of the Humanities, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Australian Academy of Law. The Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science and the National Film and Sound Archive are also located at ANU, while the National Museum of Australia and CSIRO are situated next to the campus.
ANU occupies additional locations including Mount Stromlo Observatory on the outskirts of Canberra, Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran, a campus at Kioloa on the South Coast of New South Wales and a research unit in Darwin.
The library of ANU originated in 1948 with the appointment of the first librarian, Arthur McDonald. The library holds over 2.5 million physical volumes distributed across six branches—the Chifley, Menzies, Hancock, Art & Music, and Law Libraries and the external Print Repository.
Eight residential facilities are affiliated with ANU—Bruce Hall, Ursula Hall, Burgmann College, John XXIII College, Toad Hall, Burton & Garran Hall, Graduate House and Fenner Hall. All are located on campus except Fenner Hall, which is located in the nearby suburb of Braddon. Students also reside in the privately run units adjoining the campus—Davey Lodge, Kinloch Lodge, Warrumbul Lodge and Lena Karmel Lodge. In 2010, the non-residential Griffin Hall was established for students living off-campus. Another off-campus student accommodation was launched by UniGardens Pty, University Gardens located in Belconnen.
ANU was reorganised in 2006 to create seven Colleges, each of which conducts both teaching and research.
The ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences is divided into the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) and the Research School of Humanities and the Arts (RSHA). Within RSSS there are schools dedicated to history, philosophy, sociology, political science and international relations, Middle Eastern studies and Latin American studies. RSHA contains schools focusing on anthropology, archaeology, classics, art history, English literature, drama, film studies, gender studies, linguistics, European languages as well as an art and music school. In 2013, ANU ranked 9th in the world in linguistics and 16th in the world for modern languages.
The ANU College of Asia and the Pacific is a specialist centre of Asian and Pacific studies and languages, formerly among the largest collections of experts in these fields of any university in the English-speaking world. The College is home to three academic schools: the Crawford School of Public Policy, a research intensive public policy school; the School of Culture History and Language, the nation's centre dedicated to investigating and learning with and about the people, languages, and lands of Asia and the Pacific; and Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australia's foremost collection of expertise in the politics and international affairs of Asia and the Pacific. Professor Peter Drysdale laid the intellectual foundation of APEC. The college also houses the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), the Regulatory Institutions Network (RegNet) and the CSCAP Australia. Year in Asia program students with ANU GPA 5.0 or above will be able to travel to one Asian country to study for one year to specialize in one Asian language. The College is affiliated with Columbia University's Weatherhead East Asian Institute and Indiana University's Pan Asia Institute.
The ANU College of Business and Economics comprises four Research Schools, which in turn conduct research and teaching in economics, finance, accounting, actuarial studies, statistics, marketing and management. The college is professionally accredited with the Institute of Chartered Accountants, CPA Australia, the Australian Computer Society, the Actuaries Institute Australia, the Institute of Public Accountants, the Association of International Accountants, Chartered Financial Analyst Institute and attains membership of World Wide Web Consortium.
The ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science is divided into two Research Schools, which study a range of engineering and computer science topics respectively. ANU is home to the National Computational Infrastructure National Facility and was a co-founder of NICTA, the chief information and communications technology research centre in Australia. Research groups in ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science include Algorithms and Data, Applied Signal Processing, Artificial Intelligence, Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems, Computer Systems, Computer Vision and Robotics, Data-Intensive Computing, Information and Human Centred Computing, Logic & Computation, Materials and Manufacturing, Semiconductor and Solar Cells, Software Intensive Systems Engineering, Solar Thermal Group, Systems and Control. Disciplinary areas include theories, operations and cutting-edge research that will enhance user experience by integrating ever-evolving information technology methods in engineering applications, with the emphasis on energy source.
The ANU College of Law conducts legal research and teaching, with centres dedicated to commercial law, international law, public law and environmental law. In addition to numerous research programs, the College offers the professional LL.B. and J.D. degrees. It is the 7th oldest of Australia's 36 law schools and was ranked 3rd among Australian and 14th among world law schools by the 2012 QS Rankings. Students are given the chance to spend three weeks in Geneva concerning the institutional practice of International Law.
The ANU College of Medicine, Biology and Environment encompasses the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR), the ANU Medical School, the Fenner School of Environment & Society and Research Schools of Biology, Psychology and Population Health. JCSMR was established in 1948 as a result of the vision of Nobel laureate Howard Florey. Three further Nobel Prizes have been won as a result of research at JCSMR—in 1963 by John Eccles and in 1996 by Peter Doherty and Rolf M. Zinkernagel.
The ANU College of Physical & Mathematical Sciences comprises the Research Schools of Astronomy & Astrophysics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Mathematical Sciences and Physics. Under the direction of Mark Oliphant, nuclear physics was one the university's most notable early research priorities, leading to the construction of a 500 megajoule homopolar generator and a 7.7 megaelectronvolts cyclotron in the 1950s. These devices were to be used as part of a 10.6 gigaelectronvolt synchrotron particle accelerator that was never completed, however they remained in use for other research purposes. ANU has been home to eight particle accelerators over the years and operates the 14UD and LINAS accelerators. Professor Brian Schmidt (astrophysicist at Mount Stromlo Observatory) received the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work on the accelerating expansion of the universe.
ANU is governed by a 15-member Council, whose members include the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Gareth Evans, a former Foreign Minister of Australia, has been ANU Chancellor since 2010 and Brian Schmidt, an astrophysicist and Nobel Laureate, became Vice-Chancellor on 1 January 2016. Ian Chubb, Vice-Chancellor from 2001 to 2011, was Chief Scientist of Australia from 2011 to 2016.
Undergraduate students are represented by the Australian National University Students' Association (ANUSA) and postgraduates by the Postgraduate and Research Students' Association (PARSA). The Australian National University Union manages catering and retail outlets and function amenities on behalf of all students.
In its most recent disclosure at the end of 2012, ANU recorded an endowment of A$1.13 billion.
ANU is consistently ranked among the world's top universities. ANU is ranked co-equal 19th in the world (first in Australia) with King's College London by the 2015/16 QS World University Rankings, and 47nd in the world (second in Australia) by the 2016/17 Times Higher Education. ANU was named the world's 7th (first in Australia) most international university in a 2017 study by Times Higher Education. In the 2015 Times Higher Education Global Employability University Ranking, an annual ranking of university graduates' employability, ANU was ranked 32nd in the world (first in Australia). ANU is ranked 100th in the world (1st in Australia) in the CWTS Leiden ranking. ANU is ranked first in the 4 Palmes category in the Eduniversal ranking.
Notable past faculty include Mark Oliphant, Keith Hancock, Manning Clark, Derek Freeman, H. C. Coombs, Hedley Bull and Frank Fenner. Nobel Prizes have been awarded to former ANU Chancellor Howard Florey and faculty members John Eccles, John Harsanyi, Rolf M. Zinkernagel, Peter Doherty and Brian Schmidt. Notable present scholars include Hilary Charlesworth, Ian McAllister, Warwick McKibbin, Keith Dowding, Amin Saikal and Jeremy Shearmur.
ANU alumni are especially visible in government. Bob Hawke and Kevin Rudd, former Australian Prime Ministers, attended the university, as did senior politicians Barry O'Farrell, Nick Minchin, Kim Beazley Sr, Peter Garrett, Craig Emerson, Stephen Conroy, Gary Gray, Warren Snowdon, Joe Ludwig and Catherine King and Michael Keenan. ANU has produced 30 current Australian Ambassadors and more than a dozen current heads of Australian Public Service departments, including Prime Minister & Cabinet secretary Michael Thawley, Treasury secretary Martin Parkinson, Finance secretary Jane Halton, Education secretary Lisa Paul, Agriculture secretary Paul Grimes, Attorney-General's secretary Chris Moraitis, Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer, Employment secretary Renee Leon, Social Services secretary Finn Pratt, Industry secretary Glenys Beauchamp, ASIS director-general Nick Warner and ACCC chairman Rod Sims. Graduates also include Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands Gordon Darcy Lilo, former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, former Governor of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand Don Brash, former British cabinet minister Patricia Hewitt and former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
Other notable alumni include High Court of Australia judges Stephen Gageler and Geoffrey Nettle, Chief Federal Magistrate John Pascoe, human rights lawyer Jennifer Robinson, Kellogg's CEO John Bryant, former Singapore Airlines CEO Cheong Choong Kong, Indiana University president Michael McRobbie, University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellors Alan Gilbert and Glyn Davis, mathematician John H. Coates, public intellectuals Clive Hamilton and economists Ross Garnaut, Peter Drysdale and John Quiggin and scientist-Master of University House Peter Kanowski.
ANU is a member of the Group of Eight, Association of Pacific Rim Universities and the International Alliance of Research Universities. As Australia’s only member of this association, ANU enjoys close relationships and exchange partnerships with the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University of California, Berkeley, Yale University, Peking University, National University of Singapore, University of Tokyo, University of Copenhagen and ETH Zurich. ANU and University of Melbourne are the only two Australian partner universities of Yale University's Fox Fellowship program.