The Blacktown campus has a long pre-UWS history, situated almost adjacent to the first land granted to an aboriginal person (Colebee), and near the original site of Macquarie’s ‘Black Town’. The campus’s direct origins, however, lie as one of a chain of military installations scattered through Western Sydney. Originally a war-time RAAF Aerodrome (built 1942-1945), it became a base for the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm on 5 February 1945 (commissioned as HMS Nabthorpe, then HMS Nabstock). On 9 June 1946 the aerodrome returned to RAAF control, though with the war over, there was a hiatus in its use. From 1949-1951, 21 huts were refitted to respond to another crisis, the influx of migrants set afoot by the devastated condition of Europe. The site then became a RAN Aircraft Repair Yard (RANARY), as the air arm extension of HMAS Albatross (based in Nowra). (RAAF units moved to Williamtown and Richmond, near the University’s Hawkesbury campus). On 1 April 1953, the site was commissioned as a full RANARY and technical training establishment, and called ‘HMAS Nirimba. It remained operational until decommissioned on 25 February 1994. The holding of Australia’s first international Air Show on 8 November 1977 perhaps fuelled local fears that it would become the site for Sydney’s overflow airport needs. Local ‘progress’ people (and Blacktown Council) agitated with their politicians for a solution which would build social capacity in the underprivileged area.
As it happened, Blacktown politicians (Federal and State) held uniquely influential positions at the same time that UWS members Nepean and Hawkesbury were both looking for additional campuses. Roger Price (member for Chifley) as Parliamentary Secretary for Defence alerted Graham Swain to the possibility that government might make funds available for a campus on the site, and worked with the Vice-Chancellor (Brian Smith) and Chancellor (Sir Ian Turbott) to obtain University assent. The New South Wales Education Ministry made it known it would support an ‘education precinct’, which combined the aspirations of the Secondary Schools Board and TAFE in the region, while the Catholic Education Office was also keen to be involved. The idea was for a single shared site governed by a board of delegates from the partner organisations, with some shared facilities (e.g. the Library, swimming pool, sporting grounds etc) and a seamless track from high school to and through TAFE and University. In fact, that level of cooperation was seen early, but declined over time as the original discussants moved on or retired, and the university was caught up in unification and (from 1996) battles with a new Coalition government with different priorities for Sydney’s western suburbs.
The challenges were many. The Commonwealth’s $6m (and even its later addition of another $6m) did not meet the University’s share of the purchase price, let alone the extensive costs involved in renovation. With a new tiered lecture theatre to make up for the site’s naval past, total estimated expenditure at the time of acquisition hovered around $26.3m over four years, with Brian Lindsay at Hawkesbury having to reassure his colleagues as to the ability of the Member to ‘accommodate the maximum shortfall of $10.205m’. It was close to Westmead, difficult to access without a car, and stripped the Hawkesbury campus of nearly half its students at a time when government funding (through the mid-1990s) began to decline in relative terms. A ‘handover ceremony’ was held on 23 March 1995 and, after extensive refitting which saw some buildings ‘refurbished down to the slab’, the Campus opened for business in 1995. Business, some introductory Law units, and some Humanities were moved over, along with pathway programs for students who had not performed well in the HSC. The partner institutions, NSW TAFE (1995), Terra Sancta College (opened 1998), and Wyndham Senior College (1999), opened progressively.
With declining funding, however, and the growing popularity of the Parramatta campus, the ability of Nirimba to attract students also declined. As with Parramatta, the failure of the NSW Government to schedule adequate train services on the Y-link continued to make the site difficult to access by public transport for students coming from the south. By 2007, community agencies discovered that the University was considering closing the campus. Blacktown Council in particular protested vigorously, and conversations were held accordingly. As a result, the campus profile was refigured, including significant new student residence facilities, and in 2009 became the home for the University’s expanding pathways program, UWSCollege. The campus de facto ‘god father’, Roger Price, joined with the Vice-Chancellor to unveil the dedication plaque, leading one senior administrator to remark wryly (with reference to the University’s recent experience of Federal Government funding over previous years) that ‘it was good to see a vice-chancellor and a politician pulling in the same direction’.