The antecedent of RMIT, the Working Men's College of Melbourne, was founded by the Scottish-born grazier and politician The Hon. Francis Ormond in the 1880s. Planning began in 1881, with Ormond basing his model for the college on the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution (now a constituent college of the University of London), Brighton College of Art (now the University of Brighton), Royal College of Art, and the Working Men's College of London.
Ormond donated the sum of £5000 toward the foundation of the college. He was supported in the Victorian Parliament by Charles Pearson and in the Melbourne Trades Hall by William Murphy. The workers' unions of Melbourne rallied their members to match Ormond's donation. The site for the college, on the corners of Bowen Street and La Trobe Street, opposite the Melbourne Public Library, was donated by the Victorian Government.