‘Where is the real University experience?’; Or, ‘Brisbane, Banff and Beyond…’

Last week I attended a national gathering of University College heads in Brisbane. One highlight was an address by John Hay, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland whose Colleges were our hosts.

Professor Hay had been here at Trinity just a few days earlier, attending a Symposium on Philanthropy and the Humanities that we had sponsored in conjunction with other sections of the University of Melbourne. Attendees at the Symposium here were entertained by the TinAlley String Quartet (‘TASQ’), Trinity’s Quartet in Residence, who have been making use of College facilities (appropriately enough in the old Kindergarten, now a Performing Arts building adjacent to Tin Alley itself) and inspiring students with their musical prowess. Professor Hay referred to Trinity’s relationship with TASQ as a model of the way Colleges can engage the aspirations and imaginations of students.

TASQ’s progress this year has in fact been stunning, capped by their winning the 9th Banff International String Quartet Competition earlier this month. Next year they will have a residency at Banff and tour North America and Europe.

Another and more general point made by Prof. Hay was less specific to Trinity but just as important for us. Colleges, he said, are where the real experience of University is now to be had.

This observation, both encouraging and sobering as it is, seems to me to have a number of implications for Colleges. It is a reflection of the great potential of using residential life as a basis for the educational experience, but also involves a difficult if accurate acknowledgement of how varied – to put it fairly positively – student life can now be in Australian Universities.

First, we do have an enormous responsibility to make the more positive element of Prof. Hay’s observation entirely justifiable. Are we managing to provide a “real” University experience? I am confident that we do so at Trinity, and the TASQ example is a wonderful sign of that, but I have not the slightest complacency about this. I am also more conscious, after the Brisbane conference, of how varied the aspirations of different Colleges and Halls of residence are. It is crucial that we keep raising our sights and encouraging others to do the same.

Second, if we are providing not merely a convenience or service (as “accommodation providers”) but something fundamental to the real or richest University experience, then the rarity of that experience must be mitigated by diversity, and by imaginative extension of College life to others. As to the former, Trinity is working to make what we offer available regardless of financial resources, to those who will contribute to, and benefit from, the College experience the most. On the latter point we will shortly be engaging, along with colleagues from other Colleges at this University, in a process of considering initiatives such as renewing non-resident programs – of which ours at Trinity is one of the few active remaining. This is a very promising possibility.

Third, if we are really seeking to provide something so fundamental, this “real” University experience, there must be clear willingness to speak not merely about vocational outcomes and the acquisition of skills for professions, but also about meaning and values. This is part of the reason for Trinity’s existence. And it is, I think, part of what any “real” University experience ought to involve, wherever it takes place.

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