The Train from Shanghai

Outside the Shanghai Art Museum, as part of the current 7th Shanghai Biennale, stands the rusting hulk of a mid-twentieth century locomotive. Close by stands a similarly-rusted group of Communist Party cadres waving in metallic decay at the departing, but static, train.

The installation by Chinese artist Jing Shijian refers to the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages” campaign in the 1960s and 1970s, during which many students, even teenagers, were pressured to leave the city on trains like these to work in rural areas. These have since been described as a sort of lost generation for China, forced into rural exile and losing opportunities for formal education.

The Biennale is being attended by a quite different group of young Chinese students, with a range of opportunities and ambitions that contrast with those of their parents' generation. Groups were posing happily in front of the installation and with the iron Red Guards. Some of these are looking to travel much further afield, perhaps even overseas to Australia, to take opportunities for education.

One such was Ms Zhang, a young woman from Nanjing who came to the recent University of Melbourne Expo in Shanghai. Nanjing is not very far from Shanghai - 3 hours if you get the right train (if you are on a bus with a driver who doesn't know the way very well it can be more like 4 1/2 hours, but that's another story...). Ms Zhang caught the train to attend our late-afternoon event at the JC Mandarin Hotel and spent the whole four hours in conversations with faculty members and staff, learning about the Melbourne Model, Trinity College Foundation Studies, and the challenges and opportunities of life and study in Melbourne. Unlike some of her contemporaries she is not intent on Commerce or Medicine but wants to study Arts, with a strong interest in Media. She is not from a wealthy family - her parents are factory workers - but she has done very well at school and attends one of Nanjing's leading secondary schools. Her journey to Australia still faces some real hurdles.

Wanting to attend all the workshops we ran she and her friends found they could not catch the train they had booked for. They were short on cash and our staff were wondering how to assist them, given they had no money for a hotel room either. In the end they were happy to find they could re-book on the 11.33pm train, a milk-run that would take 6 hours to get home - they had no seats either, but would be standing or perched on bags and boxes. This hardly dampened their enthusiasm - they were so tremendously excited by what they had seen and learned.

The next day I left Shanghai, taking the Maglev train to Pudong airport. The train reaches speeds of 430 km/h during its 7 minute journey. It was the day of the Shanghai F1 Grand Prix, and I was travelling faster than Lewis Hamilton. It was sobering to think how easy this journey was compared those of Chinese students now, let alone longer ago.


Beijing Diary

Beijing is a monumental city, not just because of its immense size but because of the symbolism so strongly stamped on and by its most prominent buildings.

While its history is longer and more complex than any simple schema, three different layers or kinds of symbolism seem very evident.

First there is the remarkable set of ancient buildings and complexes that have survived a tumultuous history. The Forbidden City - technically the Palace Museum - is a sprawling but highly-ordered complex of buildings and spaces that assert the power of its ruler by strong statements of control over access. For those few who entered, a seemingly endless succession of gates, courts and pavilions reflected and reinforced the gradations of knowledge and power.

The nearby Temple of Heaven complex is of similar age but presents a more subtle interaction of the powers of heaven and earth. Its own walled spaces and pavilions are more clearly interdependent for their significance with the surrounding park and the sky itself, and seem to invite the natural elements into a dialogue with rulers and people.

Visitors and more distant onlookers have long been familiar with the statements made by a second set of buildings and spaces, the great Tiananmen Square and the related structures which reflect the period since the revolution and the leadership of Mao Zedong. These are somewhat ambiguous for westerners since the events of 1989, if not otherwise.

Tiananmen Square is named for the great southern gate of the Forbidden City which it faces, and is the largest such space in the world. Its vast expanse is framed with the imposing but still somewhat uninspiring Great Hall of the People and by Mao's mausoleum, among other massive institutional statements in stone. These reflect another kind of order and power, literally adjunct to the Forbidden City and which refer to it, but which intriguingly left the old palace complex to continue to make its own mute historic statements.

The third layer is that of the new China, so energetically displayed during the 2008 Olympics. In fact the first and most potent expression seen by many visitors is the new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport, a stunning statement in glass and steel. This has a counterpoint close to Tiananmen in the new Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts, known (not necessarily fondly) as "The Egg". The Theatre is the work of French architect Paul Andreu. Although its low curves are intended to work with the similar heights of the ancient gate and modern halls nearby, it has drawn criticism for the contrasting form of its design, and its western origin.

The better-known images of the Olympic Stadium and Water Sports Centre also belong with these icons of China's contemporary quest for openness and economic development.

Like successive layers, these architectural statements add to one another, each modifying but not erasing the earlier. Each speaks unmistakeably of power, as well as of its respective quest for engagement with the wider world, conveying the changing and expanding aspirations of the Chinese people.


Shanghai Diary

In 1872, thirty Chinese schoolboys sailed to the United States to commence university education.

This first organized foray into international education on the part of China was the fulfilment of a long and hard-fought dream on the part of Yung Wing, a southern Chinese official who had been educated at Yale through the support of an American missionary teacher. Yung's motives were more or less "liberal"; a convert to Christianity as well as to other aspects of western culture, Yung saw the prospect of a more open and modern China depending on the experience and knowledge that such a group might gain in the USA.

Others who supported or acquiesced to the mission were more suspicious or at least circumspect, hoping that the boys would acquire knowledge that might help guard China against the West. Their concerns were not unreasonable; this was in the immediate aftermath of the Opium Wars, when western engagement was an obviously malign force in China, not unreasonably feared and rejected.

The experiment was relatively short-lived, and the mission that had sent these "China Boys" (as they were known among their associates in Connecticut) was recalled in 1881, after it was perceived that its participants were adopting western customs and losing their Chinese identity and loyalty.

This piece of history has a variety of sequels, as successive groups of Chinese students have travelled to the West. In each period there has been an inevitable relationship between the policies and hopes on the part of the state that have allowed, impeded or driven students, and the realities of China's relationships with the rest of the world.

There have been other instances of withdrawal, such as the Cultural Revolution, when those who has studied overseas, or otherwise participated in higher education, were stigmatized and often severely punished.

There have also been other instances of state-driven engagement, as at present. Today many students from China are traveling abroad - including to Melbourne, in increasing numbers - carrying ambitions fostered by recent decades of liberalization and economic development. Such projects are again viewed with hope, but also imbued with a new confidence, given China's emergence as an unquestioned world power.


On Being a Student: Vocation

Based on excerpts from an address given at the World Student Christian Federation Day of Prayer for Students, Brunswick Uniting Church, August 31 2008

In the 21st or in any other century, students have had an acknowledged role or vocation in society that goes somewhat beyond the mere fact that they are studying. It has been recognized in many times and places that the combination of youth, intellectual ability and the opportunities for reflection presented in university life means that some of society’s most creative and most critical participants are its students. Students have very often been among those most actively producing new ideas and new cultural forms, and among those most concerned with identifying society’s failures and its need for change.

However the realities of being a student in the 21st century in Australia are not altogether conducive to this role. Some planned developments in our education system, along with some accidents of history, have made student life busier and often less well-resourced or supported. The rapid expansion of our campuses and student numbers without commensurate funding and overt government attacks on the funding of student activities are obvious factors. Less obvious things include the emphasis on coursework, which maintains a fairly constant pressure on many students throughout the year. All these conspire to make the visionary calling of the student a difficult one to foster. While the determined and the well-resourced may still find the time and space for activism, many are too occupied with the immediate demands of formal study and of paid employment to offer much energy to those other, traditional pursuits of the student.

It is tempting to bemoan this situation, and to romanticize the experiences of recent decades or the last century as though they were all protests and poetry. The lament of a 13th century Chinese observer recorded in the Shilin Guangji is strikingly similar to the complaints of some today! In fact students have rarely been immune from pressures related to the need for employment and productivity.

And important as that visionary element of student identity is, we should not disparage those for whom the pursuit of economic security is the more obvious goal of their studies, or forget that university education has something to do with such goals for nearly everyone. While privileged groups may tend to think that the student of Arts or Science is the archetypal creative and critical intellectual, those from communities which have been marginalized and which struggle to achieve freedom and democracy may find that real power and opportunity comes through their access to skills and knowledge of a more technical or professional kind.

The prophetic has to find some relationship with the professional. The professionally-focussed student may have lost something without a sense of vision or creativity, but the prophetic or creative side of student life can become self-serving without a broader frame of reference including service.

I suggest that they are linked by the idea of “vocation”.

“Vocation” and especially “vocational” are used often used rather prosaically, to mean something ike “job” and “job-related”; but strictly speaking, such language implies a relationship between a job, profession or some other pursuit, and on the other hand a wider or larger reality that has “called” the person into that role. To speak of vocation and to mean it is already subversive of a merely technical or economically-driven approach to study or to life; it means being willing to place study itself and life itself in relationship to a wider horizon of meaning and value.

Frederick Buechner calls vocation “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet”. He affirms in this statement the possibility that what we find in ourselves most fulfilling and for which we yearn, can be related fruitfully to the needs of the world in which we live. This insight might bridge the apparent contrast between the prophetic and professional orientations of student life; for all are called to seek that meeting place between our own gladness and the world’s need.


The (Other) Forbes List: University Rankings and the Educational Experience

A version of this opinion piece has been published in the Australian newspaper, here.

University rankings have become an important but contentious element in how Australia’s higher education is being viewed, presented and assessed. Increasingly the ranking systems themselves are also jostling for position. On the world stage, the Times Higher Education Supplement’s league tables compete with the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by the Graduate School of Education at the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, updated just last week.

Prospective students and their families in America have long relied on assessments provided by weekly news magazine, the U.S. News and World Report. This more consumer-oriented ranking now has a competitor for the first time in Forbes Magazine, which has just released its own list of the top 500 or so (of over 4,000) Colleges and Universities in the United States.

While USNWR tended to weight issues such as reputation, exclusivity and endowment size in what is arguably a circular and somewhat arid set of variables, Forbes’ has been willing to ask educational questions, or at least to attempt them. Its method, developed by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, combines measures such as graduation rates with more glossy features like numbers of Rhodes or Fulbright scholarships. It also puts significant emphasis on student evaluations of teachers. While there are questionable elements of their formula, Forbes’ method and their list is provoking a necesssary debate about what really constitutes the best overall tertiary education.

The results, or at least the rankings, are remarkable. While a series of prestigious private universities has appeared more or less where expected in the Forbes list, with Princeton at the head, some major players have been handed scathing report cards. In particular, many large public universities have been ranked in terms far below where both the USNWR and the Shanghai Jiao Tong’s ARWU place them. So the University of Wisconsin-Madison will presumably emphasize their ARWU ranking of 15 among American universities rather than the Forbes rating of 335, and UCLA will prefer its Shanghai-derived placement at 11 to the extra digit from Forbes – 111. These contrasts seem based in significant part on the quality of the educational experience as the students and graduates themselves perceive it.

Meanwhile a series of feisty unknowns, mostly small liberal-arts colleges like Wabash in Indiana and Centre College in Kentucky, now have applicants scrambling to their web sites in the thousands after top-ten appearances in Forbes. These and other small but already-distinguished places like Swarthmore College, Wellesley, Amherst and Williams feature very prominently, but do not even qualify for ARWU rankings because they are not research universities.

The contrast between these results can be taken with salt, of course. A UNESCO-sponsored set of ‘Berlin Principles’ for constructing such league tables was assembled in 2006, in response to growing concern about potential misuse of rankings. These 16 principles emphasize the need for transparency in constructing tables, and for acknowledging that all such measures are assembled to address specific interests rather than constituting a one-stop complete university ranking system. One could say then that ARWU and Forbes are asking quite different questions, and hence complement each other.

Yet the success of those principles will lie as much in the hands of the reader or user as of the compiler. The problem for the Australian higher education scene is that the ARWU rankings in particular are often being used sweepingly and uncritically, as though they were actually a measure of university excellence rather than of research performance (and particularly of scientific and technical research at that). Australia lacks not only a Forbes-type survey but even perhaps a sense of urgency about making the educational foundations of the university experience central to assessing performance in the sector. Eventually, as it becomes available, Australian and perhaps especially international students will pay closer attention to information about the quality of the different educational experiences on offer. The leading Australian universities, and Federal policy-makers, should be particularly concerned about the fate of those large public universities – their closest analogues in the US – in the new American survey.

While the Bradley Review foreshadows increased diversity in Australian higher education, there is a danger that this current confusion of research performance and university quality will enshrine teaching and learning as a secondary set of processes. For instance the idea of a sort of “teaching-only” institution as it emerges from time to time in the local debate always seems to assume a kind of second-tier entity. In fact the teaching-focussed institution, if and when it appears in Australia, might be a powerful and attractive option. Just ask them about it at Swarthmore.


Still Waiting for the (Education) Revolution

Based on part of Trinity's submission to the Bradley Review of Higher Education.

The Federal Government's intention for Education in Australia has been described as a "revolution". For this to become a reality we have to ask genuinely radical questions, not just seek modestly revised answers to the existing ones. While our universities have great strengths, there are issues not yet being scrutinized carefully enough to ensure a really revolutionary outcome.

Australia’s higher education system is unusual for a relatively low emphasis on student experience beyond the classroom in even the most prestigious or well-resourced institutions. Australian policy and practice have tended not to acknowledge how important such elements as residential life, or cultural, sporting and political activities developed by students themselves, are for educational purposes. Pressure on resources in the sector has continued to inhibit serious challenges to such assumptions.[1] There is however an emerging conversation about issues such as student experience or engagement, which now offers an historic opportunity in conjunction with the government’s stated intention to foster a more internally diverse higher education sector.

The importance of student experience includes broad and traditional goals of universities such as the education of the whole person and/or citizen, and the more pragmatic but important industry requirements which the Review Discussion Paper identifies under the somewhat prosaic title of “generic skills”. Alongside the need for vocational skills and the pursuit of knowledge or love of learning however, we might set the very traditional connection between higher education and citizenship itself.

That connection is made in the Review Discussion Paper but largely in terms of vocational preparation and production of knowledge (1.2). It needs (also) to be made in terms of the education of persons who will contribute to professions, business or the academy, not only through expertise but through embodying and promoting values such as commitment to national and global interests, or social justice or inclusion.

While it is not easy to negotiate the shared values that might characterize Australian society, let alone its higher education sector, consideration of this possibility is important, and the opportunity timely. In practice and policy this means giving institutions the scope and the incentive to articulate their mission with questions of value, and not just vocation, in mind. The envisaged diversity for the sector could become a means for different institutions explicitly to address social inclusion, sustainability, pluralism or other more specific agendas.

An approach to the task of higher education which includes citizenship or values among the tasks and concerns of the sector does involve consideration of the formal curriculum but inevitably transcends it. It demands consideration of abilities and skills that must be developed in community life, in voluntary organizations, in service projects.

Based on international standards of best practice, the formation of citizens and the development of generic skills both require attention to the student experience itself. Students need opportunities to engage with others in projects of common interest, to be challenged through experiences of diversity, to confront problems of real life as well as of theoretical nature, and to develop communication skills. While many of these areas need to be addressed in curriculum, the restriction of consideration to the classroom or its adjunct processes would be ineffective.

In Australian institutions, student unions have been an important focus for activities of this kind outside the lecture theatre. The former government’s abolition of compulsory fees for these organizations was possible because public discourse about higher education erroneously depicted them as optional extras that could to be pursued voluntarily, if and when seen as valuable.

While a fresh approach to student-run activities and organizations would be welcome, this Review should take the opportunity to move beyond the assumption that student activities and the student experience generally lie beyond the core of the university’s activity, or can be adequately addressed solely by student organizations themselves. Rather the student experience should without exception be addressed in university strategic plans, and seen as important for consideration of funding formulae.

Another important venue for student experience or engagement has been in residential colleges and other structured communities such as halls of residence. These have had a mixed history in Australia, and not always given scope to fulfill their potential, but internationally have continued to be important centres for developing the values and skills at issue.

At the best universities around the globe, residence is very often assumed as an educational given, rather than merely a logistical challenge (as in “housing”). The increasing mobility of Australian (and of course international) students provides a strategic opportunity to reiterate the place of residential life and the necessity of governing it in terms that are in keeping with the broader mission of the university, i.e., as an integral aspect of the university educational experience, rather than purely as an incidental need.

[1] I note the remarks of Professor Ian Chubb of ANU on “The role of student housing in the higher education sector” at the recent AACUHO Conference: “if I could get ANU to be a wholly collegiate university tomorrow, I would do it”. And later “…but is it achievable? Well, no it is not”.


Boston Diary: The Shot Heard Round the World (Independence Day)

The Fourth of July is as big a thing in Boston as anywhere in the USA. This home of revolutionary icons and of the eponymous Tea Party, and starting point of Paul Revere’s ride, celebrates the day literally with a bang: in the morning the sound of cannon-fire can be heard in the course of various period-costume marches and re-enactments like the one on Cambridge Common, close to where I am presently staying. At night a traditional festive concert next to the Charles River by the Boston Pops Orchestra gives way to a massive fireworks display.

The emphasis on loud bangs is more than incidental; in the Boston area Independence Day is often related to the events of April 1775, when a British column from Boston marched out to fight rebel militias at Lexington and Concord. For many this was the opening of the Revolutionary War. As Ralph Waldo Emerson told the story:

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood,

And fired the shot heard round the world.

One of those Boston icons, very much related to the “shot heard round the world”, is the Old North Church, officially Christ Church, Boston. The Choir of Trinity College is to sing there as part of its US tour, from the midst of which I am writing.

The Church steeple in particular is thought to have played an important part in the same events, and particularly those portrayed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” which was set on the same night of the British march:

He said to his friend, "If the British march

By land or sea from the town to-night,

Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch

Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--

One if by land, and two if by sea;

And I on the opposite shore will be,

Ready to ride and spread the alarm

Through every Middlesex village and farm,

For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Some of the story as Longfellow told it was mythical. Apparently Revere was one of dozens of riders trying to spread the alarm of a British attack, and not necessarily the most successful. The signal from the Old North Church was given at his request but for another rider, who did not get through the British lines. He was, however, a significant figure in the American revolution for other reasons, and not unjustly remembered.

Viewed from a greater distance, like across the Pacific, the rituals and stories of American nationality can be a bit hard to understand, or just hard to take. My American friends of whatever political and religious persuasion tend, however, to embrace them. The arguments they have among themselves do not usually centre on whether celebration of national identity is a good thing, but rather on which version of it, and which accompanying values, will prevail. It is a great strength of American culture that its symbols function as symbols should, with a ‘surplus of meaning’, rather than just as ‘signs’ that have a single uncontested message that can be contested or rejected.

The impact of this robust sense of national identity is, of course, a more ambiguous matter on the world scene. Like the symbols themselves however, it is not to be dismissed or explained in single or simple terms. Myths have their own power which is not to be denied.


The Mitre (Still) Fits Just Fine

In the last two weeks I attended historic services in Perth and Melbourne where Australia's first two female Anglican bishops were consecrated. These were moving and joyful occasions, reflections of Anglican diversity as well as celebrations of the full inclusion of women and men in the three historic orders of Christian ministry.

In Perth, Trinity College alumna Archdeacon Kay Goldsworthy became the first Australian woman to join the episcopate when Archbishop Roger Herft and an impressive array of bishops clad in cope and mitre gathered around her in St George's Cathedral, as the congregation sang the ancient hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Among the bishops was another pioneer, Victoria Matthews, former Bishop of Edmonton in Canada and now elected Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. Laying hands on Kay, Bishop Victoria actually became the first woman to exercise a uniquely episcopal ministry in Australia, just ahead of the new colleague over whom she was praying. Speaking to the congregation, Bishop Victoria reminded us that we were not creating some new species called "woman bishop" but rather calling this woman, and others in future alongside men, to the apostolic ministry.

In Melbourne just over a week later, Canon Barbara Darling was made bishop by another crowd of episcopal colleagues, again including one woman - this time Bishop Kay Goldsworthy herself. This time the group was arrayed in the more sombre black, red and white convocation robes that are the traditional dress of Anglican bishops at Morning or Evening Prayer, but used on this occasion in deference to a "low-Church" sensibility still imposed on St Paul's Cathedral by local ecclesiastical politics. Bishop Barbara was handed a cope and mitre - but the liturgy did not provide her the chance to put them on.

The semiotics of liturgical garb are uniquely complex in Anglicanism, and arguments about them can seem twee or just absurd. However these details are reflections of the more explicit battles being waged in the wider Anglican Communion. While acceptance and inclusion of gay and lesbian members and ministers is the most prominent, the place of women in leadership remains one of them.

The robes worn in Melbourne, or rather the perceived necessity of not wearing cope and mitre, can be taken into two ways. First and positively, they represent the support for women's ministry by low-Church or evangelical Anglicans who often prefer that dress, as well as by the more high-Church or catholic wing arrayed around Bishop Kay in Perth. Bishop Barbara Darling is herself an evangelical, a former student and staff member of Ridley College, but has support and respect across the theological spectrum.

Negatively however, the exclusion or marginalization of "catholic" liturgical dress such as cope and mitre at St Paul's Cathedral, even at a time where more evangelical congregations and ministers in Melbourne are ignoring the minimal dress requirements for all Anglican clergy at public worship (i.e. the "surplice"), is startling. It reminds us that there is a less eirenic agenda, harking back to the Puritan strand of earlier Anglican history, that seeks to exclude aspects of ritual and theology that belong to Anglicanism's more catholic side, as well as women's leadership.

The tension is reflected in major upcoming meetings across the Anglican Communion. Bishops Barbara, Kay and Victoria will all attend the Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops in July. Some Australian and other conservative bishops have refused to attend Lambeth, and will only go to the "Global Anglican Futures Conference", where conservatives are seeking to articulate and build their alternative Anglican future. Although there will be more women at GAFCON than at Lambeth, there is a sort of give-away line in one authoritative apologia for the new meeting:

"Bishops and their wives, and clergy and laity, including the next generation of young leaders, will attend GAFCON"[1]

"Bishops and their wives" - the wives presumably also being among the laity (and perhaps even clergy?) - betrays not simply a male but a patriarchal mind-set, which must seem highly dubious to many evangelical as well as to liberal and catholic Anglicans.

I should add that I am not an opponent of GAFCON per se, even if I am not sympathetic to the theological vision of many participants or to their specific hopes for the future of the Anglican Communion. Anglicans of other cast should be willing to learn from the initiative it represents, and be open to such learning and cooperation as its actual results allow or demand.

Yet while the mainstream of Anglicanism lacks vision in many places in the West particularly, I believe history will show that the inclusion of women and men in ministry is a crucial area where we got it right. When women were first ordained deacon in 1986 and priest in 1992 there was enormous tension - even a bomb scare. By contrast, the events of the last few weeks in Perth and Melbourne have seemed the natural extension of an experience now widely-shared among Australian Anglicans, of productive and faithful leadership in ministry by women, alongside men.

The onus now lies on opponents of women's participation, very many participants in GAFCON included, to justify their own positions. Their arguments continue to exist, and their consciences must still be respected - but their capacity to dictate terms of exclusion has waned. We should be wary of attempts to distract or divide the Anglican Communion by those whose opposition to the proven and indeed compelling case for full inclusion of women is being obscured by the more contentious matter of including gays and lesbians.

Barbara Harris, the first woman made bishop in the Anglican Communion, said to those gathered at her conscration "The Mitre fits just fine!" It was a statement about more than vesture. I have already seen that Bishop Kay's mitre fits - and look forward to seeing the newer Bishop Barbara's mitre on as well.

[1] Canon Chris Sugden, in the Church Times of January 11 2008.


Engaging Students

Based on extracts from the Morpeth Lecture 2008, given at Christ Church Cathedral Newcastle for the Anglican Diocese and the University of Newcastle, April 17 2008

Australian higher education is undergoing what has been described as a “revolution”. Its precise form is so far unknown, but the Federal Government is undertaking a fundamental review whose consequences might be far-reaching.

Not all the challenges the universities face have been fully or publicly recognized. There is a wide recognition that under-resourced campuses and crowded lecture rooms do not always really match the qualities and aspirations of the students and staff who inhabit them. Yet there is a related challenge that goes deeper than facilities, to the heart of the educational process and its aims.

There is an emerging national conversation about issues labelled "student experience" or "engagement". The results of a survey released by the Australian Council for Educational Research just last week make an important contribution to that discourse. The Australasian Survey of Student Engagement examines "what students are actually doing, highlights the most critical aspects of learning and development, provides a ‘learner-centred, whole-of-institution’ perspective, and gives an index of students’ involvement in study".[1]

Principal author of the report was Dr Hamish Coates, a former resident tutor and President of our Senior Common Room at Trinity College. The report, Attracting, Engaging, Retaining, contains some very positive data about how students experience Australian university education. It also suggests that there are areas, such as significant interaction between teachers and students, and enrichment of the educational experience through broadening activities outside the classroom, where measures of Australian students’ engagement with the university experience lags significantly behind their American peers’.

This is a particularly interesting and significant area to reflect on from the Collegiate perspective. Having begun life as a residential College community, Trinity has sought to maintain a sense of community where teachers and students are ultimately colleagues, "members" of the College as our constitution puts it. And since our purpose has always been broader than the provision of curriculum, activities beyond the classroom have always been crucial to the learning experience.

While we should be encouraged by the emergence of a serious discourse in Australia about student experience. it is less encouraging to see it being presented under a title “Attracting, Engaging and Retaining” students, indicating perhaps that many leaders and policy makers do not yet see engagement and experience as the heart of education, but adjunct to it, or even just as a means to maintain enrolments. In fact an educational vision that is unashamedly and primarily focussed on quality of student experience is ultimately more likely to succeed at attracting and retaining, as well as engaging.

Yet this is a challenge for us at Trinity too. There is no doubt that what we are able to offer students in the Collegiate environment is exceptional. Perhaps the challenge we face, together with the University and other Colleges, is how to make this kind of educational experience more widely available, and less the preserve of an exceptional and privileged few.

[1] Attracting, Engaging and Retaining: New Conversations About Learning (Camberwell, Vic: ACER, 2008)


Countering Cash Cows: Rethinking How Australian Higher Education Views International Students

Update: A version of this piece was published today (12 March 08) in The Australian.

International students’ interests are not at the forefront of current debates about Higher Education funding in Australia. Their access to Australian Universities will not change radically with the implementation of new policies that abolish full-fee domestic places – as before, students from overseas will be fee-payers. But the changes promised by the Rudd Government, aimed to benefit domestic students, entrench some unhappy assumptions about those from elsewhere.

Over the last few decades, Australian Universities have built up a remarkable and problematic dependence on income derived from overseas students, often receiving more revenue from their tuition fees than from Commonwealth Grants. The capacity of such students to offer this revenue stream risks being the sole determiner of their value to the Australian system, student numbers being determined not by policy factors relating to educational experiences or outcomes, so much as the ‘bottom line’ or other practical limits.

Educational leaders and policy makers are certainly sensitive to this issue. In an important speech at the Melbourne Press Club last week, Monash University Vice-Chancellor Richard Larkins – also an alumnus and Fellow of Trinity – made some telling points about the challenges facing the sector, including the place of international students. He noted, for instance, the inhospitable message created by something as concrete and small-minded as the lack of public transport concessions to students from overseas.

Professor Larkins also called for the deregulation of the Student Contribution Amount for HECS, which would allow Universities themselves to set fees they deemed appropriate and viable. This is a complicated issue, but I would add one further reason it should be taken very seriously.

There is a sort of structural temptation to treat Australia’s international engagement, particularly for undergraduate education, as primarily financial. The inability of Australian Universities to charge fees beyond current HECS levels leaves international students easy targets for cash-strapped and short-sighted University managers and planners. Their renewed status as the sole group of full-fee payers, as well as the established reliance on international students in the sector, may be deeply subversive of attempts to set enrolment targets based on any other factor. Such an approach is ultimately self-defeating because it is not driven by the desire for excellence that is necessary for the success of the institutions, and risks undermining the quality of what is being offered to those on whose enthusiasm the system depends.

Although Australia in general is well-regarded by international students who come here, this positive view is no cause for complacency when an increasingly competitive future looms. Recent research suggests that the specific institution, rather than a national system, will be the key to attracting quality students in future (Campus Review 19.02.08, pp. 1, 5). Australian Universities need to base their international strategies first on maintaining and developing quality, and by doing so address specific concerns such as pedagogy and student experience. They also need to be able to think about goals that recall and go beyond the Colombo Plan of the mid-twentieth century, reclaiming the place of education as a basis for international relations and social development.

We risk relying on the flawed assumption that the relationship between international enrolments and quality of educational experience runs largely in one direction, and that so long as the funding holds out all students will benefit. This is just one symptom of a broader flaw in discourse about Australian Higher Education, the one which imagines curriculum alone as a guarantee of desired University outcomes. If that were true, it would matter little to the quality of education just who participated, or where. In fact we know that students benefit as much from the social, cultural and aesthetic environment in which their experience takes place as from other factors – one element of which is just who does participate.

For international students’ sake but for Australians’ too, we need to have aims for international engagement based on considerations of quality such as pedagogy and student experience. Trinity itself runs what is recognized as a leading Foundation Studies (TCFS) program in close association with the University of Melbourne. We are benefiting from strong enrolments at present, but believe we have achieved them by maintaining and promoting quality of teaching and learning for their own sake. Since our program is specifically for international students, we don’t have the option of admitting Australians and anticipating the more diverse student experience at the University, but we know that we benefit pedagogically – not just financially - from having students from as many as 25 foreign countries. Their diversity is a huge advantage, as well as a challenge, to teachers and to the students themselves. The University also benefits from the presence of a group of students whose rich experience with us has proven to be a successful preparation for what comes after.

Australian Universities need to ask now just what forms of educational engagement with a global reality will make them better places to teach, learn and research. The second question, not the first, is how all this relates to the ‘bottom line’. Of course the capacity to ask such questions itself depends on financial viability, and there is the rub. But one thing is clear – selling education internationally without regard to the impact of the sale on the product itself is unsustainable. If Australian Universities want to offer anything to our neighbours in decades to come, we must pay more attention not just to what we are offering now, but to whom we offer it also. That must mean giving our Universities the scope to consider international students as enriching our campuses for pedagogical purposes, and not merely for economic ones.


From Sudan to St Paul's

Going to Church at All Saints’, North Footscray is a remarkable experience. The congregation arrives by the mini-busload over a period of close to an hour, from well before the service begins until well after. From the buses spill unlikely numbers of laughing children, women elegantly attired in colourful prints, and men in suits and ties. All of them are black.

Inside the Church a faithful remnant of Anglo-Celtic locals, as well as Asian and Pacific Islander members, join with this predominantly Sudanese group in a liturgy that has a wildly eclectic set of rituals, music and moods. Players of drums and electric guitars alternate with a surplice-clad organist who produces the 16th-century tones of Merbecke’s settings for the Book of Common Prayer. Incense and candles adorn the sanctuary, while hands and voices are raised unpredictably in spontaneous prayer.

Until two weeks ago, the Vicar of the Anglican Parish of Footscray was Donald Edgar, a Trinity College student in the 1960s who was greatly influenced by Barry Marshall, chaplain and lecturer in the Theological School at the time. Don also went on to study from and emulate the Worker Priest movement, which in France around that same time had been leading clergy to move their attention from Churches to factory floors. In more recent times he had come to Footscray, and led the parish to a high level of engagement with the new arrivals from the southern Sudan. He has just retired after a remarkable and fruitful ministry.

I saw Don today at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the largest group of candidates ever has been ordained as deacons in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. The size but also the diversity, age and talent of this group of people sit awkwardly with widespread assumptions that the institutional Church is on its last legs.

Among those 27 was one Sudanese refugee, the aptly-named Chaplain Soma Jackson, who was a parishioner at All Saints’ and who has been engaged in study at Trinity’s Theological School since 2004. Although other Sudanese Anglicans have been studying or ordained in Australia, we believe Chaplain is the first Sudanese theological student who has completed the entire process of selection and discernment here as well as obtaining a recognized tertiary qualification.

Chaplain’s is a remarkable story in many respects. He and his family escaped persecution in the Sudan – he himself was arrested on multiple occasions, and subjected to detention, interrogation and torture – and then like so many others, faced the enormous challenges of refugee and migrant families on the other side of the world. Having been educated partly in Uganda and thus with more English language experience than many other Sudanese migrants, Chaplain was able to seek employment and to undertake study.

Don Edgar encouraged Chaplain and other leaders in the Sudanese Anglican community to come to Trinity and study theology at a level well beyond what civil war and lack of resources had allowed them and their peers in the Sudan. It has been a challenge for us and a challenge for them, but today is a great celebration of what this partnership has achieved.

It is also, I believe, a powerful statement about the capacity of a comprehensive and generous Anglicanism to flourish in Australia and elsewhere. The members of the Theological School community such as those ordained deacon today - Sam, Philip, Raffaella, Dorothy, Matthew, Ian, Deidre and Rosemary, as well as Chaplain - are a microcosm of global Anglicanism. They are racially and ethnically diverse, from more catholic and from more evangelical backgrounds, theologically and politically varied. Yet they manage to co-exist, and more than that they prosper, because they are committed to each other and to openness as well as to the foundational expressions of our faith. As at the international level, the only thing that could stop us growing together is the refusal of some to do so.

The Theological School’s character is also a reflection of what we might call “Collegiate” education – education that values community as well as excellence. Across all our programs Trinity College seeks to embody this ethos, the rich inheritance of our past, and to give it fresh expression.