Lifting the Lid on Real Colleges

A recent story in the Sydney Morning Herald reminds us that residential Colleges are not all or always sweetness and light. Alexis Carey's negative experience at Sydney and her recollection of Germaine Greer's much earlier should not be ignored too quickly. Yet they do not adequately describe the reality in many University college settings, or address the potential of residential life as a means for change.

Trinity and the other Colleges at Melbourne have also faced their share of challenges when individuals or groups act in ways that involve bullying, harassment, or exclusion based on gender or race. Too often in the past, and sometimes still today, colleges have been centres of privilege characterized by monocultures. Greer's experience of an all-male bastion is rarer now, but women have also been objectified in co-residential environments.

Yet there are reasons to pause before imagining Carey's experience and comments about "Lifting the Lid" represent a fair picture of what you generally see when looking hard at college life.

One is that colleges actually achieve things for their members educationally that are harder to come by otherwise.

The contemporary large public university can be a bleak environment for students without local support networks, or whose cultural background has not equipped them well to flourish as adults in a new setting. Attrition of tertiary funding generally, and the gratuitous abolition of student amenities fees, have helped create situations where the already-privileged can do well, but those with additional needs for pastoral support and personalized academic help flounder.

Carey is simply wrong claiming that 'professors [are] disheartened by college student's general lack of commitment to study'. Whatever anecdotes lie behind this judgement, the evidence suggests Australian college students are at least as engaged in their education or more so than their non-resident peers. A recent survey by the Australian Council for Education Research suggests:

  • Students in resident life are as likely or more likely to participate in active learning and enriching experiences and in interacting with staff;
  • Over time, college students become more engaged in their experience relative to others;
  • College residents receive great levels of individual support with resulting improved retention;
  • Resident students' learning, development and satisfaction is greater than for other students.
This also means that college life is or ought to be a great opportunity that can be accessible to more, and more diverse, students.

So for instance Trinity has sought to become a more diverse and a more inclusive place. We have worked with other colleges and the University at Melbourne to recruit and engage indigenous students, and now have 15 current residents out of a resident population of just over 280 from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island backgrounds. Colleges around the country are also likely to provide the means for students from rural and regional Australia, systemically less likely to have University degrees, to participate in higher education.

This diversity is also a means of combatting the exclusive tendencies that can emerge when students from particular schools or backgrounds dominate a college population.

Not every aspect of every College's life is ideal. Some may really need the overhaul Carey suggests. All of us engaged in working with young adults know the challenges, and we are not inclined to romanticize them. We need to keep working to improve college life in all its aspects; but we also know that when we lift the lid there are actually many remarkable and exciting stories, and lives being transformed in the process.


A Cosmopolitan University?

The recent University of Melbourne Refining Our Strategy document raises a number of important questions about the international character and mission of the University. A theme of the "cosmopolitan" is discernible in its reflections on how to deepen this international engagement. Melbourne itself is known as a cosmopolitan city, whose diversity is a great strength and attraction; the University of Melbourne should aspire to reflect this character.

Although the University is justly proud of its high international student numbers, it is sobering to admit that current numbers are driven as much or more by financial need than by more strategic and educationally-based targets such as international benchmarks for excellence and diversity, or specific relationships and partnerships. So long as the University loses money on domestic undergraduate enrolments, for which fees are capped at an artificially low level by government, international students are inevitably an attractive source of revenue as much or more than partners in achievement and cooperation.

Historically, the same dependence on international undergraduate enrolments has also led to a preponderance of students from a few countries which most readily provide them at present. Could these issues be separated? To have even the same number of international students as at present, but to bring them from a more diverse set of countries and cultures, would make the challenges and prospects vastly different. Pedagogically and otherwise, this would mean a richer experience for all students, domestic or international. It is also, interestingly, reminiscent of the idea of an “assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot”, as Newman defined the University itself.

The construction of a community of learning out of a diverse constituency has a corollary, namely that the various participants in the University are brought into a shared experience. The University of Melbourne has made a strength of its locale, and this has become a point of difference relative to other major Australian institutions. While there is no reason to avoid specific offshore activities and venues (in, say, the way Harvard has done, without in the least diluting its own strong sense of location), the University should continue to work to the specific strength of being in Melbourne.

A “cosmopolis” is literally a world city, or universal city. To pursue the “cosmopolitan” as a more robust way of developing the international character of the University implies the extension of its “public-spirited” character also. While the University has a specific responsibility to its local and national community, it also has a role in a wider world. This is a moral question, but one of immediate practical significance. An Australian higher education sector that treats international relationships primarily as revenue streams is likely to risk their sustainability.

The University, and Trinity Collge with it, can reflect further on how our international engagements should be developed to reflect more fully our mission of pursuing knowledge and serving the common, global, good.


Harvard Diary: Doing the Business of Change

While there are some things in life we should approach as though today were the last day of our lives, education deserves to be treated as though we might live forever. We are never done with learning, and a rapidly changing world demands continued growth and change in skills and ideas.

I practiced what I preached recently by going back to class at the Harvard Business School. The venue raised a few eyebrows among my associates, as did the mere fact of this academic going back to class – but this was a very relevant experience for someone like me trying to lead an educational institution.

The course was the fulsomely-named Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management, run by the Social Enterprise Initiative at HBS. About 150 participants came, from across the USA and around the globe – a third were international, and of those, Australians turned out to be the largest component (17). One of the happy if odd benefits of being in Boston was some excellent networking opportunities with people who happen to live a tram ride away from me…

SPNM brought together a group most of whom were chief executives of not-for-profit institutions: charities, schools, advocacy groups, welfare providers, foundations, arts organizations, churches and a synagogue. Each had in common a desire to serve a greater good through their particular mission.

The course used HBS’s characteristic Case Study method, where the curriculum emerges not from abstract concepts but from real situations and the dilemmas that faced decision-makers. Across the week we dealt with cases related to three hospitals, a college, a school, charities and foundations and more. We focussed on the need to make our distinctive missions the driving force of our work, and on how to develop strategies to achieve outcomes appropriate to those missions, including how to improve our own performance.

For many people – and I suspect for Australians more than some others – it is counter-intuitive to think of organizations working to transform lives, create social change and work with the neediest in society as “businesses”. Indeed some of the most important critiques of our economic system must and do come from advocates of the marginalized. Yet there is a dangerous and ironic tendency for those who consider themselves critical of wider economic and social realities to be lulled into conservatism about their own institutions and processes.

If the world is worth changing, it is worth doing the work of change well. An institution like my own is well served by staff who have committed themselves not only to doing well at our existing tasks, but to seeking improvements that may be necessary to serve our students and our wider stakeholders – Church, University, alumni – as well as they all deserve. I can’t and won’t exclude myself from any such need to grow and change. John Henry Newman said that “in a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Indeed.


International Students: More than Money

Stories about recent violence against Indian students in Melbourne and the international response have emphasized the importance of international education to Australia in purely quantitative, dollar-based terms; the phrase "$15 billion dollar international education industry" seemed to be pasted formulaically into every article. None asked whether there was a value to Australia, or to international students, beyond that calculation.

Unwittingly, the press as well as the political leaders who are properly concerned about the situation, doubtless benign in and of themselves, are revealing but not addressing the fundamental cause of the problem.

In the last analysis, there is not such a great difference between opportunistic acts of petty crime in the outer suburbs which target international students, and opportunistic educational policies and practices which target international students. In the last analysis, a government which will not grant international students concessional public transport fares has only shaky ground to stand on when it condemns attacks on those who ride trains and buses late at night. Each objectifies the students concerned, and each involves a short-sighted desire for immediate gain whose ramifications for all involved have scarcely been thought through. When you reduce the talent, the needs and the aspirations of thousands of young people to an industry that generates a certain number of dollars, you treat the individuals involved as less than who and what they are.

Australia is justly proud of its institutions of higher learning, some of which are of world class, and others of which at least do well in providing skills and generating ideas which can serve the greater good, here and further afield. International students have an acknowledged place in them, given Australia's developed institutions and strong traditions of academic quality, which may be hard for many to access, in the developing world particularly. There is no need to be coy about the fact that this engagement has economic benefits for Australia, as well as for students' home countries, when they are able to return and maketheir various contributions with new skills.

Yet the basis for any educational enterprise must be more than economic; or rather the "economics" of education have to be more wholistic, concerned with how the production and distribution of resources can be carried out so as to serve the common good, as all economics should be. The economics of anything by this definition concern the fundamental well-being of all the participants. This recognition is necessary even for the financial definitions of success to be met; a "$15 billion dollar international student industry" is no draw-card; only a desire for excellence, and a vision that education can transform lives, can undergird a sustainable
education sector.

Violence is not the only cause for concern for international students. Can we sustain the institutions and the educational experience we offer, when selling them seems to be the only public concern? Will we convince anyone that the security of individuals matters to us when we are obviously looking harder at "metrics" to do with Australian advantage rather than real people or the needs of developing countries?

While critical attention is fortuitously being given to some of the "bottom feeder" private teaching bodies of the shopfront kind at present, the problem is not just a lack of "quality assurance". When Australia's universities are themselves under-funded and enrol international students based on balance-sheet needs rather than any broader strategy of international partnership and engagement, a whole branch of education policy is revealed as bankrupt. At the high end of the quality spectrum as well as the low, we risk objectifying students and jeopardizing the very thing that makes Australian education attractive: a quality that arises from commitment and from values deeper than those of balance-sheets.

The world we inhabit is not a set of closed systems, but a deeply-interdependent network of communities. Australia is a relatively small player in this small world, but it has privileges and resourcesthat bring great responsibility and some hope of a positive role in a very different future. A country that could speak of that responsibility, and of the need for international partnership and understanding as a basic element of education policy, would have a better chance of being a country that could show partnership and understanding to individual Indian students, present and future, too.


Truth and Reconciliation: A Trinity alum leads in the Solomons

Trinity alumnus the Very Reverend Samuel Ata, a priest of the Anglican Church of Melanesia, has just been appointed to chair the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the Solomon Islands. This is the latest of a number of such national tribunals which have brought the idea of "restorative justice" to bear on lingering pain and bitterness after long periods of violence and oppression within nations.

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which functioned primarily between 1995 and 1998, brought to world attention not only the atrocities of the Apartheid era which it was constituted to address, but fundamental issues concerning the nature of justice and the conditions necessary for reconciliation. Although its origins and work were in some respects unique, the Commission’s activities embodied what has come to be called restorative justice, and has contributed to thinking in different settings about judicial processes and their effectiveness.

“Restorative justice” refers to a set of practices and principles now widely employed or tested in many parts of the world: in juvenile justice systems in numerous Western countries, in revived or renewed local systems for conflict resolution among indigenous peoples and in traditional cultures, and in public or national tribunals such as those concerned with the aftermath of Apartheid in South Africa, of civil unrest in Peru, and of the Rwandan genocide. The Canadian Government has created such a commission as part of the Indian Residential Schools Resolution process. This instance involves a potent and painful conjunction of racism and sexual and other forms of violence involving children, with particular reference to Church-run schools.

Common to most of these is a focus on the crime or injury as a breakdown of relationship within a social fabric, and consequent emphasis on the victim or victims and their needs and concerns. A characteristic element of that focus has been opportunities for those affected by crimes to speak publicly about their experience. The possibility of giving voice to the experience of suffering has proved significant in itself, as well as potentially an important step towards reconciliation or resolution. Offenders may also be given opportunities for action as participating subjects, rather than simply being made the object of either punitive or rehabilitative action. These processes have involved the telling and hearing of previously unknown stories of the crimes or injuries in question, as well as opportunities for making some form of restitution.

These may be contrasted, up to a point, with conventional or retributive criminal justice systems that view a crime as an offence against the law itself, and the state as the party with whom an accused person is engaged adversarially in a trial or tribunal, without necessary reference to victims. Where in the conventional case justice consists of determining and executing a sentence deemed appropriate to the offence, a “restorative” approach means that the needs and desires of the victim are inherently more significant than meting out a particular penalty on the offender, and that the damage to social relations is what must fundamentally be addressed and restored .

The contemporary movement for restorative justice has a variety of substantial, although by no means exclusive, connections with Christian tradition and theology. Principles comparable to those of restorative justice, emphasizing restitution and reconciliation, are identifiable across the canon of Scripture, from the Mosaic Law to the Gospels. Advocates and architects of restorative justice have included numerous Christians and Church-related bodies, including the Mennonite Central Committee and Prison Fellowship International. The roles taken by Church members and leaders in the South African tribunal are well-known, and its Chairman Desmond Tutu has referred in his memoir to the “heavily spiritual, and indeed Christian, emphasis of the Commission”.

Sam Ata's role is a further recognition of this important connection. We offer him our prayerful support


Crisis and Opportunity: Philanthropy and Australian Higher Education

Even before the global financial crisis, there was a growing awareness in Australian universities of the need to look past existing sources of funding. Given the impact of the crisis on the government’s capacity to carry out its desired funding ‘revolution’, educational leaders know that private money will become crucial to the ability of a university to do much more than eke out an existence. It may become necessary even for that.

With the demise (for the present) of domestic full-fee places and the pall cast over on-the-side revenue ventures like Melbourne University Private, philanthropy is attracting more and more attention. The growing number of senior appointments in the higher education sector intended largely or wholly to oversee fundraising is eloquent testimony to this trend.

There is some vestigial scepticism in Australia about massive fundraising campaigns like those familiar for colleges in the USA, but the evidence from Canada, the UK and now here too suggests that individuals, as well as trusts and foundations, will support higher education when a case can be made. This is the resumption of an Australian tradition rather than something entirely new. Despite the dominance of the public purse since the mid-twentieth century, universities like RMIT, Sydney and UWA owe a great deal to early benefactors like Francis Ormond, John Henry Challis and John Winthrop Hackett.

The real difficulties are subtler and more deep-seated than a mere unwillingness on the part of Australians to give. During the last half-century Australian universities have tended to portray themselves as schools for skills, driven and funded by taxpayers as essential services, like roads or pipes. Students participate not so much to change their own or others’ lives, but to take their place in an economy needing high levels of expertise and knowledge. This understanding is reflected in the bland economistic language of government policy, where no higher vision for universities is presumed than that of equipping graduates – if now a larger and more diverse set of graduates – to participate in the production of wealth.

This is not quite the stuff of dreaming spires, or even of the wider social good, and presents a difficulty for those who have to commend universities to philanthropy. Prospective donors might expect benefactions not merely to support a system under strain, but to make important differences for students and society itself.

This lack of vision also affects the unspectacular but important process of gaining support from a mass base of alumni. While in recent decades many graduates have left Australian universities with well-honed skills and critical abilities, fewer have left feeling debts of gratitude for inspiring or transformative experiences. Such a functional or transactional understanding has been exacerbated by the introduction of the HECS scheme; students who have or will make a fairly significant contribution to the cost of their education are even less likely to conceive of a moral debt to the institution, regarding the transaction as complete when the ATO has signed off.

The universities have often seemed content with this. The fact that many have recently had to start alumni programs from scratch illustrates how ephemeral the experience of study and of connection to a university was assumed to be. With its eye on the recurrent public funding that would accompany the hopes of students of the future, higher education has paid scant attention to beneficence from those of the past.

The existing pressure on resources in the sector is a Catch-22 for alumni programs and the sense of relationship with the institution that they require. With larger numbers of students, living and working under greater economic pressure, studying in less adequate facilities, and with poorer services, there has often been less and less about the university for which the graduate might be grateful. This is why the need is great, but a former student of recent decades may wonder about the newly-discovered causes for nostalgia that their alma mater suddenly wants to recall.

This problem arguably cuts deeper than the mere funding challenges of recent years. The former government’s VSU agenda, a contributing factor to the lack of student services, was viable precisely because the level of commitment or understanding in the university sector to student experiences beyond the classroom was at best uneven.

Without signs of a serious dialogue about what a university is for, the efforts of the new fundraisers will often be greeted with understandable scepticism by their targets. Yet this is an opportunity for universities to strengthen more than their balance-sheets. They will have to think more deeply about why higher education really ought to be supported beyond the reasons with which the public purse concerns itself. Perhaps they may still exist to change, and not merely supply, graduates. Perhaps they may exist to generate visions, and not only skills. Perhaps they can foster independent thought, and not merely competence. Fresh (yet very traditional) answers to these questions might be an even more important result than raising money, as well as a necessary condition of raising it.


The End of "Going to Uni"

Some readers will remember "going to Uni". This was an experience shared by a small number of Australians, who were academically very able as well as financially secure, or assisted by Government. "Going to Uni" meant participating in an elite experience, where personal connections with peers and sometimes with professors were highly significant; where both cultivation and critique of western and other intellectual traditions and other forms of pure learning were usually entertained, beyond recent fashion or current demand for skills; where the texture of life usually involved other demands or pursuits, whether social activities or social activism, beyond the lectures and the jobs necessary to maintain the mere facts of studying and staying alive.

"Going to Uni" has been languishing for some years, and Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard just last week proclaimed the epitaph drafted for it by Professor Denise Bradley's recent Review of higher education in Australia. Part of this proclamation is just the description of reality. As the DPM put it in her speech last week, the changes of the last few decades have seen the transformation of "a tiny, boutique higher education system into first an elite, then a popular, and finally a mass system". "Mass" will mean 40% of Australians completing degrees. Elite, it is not.

The DPM has noted the transformation of the system; perhaps it would be more accurate to say we have seen the actual emergence of a system, from what had previously been just a small collection of institutions and communities. Those "Unis" of old, small, elite and largely comparable, have now been joined by an array of other institutions with varied histories, claims and missions. So now instead of a small set of institutions we have a system which, despite the generalizations made or implied in much policy, involves vastly different experiences and outcomes.

Doubtless there are things to mourn about the end of the old model. There is a more profound vision attached to the idea of a "university" than current policies reflect. There is far too little involved in the student experience of many attending Australian institutions of higher learning, beyondfrom their formal classes and qualifications.

There were also things about the old model not to mourn, such as a social elitism which made it hard for students with great potential, but less capital, to enter or flourish. And the value of having a greater number of Australians from varied backgrounds having access to some form of higher education is not to be underestimated.

Yet we would deceive ourselves if we imagined that the retention of the word "university" meant that the hypothetical 40% will have access to all the word once meant. "Going to Uni" no longer means anything more than that someone is undertaking a post-secondary course. As the system itself seeks to do more and more, just being in the system will come to mean less and less. What means more now and in future is the specific place, the program, the people.

In the United States, to draw a comparison, it is only vaguely informative to say that someone is "going to College" (translating to their idiom) . What is really significant is where they go to College. "College" covers a huge range of institutions and experiences, with little in common beyond beyond the fact of further education in some form. It means relatively little to say even that one has a particular kind of degree; what matters is demonstrated high achievement in that field, stemming from a well-resourced environment where there are outstanding peers and teachers.

The use of the term "university" for the new mass Australian system as a whole may be unfortunate, but is now a given. The challenge for those of us involved in Australian higher education, and who remember what was good about "going to Uni" - as well as what was not - is not to allow the less-than-inspiring character of the system itself to distract us from the opportunities to do worthwhile things within it. "Going to Uni" will mean all sorts of things now; but within the system there will continue to be communities of learning where experiences of uncompromising excellence are made available to those who can benefit most and contribute most, for the good of the learning community and the wider community.


Still waiting for the (Education) Revolution

Amid its fairly prosaic terms of reference, the Bradley Review of Higher Education had one matter of ideals and principles to address: the Rudd Government’s brief included a focus on social inclusion, specifically on “supporting and widening access to higher education, including participation by students from a wide range of backgrounds”.

In the end the Bradley Report seems caught between the discontent of its knowledgeable framers with the inequities of the system, and a sort of fatalism about what prevents Australian universities from doing better for bright students from marginalized backgrounds. Its target of 20% of students in Australian higher education coming from low social-economic status background by 2020 is fairly bold. Yet the specific recommendations regarding social inclusion equivocate between bucking against and merely tweaking the elements of a system which, the Report admits, has not worked.

The Bradley Report airs the open secret that changes to Australian higher education over recent decades have done little to change the profile of those who participate. Neither the abolition of tertiary fees nor, conversely, the introduction of the HECS scheme has made a significant impact. And the Report raises important questions about how to encourage Indigenous students, people in remote areas, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds even to consider university education before the last year or two of school, by which time it is generally too late.

Yet despite its critique of current and recent policy and practice, the Bradley Report is stronger on adjusting the existing failed structures than on explaining how new money will achieve change where old money and current policy has failed. It goes into considerable detail, for instance, on fixing systems of income support for students as a basis for achieving social inclusion. These programs such as Austudy and Abstudy have certainly become less and less effective, but the Bradley recommendations amount to restoring a system unable, even at its earliest or best, to change the profile of Australian student population.

This failure, if it is fair to call it that, lies in what the Report and its terms of reference did not ask: whether our crowded and under-resourced campuses are actually places where marginalized groups can flourish, or whether they have become, despite our best hopes, mechanisms for the Darwinian triumph of the already-privileged. A greater measure of reflection on the historical trajectory of Australian higher education is called for here.

Although the Australian universities of decades past were elite institutions, they were places where it was hoped leaders would be formed through inspiration, challenge and the building of relationships, with mentors and with peers. They were small enough to imagine that such relationships were possible, and their most shining moments and most remarkable talents were revealed, inside and outside classrooms, when knowledge was catalyzed by the experience of community. The past exclusivity and other features of university social make-up and culture are no cause for uncritical nostalgia. Yet the reality of the university as a community of scholars was once taken for granted, and somewhere in the pursuit of economies of scale it has often got lost.

This vision was left behind in a rush to expansion that we must now view with ambivalence. Growth in the number of university places theoretically gave access to a greater number, and hence to a more diverse group, of students. Yet what they had access to has changed at least as much as those who have come. It turns out that while the Australian middle class has all the university places it needs for its own offspring, who can at least survive in the environment of the mega-university, the under-privileged find their own exclusion has gone unscathed or even been reinforced. What were once desirable but exclusive venues now risk being theoretically accessible but uninspiring places that impart knowledge and skills competently yet, in the last analysis, confirm existing capacities more than create new ones. If somehow the present structures and programs did manage to attract and retain a more diverse group of students, the prospect is still not inspiring; the economistic language of the Report limits the meaning of social inclusion to the capacity of a larger and more diverse group to contribute to wealth creation.

A bleak and bland consensus about the social vocation of higher education has been common to both sides of politics for a long time. The Howard government’s recent neglect of university funding may have been a bad example, but it was a not a unique one. The Dawkins reforms are too simplistically condemned without acknowledging their genuinely mixed legacy but they, like the more active and quite gratuitous VSU agenda of late, undermined the capacity of Australian universities to be places where something more profound than vocational skills could be acquired, and where outstanding rather than merely acceptable student experiences might be found.

To address the wide funding shortfall, which Bradley recommends and Gillard must, will only take us to the point where more profound questions about inclusion can be asked. The signs of this possibility exist, even if they are few. The one genuinely revolutionary prospect in the Bradley Report is its recommendation that funding follow students, to whichever public or private institution attracts them.

Although commentary on the Report so far predicts further rationalization and economies of scale, the real challenge and promise of this model is that some institutions might take this opportunity to claim a new pedagogical high ground, and not just contend for the prizes of research that tend to bedazzle at present. It is possible or even likely that some of these will be private providers, already less in harness to the odd remnant of “command economy” that still dominates Australian higher education.

Doubtless a new emphasis on community and pedagogy would have to involve private as well as public funding, and will not be the desired or necessary path for every Australian tertiary student. Someone, however, is bound to ask how a university education ought to be inclusive, and transformative. With greater room for differentiation and choice, some institutions might take a step beyond the important curricular developments implemented in Melbourne and being considered elsewhere, and construct new and different forms of educational experience to engage and support highly capable students from more diverse backgrounds. Recovering a sense of community and the possibility of transformative outcomes for students would be the most revolutionary thing any educational reform could hope for.