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.