Yes, but what kind of University?
Considering the new MCD University of Divinity

[From the keynote address at the Melbourne College of Divinity Staff Day, November 2 2011]

Many MCD faculty members here undertook a first degree in Australia, most at an institution that was called a University, in an era when that title made a particular statement about the character and quality of the teaching and learning experience, and its relationship to research. Across Australia, students riding on a tram on Swanston St in Melbourne, or in a bus on Stirling Highway in Perth, had the same expectation of taking part in a comparable, fairly uniform, high quality, and relatively exclusive experience.

This changed with John Dawkins' Higher Education White Paper in 1988, and the consequent reforms which, with a few strokes of the pen, expanded Australia's university sector dramatically. Some of this was badge-engineering, but there was a new intention that the former institutes of technology and colleges of advanced education, as well as both new and historic universities, function as research-focussed institutions, as well as maintaining high standards of teaching.

The general tenor of higher education policies then and still today assumes a relatively uniform, but larger and hence more accessible, set of experiences, standards and outcomes. Viewed from far enough away, there is some truth to this; we may affirm that the educational bottom lines for Australian universities are generally good, and most have some high-quality research being undertaken too.

But up close the reality is different, and more like that former world than some wish to admit. The recent Excellence in Research For Australia (ERA) exercise was one indicator. In terms of research, the Group of 8 universities plus a few others succeed in research funding and outcomes across a broad range of disciplines, but most Australian universities succeed in fewer and more specific areas, and a few languish without areas of apparent research excellence. University of Melbourne researcher Simon Marginson observed that this signalled the failure of the research-teaching nexus.

On the other hand, the experiences of teaching and learning may not really be as comparable across institutions as some imagine either. It is sobering that the institutions which get highest ratings for teaching from their graduates in a measure like the Good Universities Guide are usually a quite different group from the research leaders identified in measures like the Shanghai Jiao Tong ratings.

All this is to say that membership of this group called "universities" says something, but not nearly everything, and not nearly enough to substitute for answers we will have to find ourselves now that the Melbourne College of Divinity has been approved for university status.

There are however some ways university status can and will affect us, which we must seize as challenges and opportunities. Two things worth considering are the research-teaching nexus, despite what I have just noted, and the public character of the university.

Among the many institutions teaching theology in some form in Australia, university status is not overly common, and of course there is no other specialized university at all. Under today's regulatory and policy frameworks however, university status does not in and of itself say that we are necessarily better than non-university "providers".

What university status for the MCD does affirm is that we embody the research-teaching nexus that is supposed to characterize Australian universities generally, which is the one distinctive that Australian higher education policy claims, or aspire to, for entities using that title.

The ways this really works for many universities has been questioned above, but this is something we in the MCD actually do quite well, and have been confirmed as doing by the recent VRQA panel in ways that some public universities might actually find it hard to match. Whether or not the VRQA or its replacement TEQSA see it in these terms, it means not only that we have a good research profile (according to the ERA a smaller but better one than the average achievement of most Australian universities, in fact), but that we teach with skill, committment and passion, and inform that teaching by our scholarship.

I think this is one thing that really may be unique about us among specifically-theological institutions, and we ought not merely to celebrate its recognition by VRQA, but consider how to defend and strengthen it beyond what an outside quality assurance process sees. Their approbation is valuable, but not enough.

I also noted the question of a university's public character. We have been a public institution in a sense, since being established under an Act of Parliament in 1910, but it is clearer that a university is by its nature and name a public institution. The MCD has a strong and established ethos of serving the Churches and religious orders, and our individual students regardless of their religious affiliations, but we now have to ask how we serve the Australian public.

We stand historically at a point where Australia's religious illiteracy is increasingly manifest, as we lurch between poles of aggressive secularism and rising fundamentalism in public discourse. We have a massive opportunity and imperative to foster conversations about religion that has the virtues of moderation and circumspection that we tend to assume, but which so many others cannot perceive at present. To fail in this may cost us dearly as a nation.

This means that we need to look hard at the way the MCD is using its extraordinary resources, which for instance could more clearly be seen not just as for vocational or ministerial formation (lay or ordained), but as the basis for a form of "liberal" education, fostering critical thinking and knowledge of cultural traditions. There are many other potential students for us out there, who might undertake bachelor's degrees for such purposes, and who could through that experience become not only religiously, historically and culturally-literature persons, but trained in critical thinking in ways that could serve them well in many forms of employment and service.

So there are some things that could come to us, or be strengthened for us, in gaining university status. There are also some things that we need to consider that are distinctives of our own history aside from that status, and which we must protect and nurture.

The change of name does not change our polity; but the things it exposes us to almost inevitably will. We cannot go on acting as though we are, even in teaching MCD awards, independent entities linked by a quality assurance process, as we are sometimes tempted to do now. And we cannot, on the other hand, abandon the distinctive qualities of our constituent learning communities.

Some will be concerned about creeping centralization, reasonably enough. Is "recognition" (as in the current terminology of the MCD Act, which refers to "Recognized Teaching Institutions") enough to express the relationship between the parts and the whole, however? We need to find new language that affirms our distinctives as a "federated" university but which acknowledges a strong or even organic set of relationships between our learning communities.

The other striking thing we have amid this diverse higher education sector belies our rambling polity, namely a common cause or values base. While it is often hard to discern a deeper vision in particular universities or in Australian higher education generally than the training of foot soldiers in a battle (or the forced march) for greater economic prosperity, the MCD has a strong capacity to engage in conversation about justice, inclusion, faith and other goods which are both spiritual and social.

We thus have a unique opportunity to do one of the things a university should, but many find hard - to serve by asking persistent awkward and deep questions bout the nature of our society and its purposes. Our specifically Christian commitment is something we should treat as an asset, not just in itself but as the basis for an educational process which can be open to all, but takes ultimate questions seriously, and thus inspires and transforms lives, rather than merely offering training.

University status is not the answer, but a new and important question. It does not define who we are, but offers us a set of opportunities to contribute to the Church and to Australian society. I believe the MCD has the commitment, the resources, the history, and the hope, to do that well.


Australia's First Specialized University (of Divinity)

For some years the staff and Council of the Melbourne College of Divinity have been discussing the possibility of seeking University status. In Australia this has quite specific implications; the use of the title "University" is heavily regulated, and carries not only certain quality assurance regimes but the implication of a strong research capacity supporting its teaching and learning processes.

The MCD is one of Australia's older institutions of higher learning, founded in 1910 partly to complement The University of Melbourne, which had been constituted specifically so as to exclude degrees in theology. The colleges (including this one) of that University however were set up as religious foundations, partly to provide theological studies in the university precinct and community, without the problems of determining or examining adequate or orthodox religious knowledge.

The formation of the MCD as a degree-granting body took some time, but was led by local Church  and college leaders; the signature of Trinity's first Warden, Alexander Leeper, is on the deed creating the MCD. It was for the time a remarkable ecumenical endeavour, bringing together Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and Congregational and other groups. The Roman Catholic Church, Churches of Christ, Salvation Army, Orthodox and Lutherans have all since been added to the MCD structure in teaching and/or governance terms.

In its first decades the MCD functioned, as did some Universities, primarily as an examining body rather than as a concrete community of scholars; it assumed the communities and work of the Melbourne University colleges and their theological schools, and subsequently of others too. Students could sit for the degrees of the MCD - primarily the graduate Bachelor of Divinity degree - without being part of any of these, however. All depended on a set of 3-hour examinations.

The major step towards being something more of a "real" than a virtual college took place in the 1970s when the MCD recognized some specific colleges and consortia as teaching a degree on the basis of continuous assessment (coursework) rather than exams. This Bachelor of Theology became and remains the mainstay of MCD teaching and learning, and is administered through recognized teaching institutions including the United Faculty of Theology, of which Trinity is a constituent.

When in the late 1980s a fairly diverse set of Australian higher education institutions were turned into universities, the MCD was in an anomalous position. Older than most even of the earlier universities, it was not one itself, at least as then understood. It was private (there are only two other private universities in Australia), and taught in only one field, but had an enviable reputation here and abroad. For some time then the MCD remained as a sort of high-quality anomaly, but has benefitted from research funding provided through the Australian Federal government (and performed at world standard, and well above many named "universities", according to the recent Excellence in Research for Australia exercise).

The idea of a "specialized University" was mooted in Federal policy some time ago but has never been acted on until now. The MCD leadership determined a few years ago to seek that status, which reflects its logical - and unique - place in Australian higher education. Today we learned of the recommendation from the state authority that oversaw a review of the application, which is positive. The Victorian Government Gazette dated today contains the following:

Education and Training Reform Act 2006
1. Authority 
This notice is issued pursuant to section 4.3.30(1) of the Education and Training Reform
Act 2006. 
2. Definitions
Melbourne College of Divinity means the Melbourne College of Divinity continued as a body corporate under the Melbourne College of Divinity Act 1910.
3.    Approval of institution to operate as a University
Pursuant to section 4.3.30(1) of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) approves the Melbourne College of Divinity to operate as a specialised university under the specialised title of ‘MCD University of Divinity’.
4.    Period of approval
The approval herein remains in force for 5 years commencing on 1 January 2012.

The common seal of the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority was hereunto affixed on the 25th day of August 2011 as authorized by it pursuant to section 4.2.1(3) of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006.

The name 'MCD University of Divinity' will allow the existing reputation and recognition of the MCD to be carried forward into the new entity (although I suspect it will make explanations of the institution harder internationally), somewhat as the former Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (popularly known as RMIT) became 'RMIT University'.
This is an important step not only for the MCD community but for Australian higher education - Australia's first specialized university has (almost) arrived.


What Makes a World-Class University?

Professor Andy Hamilton, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, was guest speaker at a recent event run by the University of Melbourne's Grattan Institute, where the question was ostensibly "How to Create a World Class University".

Hamilton made four clear points about the task, although it was not so much the creation as the preservation of the world class university - his own, to be precise - that was foregrounded. They are worth noting, but I will expand a bit more on two.

First, he said, outstanding people are needed. University leaders have to recruit world-class academics - Hamilton used the case of Oxford's recent recruitment of Sir Andrew Wiles, prover of Firmat's Last Theorem, back to the U.K. from Princeton. The greatest motivator, Hamilton suggests, is the presence of (other) world class people. Not many less than half of Oxford's academic staff are from overseas - interestingly Australians are sixth on the list of expats, which isn't bad.

Students of outstanding ability are also important, he said, noting the importance of the Rhodes Scholarship scheme (headed by my predecessor at Trinity, Don Markwell) and of the postgraduate Clarendon awards. All Oxford students have undergone an academic interview, not merely had their A-levels checked off.

Second was research excellence, already implied by the first. Hamilton acknowledged that other institutions can also do important research, but praised the "curiosity-driven character" of university research as advantageous.

Third came excellence in teaching. Oxford's remarkable tutorial system where students meet with leading researchers, regularly and often singly, was singled out, as well it might be. I would add that the educational implications of hiring great researchers as the faculty could also be very different, when this is as clear an expectation of their presence as is their research agenda.

In the highly-specialized structure of the Oxford degree Hamilton also noted the importance of students belonging to two academic communities: the department, and the college. The former is the academic locus in a stronger way that has been the case even with traditional Australian degrees, because a student at Oxford reading (e.g.) engineering studies only that. Hamilton, formerly Provost at Yale, was careful to say this was not the only defensible model, since liberal arts curricula can achieve many of the same basic objectives. These, as he recounted them, were commendable: it is the ability to think and to communicate that reflects educational excellence, however those capacities are taught.

In the latter case, of colleges, students have peers across all disciplines. His strong suggestion that, in a "large university of 20,000", it was important for students to have such a community of a few hundred to belong to, made interesting listening for hearers whose institutions are now considerably larger than that, but where few students have those opportunities.

Fourth but not least was money. Hamilton was refreshingly straightforward about how the rest depends on it; he spends considerable time raising it.

As already noted Hamilton's talk was not really about how to make a world class university at all; it was about how to be Oxford. This in itself was worth hearing. I suspect that the question of creating a world class university is being asked more actively elsewhere at the moment; perhaps by the creators of the New College of the Humanities, but particularly by educational leaders in China and in India. Watch out for them.


Another Idea of the University: From Newman to Grayling

 [A version of this piece was published by The Australian on June 22 2011]

The recent announcement by A. C. Grayling that leading intellectuals in the UK are forming a "New College of the Humanities", where the likes of Grayling, David Cannadine, Richard Dawkins will teach humanities and social sciences to small classes, raises some pointed questions about teaching and learning in universities, both there and here.

Last year University of Melbourne Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis said correctly that Australia only has "one kind of University", referring to the enshrining in policy and practice of the "research university". This model is intended to support national interest through pure research first and foremost, ideally supporting teaching on the strength of that research.

Yet the place of education itself has become an increasingly uneasy one in such a university. In the vision of Wilhelm von Humboldt, usually seen as godfather of the research university model, the student was a junior partner or peer of the researcher in the uninhibited pursuit of knowledge.

However, the mass educational systems of modern research universities can hardly aspire to offer such an experience for undergraduate or professional education. There is a widespread sense that the educational element of higher education has often come off second best. Many Australian university courses are run at a loss to the institution, which must cross-subsidize them from other activities. Academics know their futures depend not on outstanding teaching or mentoring but on certain measures of research performance; departments stand or fall less on undergraduate interest than ARC grant success.

Leading researcher Simon Marginson has called teaching and learning the “empty space” in the modern globalized research university, noting also that “student disengagement is a constant of the OECD countries” and that much learning actually takes place outside the classroom. So far there is uncertainty about the way to improve what is at best an uneven set of experiences for Australian students.

Does Grayling’s model have any promise here? Occasionally there is talk of a “teaching only” university as a possibility in the Australian future, but the implication has usually been that under-performing research institutions could be released into this category more as an act of kindness, than that education itself could become an activity attracting the same energy as research, or commensurate resources. We seem to lack, so far at least, the imagination to consider that teaching could be the point of some outstanding universities, and research a complement to it.

However, a university where teaching was central, and research also undertaken to support a vigorous community of learners, is an idea that deserves more attention in Australia. It is a model like some of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the United States, such as Smith College in Massachusetts, once headed by expatriate Jill Ker Conway, and numerous others. These institutions cannot replace the functions of the research university, but they can complement them.

Grayling’s nascent New College and those established US examples are all much closer to John Henry Newman’s famous Idea of the University than any Australian university. No-one imagines any longer that Newman’s is “the” idea; what is remarkable is that Australia’s burdensome accreditation and quality assurance processes would not accredit Newman’s ideal institution as a university at all, because it would not be focused primarily on research.

The problem, then, is not the research university per se but its sole claim to the field, and the inadequate resources it typically has, in Australia as in the UK, for its educational purposes. A second kind of university, or a regulatory and funding environment that could foster different ideas of the university, is needed. Australia may not see anything quite like the New College of the Humanities soon, but we would do well to watch its progress.


Looking Through Things: Some Thoughts on Religious Education

[From a sermon at the "Century Celebration" Eucharist for Ballarat and Queen's Anglican Grammar School, May 29 2011]

A century ago Bishop Arthur Vincent Green, alumnus of my College and one of the founders of Ballarat Grammar School, gave a series of lectures on the Gospel of John. Bishop Green said that he had an “extraordinary power of spiritual vision, this recognition of things as they are”, and that he “looks through things” to see the inner truths.1

You might think this was precisely the sort of thing fundamentalist preacher Harold Camping and his unhappy disciples were claiming for themselves last weekend as they shared secret knowledge of calamitous events to roll around the globe. But the alternative to "looking through things" is just that kind of existence that refuses to see further or deeper, whether it is clothed in religious or secular garb; any world-view that makes people into mere objects, and nature into mere commodities. To see with the Spirit, as John's Gospel puts it, is to “look through things”, and thus discern their deepest truth, and the character of our life as divine gift.

Religious education is a contentious matter at the moment, and while a debate in the Victorian community largely concerns state schools, there are lessons for all of us in it. It is equally unhelpful in educational contexts to see the faith dimension opportunistically, as a mere excuse to gain converts on the one hand, or to ignore it as irrelevant to our existence on the other.

The religious dimension of education does involve teaching and learning about history and culture, about the Bible and the sacraments, but it is also about seeing that deeper possibility in everything and everyone. The scriptures and the other elements of Christian tradition are gifts which, like other things in our world, can be misused, especially if students are mere cannon fodder for proselytizing; but they are also capable of helping us to see meaning not only in them, but in the world. And this deeper potential in the world Christians see as itself God’s own activity, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that aspect of God’s being that suffuses all things and leads them to what they can be.

This is why education and faith, properly understood, are such intimately linked realities. The cultivation of that possibility of insight is thus the most genuine form of religious education. While there is an inescapably personal element to religious experience, a mystery to be explored rather than a puzzle to be solved or proposition to be taught, much of what is true about God is generally available to those with eyes to see; it does not depend on claimed special knowledge, but on the capacity to recognize beauty, truth and love all around us.

Any school can impart facts, and even skills; but what every school must also seek to do and be, whether or not it has a religious focus but certainly if it does, is to encourage the pursuit of truth, meaning and values.

All around this community, this nation and our whole world, we can see people "looking through things", seeing past the apparent to the real with the aid of the informing Spirit. A woman in Saudi Arabia courageously driving a car; students in Ballarat calling on leaders to exercise leadership over climate change;2 each of us responding to one another as sources of beauty and truth.

Where teachers see students and recognize the potential they have to lead and serve they are “looking through things” in the Spirit’s power; where students who see the possibility and fragility of the world and want to save or change it for good, they are doing the same.

1.Arthur Vincent Green, The Ephesian canonical writings; an elementary introduction to the Gospel, Epistle and Apocalypse commonly attributed to the apostle John. (Moorhouse lectures, 1910; London: Williams and Norgate, 1910), 124-5
2. http://www.breaze.org.au/action-groups/engaging-govt/media-rel/582-bgsaug10


After the Perfect Storm: The Future of International Education in Australia

Does Australia's struggling engagement with international education have a future?

News media have reported widely on something of a "perfect storm" over the last year or so for institutions dependent on international enrolments, particularly from Asia. The combination of events has been problematic: reputational damage from racist incidents in the Australian community, exchange rate shifts making Australia a more expensive destination, increasing activity in marketing from the UK and the USA, and new restrictions on Australian visas for certain countries. Together these have made life tough for Australian colleges and universities.

Going deeper however, the news varies a great deal according to the kind of institution and the sort of courses students are seeking to undertake. New figures from Australian Education International show, unsurprisingly, that Indian students seeking VET courses fell most dramatically in 2010, by over 20%. Probably for a different set of reasons, English-language courses were similarly hit.

On the other hand, the number of international students enrolling in Australian university courses actually grew in 2010. Part of the difference has to do with time-frames; students often come to higher education through feeder programs, including English-language courses or Foundation Studies programs like that at Trinity. As a result their decisions are really made a year or more before their University enrolment, and the consequences of changes in preferences and patterns take longer to appear. Close to home for instance, Trinity had a particular good year for recruitment in 2010, and the University of Melbourne will thus have a good one in 2011. We expect 2011 to be solid but less spectacular, and similarly therefore the University might expect to have slightly lower demand from international students in 2012.

"Slightly" less demand and "solid" performance is indeed the order of the day for Australia's most desirable institutions and high-quality programs in higher education. Others do clearly have (even) greater challenges. Talk of "crises" and "crashes", however, results from clumsy aggregation of issues, as well as of statistics, in a sector whose diversity now makes it increasingly unhelpful to consider it as a single whole for most purposes. True, the net impact on the Australian economy of the downturns in VET and some other sectors is serious; but ironically the tendency to treat the sector as a coherent whole, and to make policy (e.g., over visa restrictions) as though it were so, has compounded the problems faced by some institutions.

Public policy and public discourse over higher education have long been mesmerized by the bumper crop of international students and their capacity to close funding gaps for public institutions and send cash into Australian communities. This undeniably important opportunity has been seized both creatively and clumsily, depending on where and what we are considering. The unedifying stories of fly-by-night providers exploiting students from India constitute an extreme case; but any institution, however venerable, that sees international students merely as an answer to a funding problem is not only acting dubiously relative to its own mission and values, but riding for a fall with regard to that very part of their activity.

Students from Asia have been attracted to Australian institutions because of the quality of our offerings and the reasonable cost of obtaining them (we should admit that the attraction of permanent residence is often potent as well, but that's another story). The survivors, in VET and higher education and elsewhere, from the "perfect storm" will be those best able to demonstrate that quality and value, and necessarily therefore a deeper sense of their own educational mission and identity.

Without a bigger picture - a sense of how our contribution to these students' education connects with the mission of a university and its role in contributing to a global public good - we risk not only failing the moral challenge of a shrinking world, but undermining the quality proposition of the original offering.

If we have passed the "high water mark" of the recent rich tide of enrolments, as it has been suggested, all the more reason to ensure now that we have firm ground to stand on, and make sure we have a high-quality future to offer both Australian and international students.