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.


Ross said...

This is an exciting development. I'll be watching to see how it turns out.

Ray said...

Congratulations to all who have worked over the years to achieve this outcome. The MCD is well recognised across the world and this decision will without doubt add to both its reputation and standing.