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.


Djittydjitty said...

Sounds like an exciting era ahead for MCD. My son will be seeking to attain two awards from there over the next two years via the Salvation Army territorial Training College, just up the road from your Andrew.

Ross said...

I will watch these developments with great interest.