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‘A Renaissance in Collegiate Education?’

[The University of Western Australia] — One of Australia’s most eloquent spokesmen for the collegiate way of living is Prof. Donald Markwell, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Education at the University of Western Australia. His fine collection of essays, ‘A Large and Liberal Education’, has been recommended here before; along with Mark Ryan’s A Collegiate Way of Living, it belongs on the bookshelf of anyone interested in residential college life.

Don has just kindly sent to me the text of a speech he gave to a group of student leaders at the annual conference of the National Association of Australian University Colleges, held earlier this month on the UWA campus in Perth. I’m very pleased to reproduce the text here in full, as a Collegiate Way exclusive.

A Renaissance in Collegiate Education?

(Delivered at the annual NAAUC Conference, UWA, Friday, 4 July 2008.)

Most people here have, in the last few days, made the journey from somewhere in the eastern states of Australia to be at this NAAUC Conference – which we at UWA are delighted to host. A warm welcome from me to the University of Western Australia.

Consider the journey to Western Australia 126 years ago, in 1882, of someone else who had considerable college experience both overseas – at Trinity College, Dublin, where he had been a student – and at Trinity College in the University of Melbourne, where from 1876 to 1882 he had been vice-principal and then sub-warden. This man was John Winthrop Hackett, and you will see his name memorialised in many ways – including on street and building names – in and around UWA. Hackett made his fortune here in newspapers, and became one of the most influential people in Western Australia. He was the founder of this University, also leaving it a very large bequest, and he also, through another bequest, made possible the founding of St George’s College, the first of the five colleges which we are proud to have ‘within the University of Western Australia’.

Hackett believed strongly in the educational value of colleges. At Trinity College, Melbourne – as the deputy of his close friend from Trinity College Dublin days, Alexander Leeper – Hackett had been a tutor; helped to found the debating and discussion group, the Dialectic Society; helped to produce a Latin play, and much else – all, apparently, without pay!

Here in the West, this University admitted its first students in 1913, and Hackett – the University’s first Chancellor – wrote to his fellow members of the University Senate in February 1914, saying:

‘I am bold enough to believe that a University wholly divorced from the college system is calculated to impart but a meagre proportion of the full advantages which should be secured to our students from a University course.’

He said that universities must fail in their ‘perfect mission’ unless they combined – quote – ‘in the largest and most pregnant sense’ what he described as ‘the triple alliance of the lecture room, the examination hall and the college’. He wrote: ‘I earnestly commend this great work to the anxious attention of the [University] Senate – a work to be entered upon with scrupulous care…’

The ‘great work’ to which Hackett referred was the task of making possible collegiate education. Hackett did not see a college as a provider of accommodation. He saw it as a contributor, with the other elements of a university, to the provision of education. Hackett, like his life-long college friend in Melbourne, Leeper, was a pioneer in Australia of the classical tradition of collegiate education that sees a college as a residential academic community, in which the education of students is enriched through the integration of their living and learning in a community – a community, with a strong sense of belonging – in which students of diverse backgrounds and academic disciplines come together; receive academic tuition and support; should receive mentoring and advice from those well placed to help them on their journey; receive pastoral care; take part in extra-curricular activities, such as music, drama, sports, the visual arts, debating, and more; take part together in enriching social activities; and, as Hackett and Leeper did, develop life-long friendships. In their vision of Australian colleges, there would also be an active chapel life, with denominational colleges warmly welcoming and supportive of people of all faiths. Even where there is not a religious basis, I am sure that Hackett and Leeper recognised that certain values – such as living with integrity, and with respect for others – were essential for the success of a college community, and so should be developed through life in a college community.

This was the founding vision of the college system here at UWA, just as it was the founding vision of the college system in many other Australian universities. Over the subsequent decades, our colleges have waxed and waned, with periods in which this ideal has flourished, and periods in which it has been lost to sight, and our colleges and therefore our universities and the education they offer have been much less than they should be.

Let’s ‘fast forward’ from Hackett’s day through those intervening decades to 2008. You are better placed than I am to judge how well your college lives up to this ideal – and you are better placed than I am to do all you can to ensure that your college does enrich your education and that of all your fellow college students in these ways.

This is important work. It is widely agreed that, in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘knowledge society’ of today, the success of individuals will depend more than ever before on how well educated they are, and that the success of countries and economies will depend on how well educated their people are. The quality of university education will be very important in determining the prospects of individuals and countries alike.

If what Hackett believed remains true today – that the best university education comes when it includes the benefits of colleges – then there is and will be a very important role for university colleges in meeting the educational needs of the knowledge economy of the present and the future.

In my view, there is underway in many countries today a resurgence of the college idea – an increasing emphasis again on the residential college as enriching the education of students. Part of the reason for this resurgence is that, in an intensifying global competition between economies and universities, universities in many countries are aspiring to become among the very best in the world, are looking at the attributes of the world’s finest universities, are seeing that they are overwhelmingly residential universities, and are therefore seeking to adopt and adopt for themselves this key attribute of the world’s best.

After all, the leading universities of the United States and Britain – universities such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge – are residential universities, with an important place in the education of their students being seen as coming from their colleges or residential houses. Even in several of these universities, there is at present a renewed focus on the role of the colleges – for example, with the development of new residential colleges at Princeton and Yale, mirrored in many other universities and liberal arts colleges across the United States.

Universities in many other countries are also increasing their emphasis on residential colleges. The National University of Singapore, for example, a fine university which aspires to be among the best in the world, is over the next few years going to develop several new residential colleges. Fudan University in Shanghai, quite explicitly borrowing ideas from Yale and other leading US and British universities, has developed a first-year program, Fudan College, which has first year students undertaking a liberal arts curriculum while living on campus. The Chinese University of Hong Kong, seeking to enhance the quality of the education it offers, has in recent years decided to develop new residential colleges.

This growing emphasis on residential colleges is in the context of a widespread move in many countries in recent years – after what some commentators see as many years of neglect of this – to place renewed emphasis on improving the overall quality of teaching, learning, and the student experience. As part of that, there is focus on so-called ‘learning communities’ – ways of bringing students and staff together into interactive relationships focussed on learning together. There are efforts to create both residential and non-residential learning communities, including learning communities facilitated by the latest information technology. There is focus on making classes interactive – finding ways, for example, of making large lectures more effective through interaction. There is focus on student engagement – encouraging students to be actively engaged both in their studies, and in extra-curricular activities on campus which are again seen to be an important part of the educational opportunity students have. It is again increasingly widely recognised that education depends both on what happens in the classroom, and what happens outside the classroom, including in social and extra-curricular activities. There is a growing focus in many countries on in the importance of interdisciplinary breadth in undergraduate education – and one of the ways this breadth can be enriched is through students of many different disciplines mixing in the day-to-day life of a college.

So I see a resurgence in residential colleges internationally as part of a renewed focus on the quality of undergraduate education over the last decade or so. This resurgence has been encouraged by various literature. Some of this literature – for example, by the former president of Harvard, Derek Bok – has expressed discontent with the quality even of the so-called ‘best’ US universities and colleges, and urged the need for further improvement. Some relates to growing efforts to rank universities and colleges nationally and internationally, in part to enable students to choose where to spend their fees (and in our context, HECS and fees) on getting themselves the best education they can. I would like to mention two relevant pieces of literature.

The influential Boyer Commission report of 1998 on reinventing undergraduate education in the United States placed strong emphasis on student inquiry – including student research – as being at the centre of undergraduate education. The Boyer report also stressed the importance of universities creating a sense of community for students – and, as we know, residential colleges are perhaps the most effective form of creating a sense of community.

In 2001, an important book was published by Harvard University Press. It is based on long interviews with some 1600 students at Harvard and other leading US universities. This book, by Richard Light, entitled Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds has many pieces of wisdom. One of the most important is that, when asked what their most profound learning experience was, fully 80% of students quoted something that happened outside the classroom – including in many cases activities in their residential college or hall. This simple, striking fact helps to explain the renewed focus on student engagement outside as well as within the classroom, and including in residential settings.

Just as the last decade or so has seen a growth in focus on residential colleges internationally, so there has been in Australia a renewed focus in universities on residential colleges, and renewed efforts by several of our residential colleges to enhance the quality of the all-round educational experience that they offer. While I am conscious that there has in some universities been a retreat from autonomous colleges and from the collegiate ideal, quite a few Australian colleges have seen, in highly variable ways, such positive developments as – considerable increase in the extent and quality of their tutorial programs; the introduction of mentors for every student; the strengthening of their pastoral care or student welfare networks; renewal of their chapel life; increased support for extra-curricular activities such as sport, music, drama, and the visual arts; an increase in focus on community service activities and ‘service learning’; greater emphasis on distinguished visiting scholars who enrich the life of the residential community; increased focus on prizes that recognise and reward academic as well as extra-curricular achievement and personal qualities; increased scholarship support, including to make the benefits of college available to students of potential regardless of their means, and to diversify the student body for the benefit of all. Much of this has been done with growing philanthropic support from alumni and other friends of the colleges. Several colleges have strengthened positively their connections with the wider university with which they are affiliated, or of which they are a part.

The educational value of colleges has been recognised by many of our university leaders. The recently-retired Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland, Professor John Hay, is quoted as saying that the real life of a university today takes place in its colleges. The Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Ian Chubb, said earlier this year:
‘…if I could get ANU to be a wholly collegiate university tomorrow, I would do it. I would do it because I believe that a learning community where people can study together and live together is one that can provide additional benefits to the students that go way beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills derived in the class-room.’

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Professor Glyn Davis, has said that the reason his university is putting strong emphasis on the development of a cohort experience is because of the positive lessons of college experience.

Two years ago, the then federal minister for education, Julie Bishop, made a speech at St John’s College in the University of Queensland in which she spoke very warmly and strongly of the many benefits of residential colleges – probably the greatest endorsement of colleges from a government minister in decades.

Here at the University of Western Australia, under Vice-Chancellor Professor Alan Robson, Hackett’s collegiate ideal is alive and well. While only a small proportion of our UWA students have the benefits of college life, the University greatly values the role which the colleges play in the life of the University, including in encouraging that student engagement in a rich campus life which we wish to encourage for students generally. We have reminded ourselves that the colleges here, while all bar one are autonomous institutions, are also at the same time under State legislation ‘within the University of Western Australia’. The colleges have renewed their focus as colleges for students of this University. The University is providing financial assistance for further residential development within the colleges, and liaising closely with the colleges on accommodation developments outside them. The University is giving colleges access to funding for leadership development, mentoring, inter-cultural competence, and other enriching activities. Some of the University’s key scholarships specifically cover college fees. We are working closely together on publicity and marketing. The University has offered to share data on academic results to enable colleges to assess how well their students are doing in their studies by comparison with the University average.

The University of Western Australia is funding a research project being run by the colleges on the benefits of residential colleges, and on models of affiliation for non-resident students. The colleges are now recognised in the University’s key planning documents, and have an opportunity to contribute to the shaping of the next generation of University plans. The colleges are contributing to discussion of how this University can achieve its goal of becoming one of the top 50 universities in the world within 50 years. A recent discussion paper here, on The Educational Attributes of Some of the World’s ‘Top 50’ Universities, has drawn the attention of the UWA community to the fact that the world’s leading universities are mainly residential. It is likely that the positive role of colleges at UWA will continue to grow over years to come.

The UWA experience reflects a national and international resurgence of focus on colleges. But, important and desirable though this resurgence is, you will know as well as I do that colleges also face important challenges.

In 1998, Professor Alan Gilbert, then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, wrote an important article for a college magazine. Drawing on his experience in several universities, Professor Gilbert wrote:

‘College life! When it is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad…’

He wrote of his ‘considerable knowledge and experience of just how superb, and nurturing, and uplifting, life in a university college can be – and just how dehumanising, humiliating, abusive and tyrannical the “college experience” can become for sensitive individuals if shallow, chauvinistic or anti-intellectual values are allowed to emerge as the dominant culture.’

I am sure that Professor Gilbert had seen, as I have seen, where colleges, founded with noble ideals, have become places where conformism, sexism, racism, anti-intellectualism, and an over-emphasis on alcohol had damaged people – not enhanced their personal development, but subtracted from it.

Professor Gilbert had great hopes for what colleges could contribute to the development of students, and he warmly recognised their benefits. Indeed, he described the college in whose magazine he was writing as ‘an exemplary learning environment for others to emulate’. But his warning about what he called ‘the consequences of unbridled chauvinism, anti-intellectualism and invidious peer pressure’ is also not to be dismissed lightly. This warning was given not long after the publication of a book by a former head of a college in another Australian university, under the title Finishing School for Blokes, which reflected offensive and vulgar behaviour which clearly negated the positive educational effect the college was meant to have. It was also while another college was recovering from a sexual harassment scandal which – whatever the truth of the matter – had done great damage.

Many Australian colleges have come a long way since then. But are all our colleges really achieving their fullest potential – to the fullest benefit of their students? And do they still too often tolerate the negative and destructive attributes which Professor Gilbert referred to?

I have principally spoken of colleges in the context of the national and international move over the last decade or so to enhance the quality of the student learning experience. But there are other trends and issues with which colleges must come to grips, and which present them with opportunities as well as challenges.

These include a growing focus on the importance of student equity and access. Colleges play an important role in making university study possible for students whose homes are at a distance from the university. Scholarships and other financial support to make it possible for students to come to college are crucially important. Some colleges have set as their ultimate goal the raising of sufficient funds to enable them to offer college places to any and all students who earn a college place on merit but are unable to afford it. Some colleges are making great strides in offering college places to students from diverse and under-represented backgrounds – for example, often with philanthropic support, the provision of scholarships for Indigenous students.

Related to equity and access is cultural diversity. In a world of global forces, in which a high proportion of current students will spend a significant amount of time living overseas; in a world in which peace and security depend on engendering greater international, inter-cultural, and inter-faith understanding; and in an Australia of growing cultural diversity, it is essential that in college, as elsewhere, students learn to respect and even celebrate the cultural diversity of the community and world around them. Some of our colleges are more aware of this need than others.

One of the most important challenges to Australian universities in enhancing the student experience is in encouraging more positive interaction between Australian students and the many thousands of students from dozens of different countries who, at our warm invitation, have come here for their university education. Everyone can benefit from such greater interaction – Australian students with their broadened horizons and international friendships and contacts, students from overseas with their great sense of welcome and belonging and their greater familiarity with Australia, and certainly this country with the greater international goodwill towards Australia over the coming decades. Colleges provide one of the best potential environments for encouraging mutually rewarding connection between students from many different countries – but such positive interactions do not just happen by chance, and leadership within colleges is needed to encourage them and create good preconditions for them.

Many colleges began as, and some remain, single sex institutions. Whether a college is co-ed or single sex, it is important, in my view, that colleges encourage genuine gender equality. Some colleges that began as male-only colleges have become coeducational but retain heavily male-dominated cultures, and are not environments in which women feel as welcome, as respected, or as comfortable as men. This is reflected in male achievements (for example, in sport) being more celebrated than women’s, in men being far more likely to be elected to student leadership positions, in the general tenor of the community life, in the incidence of sexual harassment and even assault, in women leaving college sooner than men, and so on. To change this requires strong leadership from student leaders as well as college administrations – and it, too, is important work.

What are the lessons for residential college student leaders in all of this?

I want to urge student leaders as well as college heads, and college governing bodies, to commit with enthusiasm to the classical vision of colleges which sees them as residential academic communities which exist to enrich the education of their students.

In this vision, academic excellence, engaging and doing well in sport and in cultural and intellectual activities, the development of friendships, and much fun in social activities – all these things come together in a positive way. These things are not opposed to each other – they are all attributes of all-round collegiate education. In a balanced community and individual life, all of these things can be combined. Not only that, they can reinforce each other, as people aiming for excellence in one area are likely to do better in many, if not all, areas. A community, a college, focussed on excellence is likely to do well across a wide range of activities, academic and extra-curricular, and be an exciting and stimulating place to be. Experience in many colleges in Australia and overseas shows that this is so.

So I want to urge you to give positive and active leadership in the direction of these values – which are likely to be the values for which your college was founded. How well Australian colleges enhance the education of their students will depend, certainly, on the quality and effectiveness of their college heads and staff, and of their governing bodies, and of the support they gain from their wider universities; but it will also depend on the quality of student leadership. Student leaders have a profound impact on the tone and performance of a college.

This is a crucially important responsibility. It is a responsibility to yourself to help make sure that you can get the greatest possible benefit from your college years. It is a responsibility to use your leadership capacity to help make the college an environment where others will benefit, and certainly not an environment where you or others will be damaged by your experience.

This may require you at times to stand up against things which some, even many, of your fellow students want to do. It may involve you in bringing home to some of your fellow students the damaging effects of their actions. This is often not easy, and takes courage. Some leaders, seeking popularity or fearing unpopularity, are not prepared to do this, even when they know that it is right. As we see in our country’s politics as well as in our colleges, one of the hardest but most important lessons for many leaders is learning that the pursuit of popularity is usually self-defeating – that doing what is right usually wins respect, however grudging or gradual it may be, and the pursuit of popularity usually leads to contempt. The lesson, I believe, is to do what you believe is right – for the good of the institution and of the individuals within it – and so win respect, rather than to pursue popularity at the expense of what is right.

Your contribution to and support for your college should also not end when you go out of residence. For colleges to offer future generations of students all that they can, they will need massively greater resources. One of the most important sources of these resources is the philanthropic support of alumni and other friends of the college. Just as you are the beneficiary today of the labours and generosity of those who have gone before you in your college, so I urge you to see it as part of your lifelong responsibility, as soon as you are able and as much as you are able, to give through your labours and your financial generosity to create even better opportunities for the generations who come after you.

What I have been saying this morning can be summed up this way –

First, the quality of education you get is crucially important to your future, just as the quality of education in the country as a whole determines our country’s prospects in a globally competitive future.

Secondly, just as John Winthrop Hackett believed, first-rate college experience can be a highly valuable element of that education; and many of our colleges are focussing increasingly hard on enriching university education in this way. In this, Australian colleges are part of an international trend – a resurgence, perhaps even a renaissance, of collegiate education.

Thirdly, however, this has many challenges – including the need for every college to focus on being an educational institution and not simply an accommodation provider, upholding principles of respect for others and overcoming the negative pressures to which some colleges are sometimes subject, and seizing the opportunities of equity, access, diversity, and gender equality.

Fourthly, and finally, how well our colleges do will depend to a significant degree of the quality of student leadership – the quality of your leadership.

How better could be it be expressed than in the theme of this conference? Carpe diem. Seize the day. Take the lead – and take it to promote the most uplifting and enriching collegiate education that is possible. Good luck.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014