From the 1960s to about the 1980s university colleges were not much valued from in educational point of view, but in the longer term their educational advantages have been well understood. In the last ten or twenty years the long-term understanding has revived, mainly overseas and more slowly in Australia. St Paul’s College plays a leading role in that revival.
When Sydney University was founded, in 1849-52, it was taken for granted that residential colleges would be needed to supplement or even to provide the basic elements of university education. St Paul’s College was founded for this purpose (in 1854-56) and the first Warden promised classes in eight subjects, from Astronomy to German, all of them in addition to the University curriculum.
This was too ambitious. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney did not support the University and until the 1880s the College therefore failed to prosper. Its broad educational purpose lost ground. The Roman Catholic St John’s College (founded 1857-61) remained small too, but for different reasons.
Religious education, appropriate to each denomination, remained fundamental, and the heads of all the then men’s colleges were required to be clergy. At St Paul’s all students received instruction in Divinity and Church History. At St John’s such instruction was even more substantial. St Andrew’s College (Presbyterian, founded 1867-70) included a Theological Hall, for training ministers.
Instructors in the colleges were often called “lecturers” rather than “tutors”. By the end of the nineteenth century St Andrew’s, then the biggest college, had two endowed professorships, plus lecturers in Mathematics, Science, Classics and Philosophy. This was something like the ideal.
The interwar period saw a determined attempt to redefine and update the educational purpose of the colleges. Led by Arthur Garnsey, Warden of St Paul’s, the heads of the men’s colleges (other than St John’s) persuaded the University to establish a new degree, the Bachelor of Divinity, taught by themselves and open to the student body as a whole. In principle, the BD course was an extension into the University proper of the education already existing in the colleges, which was a direct reversal of usual process. But the numbers enrolled for the BD were always small.
The Vice-Chancellor in the 1930s, Sir Robert Wallace, emphasised the importance of college education. Twentieth-century universities, he said, had to use “’cram-shop’ methods of education”, thanks to their size. The college system should be expanded to include at least half the student population, because only colleges could provide genuinely liberal education, which was the fundamental purpose of student experience at the university level.
In the late 1930s St Paul’s College launched a fund-raising campaign to enable not just new building but also “an extension of the college lecture and tutorial systems”. It was the hope of Garnsey, the Warden, that ultimately teaching in the colleges, or in St Paul’s College at least, might be accredited by the University for its degrees.
In short, the ideal in this period was to make college-level education, or something like it, normal within the University rather than exceptional.
The recent world-wide revival of interest in the educational impact of the college experience shows itself in Australia in various ways. The current vision of Ormond College at Melbourne University includes making Ormond into “Australia’s premier college and a world-leading model for residential education”. The “distinctive Ormond education” is based on principles derived from UNESCO’s “Four Pillars for a 21st Century Education”.
St Paul’s is deliberately evolving its own educational principles, building on strength. Much smaller than Ormond, the established ethos of student leadership and peer support in academic work is the basis at St Paul’s for a thorough-going educational program, making detailed use of student initiative so as to create a culture of intellectual leadership.
The tutorial system is now substantially student-run. In 2012, thanks to the Senior Student, the College became the first in Australia (and possibly the first in the world) to initiate a program of Positive Education. The new residential village at Wollongong University will do the same, but in more orthodox fashion, when it opens in March 2013, and other Australian colleges will no doubt follow. The potential advantages, from an all-round educational point of view (such as the University itself cannot offer) are substantial.
There is no avoiding vast and relatively depersonalised universities, plus increasingly pervasive online teaching. However, residential colleges use face-to-face instruction in small groups, or even individually, so that for educational purposes they can provide the perfect balance. The program has to be deliberate and innovative. Like Ormond, St Paul’s College aims to be a leader in this field, and has already taken substantial steps towards that goal. This effort is fundamental to the College profile.