Theological education is becoming an increasingly fragile affair. A decade of 'reform' in higher education, primarily directed towards the university sector, has had spin-off effects that have led to an increase in administrative and financial loads on theological colleges.
Previously colleges obtained accreditation of awards at little cost. Now state agencies operate on a cost-recovery basis. In order to achieve Higher Education Provider status, colleges must submit to a quality audit costing tens of thousands of dollars in audit fees, not to mention the internal institutional costs of the process.
With large institutions these costs can be defrayed, but with smaller enrolments and low student fees, theological colleges have little option but to turn to their churches for increased underwriting. This comes at a time when mainstream churches are suffering a significant decline which also impacts financially on them.
As they say, something has to give, and in Brisbane something has now given.
For two years the Catholic college of the Brisbane College of Theology (BCT), St Paul's Theological College has been in negotiations with Australian Catholic University (ACU) aiming to merge the two theological faculties. As both were located on the same site, this seemed a sensible rationalisation. The major sticking point in these negotiations was the importance of maintaining the relationship with and viability of the BCT.
However in a merger the financial costs of St Paul's, currently borne by the Queensland Catholic dioceses, would be lessened by access to Commonwealth supported places for their seminarian program. The BCT was aware of these negotiations and had signed a memorandum of understanding with ACU in relationship to research programs.
These negotiations have supposed the desire of the three constituent Churches, Catholic, Uniting and Anglican, to maintain their commitment to the BCT. It now seems that this commitment has faltered.
Various Anglican dioceses have desired to establish a more unified approach to ministerial training. The Anglican member of the BCT, St Francis' Theological College, has been subjected to various reviews over the past few years to consider options available to it.
Thse discussions have largely revolved around the availability of Commonwealth supported places either through St Mark's Theological College, associated with Charles Sturt University (CSU), or with St Barnabas' Theological College, associated with Flinders University in Adelaide.
Matters came to a head when the BCT faced the demands of its upcoming reaccreditation. Due to a particular set of circumstances — including the absence of the Anglican archbishop, Phillip Aspinall, at the Lambeth Conference — St Francis' was unable to commit itself to the reaccreditation by the required deadline.
Faced with this difficulty the BCT decided not to seek reaccreditation from the end of 2009. This effectively means the college will cease to operate from that time, after 26 years of operation.
With negotiations with ACU well advanced, St Paul's situation was secure. Meanwhile St Francis will enter into a relationship with CSU. Left in the lurch was Trinity College, which now is negotiating with ACU.
I have always considered BCT, despite its history, to be an increasingly marginal operation, simply not big enough to meet the high financial and administrative demands of the current environment. While it has had opportunities to increase its base to include other Church agencies, it has not chosen the path of growth that has characterised, say, the Sydney College of Theology.
A similar consortium of these three churches in Adelaide, the Adelaide College of Divinity (ACD), has sought to meet the same difficulties through affiliation with Flinders University. Nonetheless given that one of the auxiliary Anglican bishops in Adelaide, Bishop Stephen Pickard, is a former head of St Mark's Theological College, I would think that the ACD will look with some interest at the BCT situation.
Some 18 years ago I wrote a piece in the Christian affairs magazine, National Outlook, in which I noted the impact of the Dawkins reforms on higher education. There I predicted that the formation of ACU and the offer of theology programs within the university sector would shift theological education away from the private sector and towards the university sector.
Now a number of universities offer theological programs — ACU, CSU, Flinders University, Murdoch University, Notre Dame University and most recently Newcastle University — often in association with theological colleges. Through these associations churches can significantly defray the costs of ministerial training.
The closure of the BCT will have ramifications throughout the theological sector. The Committee of Deans of Theological Consortia and University Schools has recently put in a submission to the Bradley review of higher education which raises a number of questions about the impact of government policies on the sector. It also urges a review of funding approaches to private providers.
Depending on the outcome of that review the demise of the BCT might be a one-off anomaly or a sign of things to come.
Dr Neil Ormerod, Professor of Theology, is Director of the Institute of Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Australian Catholic University, Mount St Mary Campus.