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Australia's ageing theological workforce

  • 03 October 2007
The last five years have witnessed significant challenges to the Catholic theological education sector as it has had to adjust to an increasingly regulated higher education environment. However, the next five years will place increasing strain on the sector as it struggles to find properly trained personnel to fill the depleted ranks of theologians and biblical scholars.

Some 20 years ago the major suppliers of a Catholic theological education were theological colleges which functioned as seminaries (or at least provided theological education for seminarians) with lay people a happy addition to the student body. Many of these colleges were part of ecumenical theological consortia which provided structures for the accreditation of awards. In this way students would receive state-recognised degrees, initially at bachelors level but eventually leading to research masters and doctorates. These theological consortia have been a major ecumenical achievement, bringing together diverse ecclesial traditions into a common theological venture.

In those days the forms of state accreditation focused on the maintenance of proper academic standards. The regular rounds of accreditation and reaccreditation of awards would consider academic standards and the qualifications of teaching staff. These were rigorous but non-intrusive processes which attended to the basics but left the colleges to work out much of the details for themselves.

This is no longer the case. Federal government moves over the past five years in higher education have led to the development of national protocols which have placed increasing administrative burdens on all theological colleges.

State accreditation processes mirror federal requirements and now focus not just on the qualification of staff and the standards of courses but on governance structures and policies in relation to overseas students, study leave policies for academic staff and so on. Meeting these requirements is an increasing financial burden on a sector which generally runs on the smell of an oily rag. Further, to give students access to Fee-Help, the federal government student loan scheme for higher education, these colleges must also face the cost of an audit by the federal government Australian University's Quality Agency (AUQA).

To face these challenges consortia have had to re-structure their governance, develop multiple policies on every issue the national protocols require and in many cases raise their fees to meet the cost on the added administrative load. Government demands have put enormous strains on the resources of theological education.

While these past five years have provided many challenges