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Australia's ageing theological workforce

Ageing theology workforceThe 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 to theological colleges in general, the next five years are going to provide an extra challenge to Catholic theological colleges in particular. Last year a taskforce comprising members from the Forum of Australian Catholic Institutes of Theology (FACIT) and Australian Catholic University (ACU) undertook a survey of all Catholic theological college staff. While the taskforce had a long history of collecting and analysing data on student numbers, this was the first time it had surveyed staff. The aim was to obtain a snapshot of the current situation, considering issues of age distribution, qualifications and areas of expertise.

Some of the results of the FACIT-ACU survey came as no surprise. Theologians are in general extremely well-qualified, for example. Most of those employed outside the university sector (ACU and Notre Dame) are priests and religious. Two questions however produced answers which while not surprising should be raising red flags for all those with a concern for theological education.

Ageing theologians In terms of the age profile of the sector over 12 per cent are over seventy, and 42.5 per cent are over 60 years old. Less than 20 per cent are under fifty and 2 per cent under forty. Close to 37 per cent indicated their intention to retire in the next five years or less. Out of the 122 who responded to the survey, this means we will be losing at least 45 in the next five years. And this is an intention to retire. It does not take into account other ways in which we will lose theologians from the pool of teachers. Just after the results of the survey were tabled we heard news of the elevation of Tim Costelloe to the episcopacy. While it is pleasing to have a theologian made a bishop, it is likely to mean the end of his teaching career at the Catholic Theological College in Melbourne.

It would not be difficult to predict then that in the next five years we will lose some 50 of those who are currently teaching theology in our Catholic theological colleges. It is near impossible to see how this shortfall can be made up, particularly from the pool of Australia theologians. Younger theologians are not available to fill the gaps. Already some colleges have appointed people from overseas. There is a good numbers of people undertaking theological research degrees in Australia, but sampling two major institutions revealed an average age of over 50 for the research students. Even here there is only a short-term solution.

In the past Australia has produced a number of theologians and biblical scholars of international standing, including John Thornhill, Bill Dalton, David Coffey, Tony Campbell, Brendan Byrne, Frank Moloney and Tony Kelly. Most of these have come from religious orders with the resources and determination to maintain a pool of well-trained and qualified theologians and scholars in their colleges. Many of these religious orders are in decline and the demands of providing theologians and scholars are not the top priority when parishes need priests. The solution will not come from here.

On the face of it Catholic theological education is facing a major crisis. It cannot go on 'business as usual'. We cannot produce anywhere near the 50 replacement theologians and scholars we will need over the next five years to keep our current operations going. Major structural rationalisations need to occur and they need to start now. At present where this will take us is not clear, but the next five years will lead to the rise and fall of many as we struggle to adjust to the realities we face.



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Existing comments

A timely article given our ageing population. Where are the women, there are women in the community who are theologically educated and mayb, just maybe its time for the to be COUNTED and USED.

Rosemary Keenan | 04 October 2007  

What a great shame that Fr Denis Edwards the Adelaide theologian was omitted from the list of 'scholars of international standing'. Denis' contribution would be more influential globally than the other 7 combined.

Col Brown

col brown | 04 October 2007  

Are Australian Roman Catholic theological schools able to use (a) non-Roman (e.g. Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant) scholars (b) female scholars or (c) non-religious, non-ordained scholars? They would be under less pressure if they had more of these, as all are in good supply.

Brian McKinlay | 04 October 2007  

Wot about Gerald O'Collins SJ.
Surely he fits into thelogians about to disappear from the teaching/eminent persons register of Aus fame!

Frances Galvin | 04 October 2007  

There are many lay people who are beginning their studies through short courses, pastoral theology courses, etc. at Broken Bay Institute, etc. There are many teachers who are or have undertaken Graduate diplomas in religious education. Surely among some of these, the brighter and keener can be identified, mentored and fostered to study further and more deeply in the areas of theology and philosophy. Probably what blocks them is the fact that they need to work full-time and can only study part-time, as they have to support a family or pay off a mortgage.
The Church could and should offer more scholarships and 'grow what it needs'.
As for myself, I would love to study full-time, but live in the country and need to earn a living.

Mary Liesch | 08 October 2007  

Always a problem listing people that you leave some out. No offense was intended to the eminent persons that have been noted but not listed in my article.

Neil Ormerod | 08 October 2007  

One correction on a matter of fact re the explicit reference made to AUQA in this article, and an observation on the topic, based on an AUQA audit finding at the Melbourne College of Divinity (MCD).

The statement that AUQA is a Federal Govt body is incorrect. AUQA is an independent, not-for-profit company limited by guarantee, and owned by the nine governments of Australia that are represented on MCEETYA, not just the Federal Govt.

The ageing of the Theological workforce was explicitly commented on by AUQA in the audit report of MCD, published in December 2005 (see Recommendation 14 and the preceeding rubric on p37), i.e. "AUQA recommends that MCD develop a comprehensive staffing plan for the College as a whole that includes matters such as age and gender profile, succession planning, and professional development at each Recognised Teaching Institution."

Robert Carmichael | 08 October 2007  

I am a 70yr old pensioner who loves to study. I had to terminate my Masters in Theology because the fees kept going up and my pension did not Now I spend a couple of hours every day reading the articles supplied by my many free subscriptions. I realise that you have to be financially viable, but I sincerely thank you for providing a way for me to continue feeding my thirst for knowledge - particularly about the Church. This is a good way to keep senility at bay - I hope!!

Fran Swindale | 09 October 2007  

We live and move and have our being in the most incredible mystery and the theologians you mention certainly have invited us into that mystery each in their own way and having studied with them at one time or another I can attest to the profound influence they have had on many. There was a theologian who once that said 'there is nothing profane to those who know how to really see'. When are we going to begin living holistically?

Susan Seaton | 11 December 2007  

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