Future bites for theological colleges


Melbourne College of DivinityThe Melbourne College of Divinity has always been the gold standard of theological consortia in Australia. Initially established by an act of the Victorian Parliament in 1910 it has enjoyed a status and solidity unrivalled by other such consortia. While others have waxed and waned, and even gone out of existence, MCD has stood firm, protected in large account by its founding act.

To mark its centenary, MCD took the bold step to attempt to make use of a new category of higher education institution, opened up by the new higher education protocols. It made a bid to become a specialised university.

While a university was generally deemed to have at least three major areas of study, the new protocols allowed for a 'university of specialisation' which may have only one such area. MCD made a bid to become a 'university of divinity'. It now seems that this opportunity is about to be realised.

The Victorian Government Gazette has listed the approval by the Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority (VRQA) for the Melbourne College of Divinity to operate as a specialised university under the title 'MCD University of Divinity'.

While this approval may be vetoed by the Parliament (a most unlikely affair given the financial support of MCD's application by the Victorian Government), it is for an initial five year period. In granting this approval Victoria will have established Australia's first specialised university.

In some ways this step by MCD is a leap of faith. No-one quite knows what the implications of being a specialised university are. There are no precedents for such a structure in Australia and it is not clear what extra freedoms and responsibilities it will present to the College.

Certainly this achievement is a tribute to the college, its strength and reputation, and to its dean, Paul Beirne who has steered it though the arduous process.

The timing of the Victorian Government's action is significant. State governments are about to close their higher education offices to make room for the new federal body TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency. From January 2012 TEQSA will be taking over all the major functions of state registration and accrediting authorities; it will be a one-stop-shop for higher education.

Some have described it as AUQA on steroids. AUQA (Australian Universities Quality Agency) ran regular quality audits on all approved Higher Education Providers, including colleges such as the MCD. TEQSA will have wide ranging authority over registration of institutions, accreditation of programs and quality assurance covering teaching and learning, research, administrative processes and so on.

Unlike AUQA however, TEQSA will have real teeth, the power to deregister institutions.

In a sense establishing the MCD University of Divinity is the last hoorah of the VRQA. It will soon go out of existence, at least in its present terms of operation. In putting a five-year timeframe on the registration of the college as a university of specialisation, they are leaving to others the process of reassessing MCD in five years' time. And TEQSA will be a very different beast to the VRQA.

TEQSA will operate on the basis of a risk analysis of institutions. The rule of thumb is that they will devote 80 per cent of their energies on the top 20 per cent riskiest institutions. This should leave our traditional universities pretty well free to continue business as usual. However, those deemed most at risk will be under fairly regular scrutiny. Such risk assessments will be made on a continuous basis.

Theological consortia such as MCD, the Sydney College of Divinity (SCD) and the Australian College of Theology, the only three really left standing, all have risk management issues. The member colleges are beholden to church constituencies which can make decisions regardless of the wishes of the colleges themselves — this has been demonstrated in both Brisbane and Adelaide.

For example, according to audited figures available on a Federal Government website, SCD had a decrease of more than 50 per cent in its total student load from 2009 to 2010. This is simply because two of its largest colleges pulled out of the consortia, one becoming stand-alone, the other joining a university. This type of risk is impossible for consortia to 'manage'.

Of the three major consortia MCD has been the most stable. Still it is facing its own challenges. The new regulatory environment will be costly; and the greater the degree of scrutiny from TEQSA the more costly it is likely to be. Churches may grow weary of the increasing cost of higher education and look for alternatives. Much will depend on how TEQSA will assess the risk of consortia.

Overall TEQSA will transform the higher education landscape for all such colleges and possibly also for our universities. When the MCD University of Divinity seeks to re-register as a specialised university in five years' time it will face a very different higher education world than currently exists. We shall then see if its leap of faith has been worthwhile.

Neil OrmerodNeil Ormerod is a graduate of MCD and Professor of Theology at Australian Catholic University.

Topic tags: Neil Ormerod.Melbourne College of Divinity, higher education



submit a comment

Existing comments

Surely a 'faith based' university is an oxymoron?

But why not waste further tax dollars on yet another sham university, now we have 'faith based' colleges to teach building tradesmen in Victoria and what looks surprisingly like a Hillsong University in Brisbane?

While Oxford may well have been created by church people times have changed just a little since 1140, or was it as recent as 1240?

The teaching of theology in a university is as shameful as running a business faculty in a university, and a sign that 'education' is nothing more than a consumer led industry, there to create a buck (and a few jobs) not to advance the thinking prowess of the nations population.

Harry Wilson | 06 September 2011  

Harry, Prof Ormerod didn't mention anything about a faith-based university. There's nothing anomalous about specialising in theology, and studying theology does not seek faith as a prerequisite. Traditionally, universities were all about teaching theology and philosophy (other disciplines were later additions). I can completely understand that studying these subjects would be useful to anyone: theology teaches various forms of literary criticism, ethics, and frameworks for thinking.

MBG | 06 September 2011  


"While a university was generally deemed to have at least three major areas of study, the new protocols allowed for a 'university of specialisation' which may have only one such area. MCD made a bid to become a 'university of divinity'."

If this were a new single issue university to teach 'retail', as seems will happen sometime soon if McDonald's have not already started one here, in line with the 'education revolution' we really didn't have to have, then it would be a 'retail university'.

This one is morphing from a College of Divinity to a specialist university dealing with the topic of 'religion' only.

Dodgy enough to be a 'faith based' university.

You can call it what you like.

I did mention the origins of Oxford being from within the church. But times do change, and the need for 'theology' has dwindled somewhat, unless you hanker for the new style of 'militant evangelism' so favoured in the most successful Australian churches these days.

But the only 'theology' in evidence in these pits of despair is connected to 'wealth theology', what's it known as, the Prosperity Gospel?

Harry Wilson | 06 September 2011  

Thanks for drawing attention to this significant event not only for theological education, but for all Australian higher education. As the MCD Registar at the time of the AUQA audit, and the passing of the thoroughly revised and update MCD Act, in 2005, I am delighted.

However - I don't think it is helpful to refer to the MCD as the 'gold standard' etc. Such characterisations run against the grain of what theological education is about - the theology sector is mercifully much less caught up in the ethos of competition and consumerism than other parts of higher education here.

Yes, the MCD it is reasonably stable, assisted by its access to Commonwealth research funding since 2002. Its ecumenical character further assist this, strengthened considerably by the participation of the Roman Catholic church since 1972, and more recently by the Salvation Army and Lutheran Church.

But in my opinion, the Australian College of Theology - founded in 1891, Anglican only until 1962, and (most significantly) Australian higher education's inaugural Self-Accrediting Institution from 2010 - should be seen as effectively the MCD's partner in theological education, along with stand-alone providers such as Moore and the Tabor network (I know less about the SCD, but it should be presumed to be on a par with these HEPs.)

I trust that similar co-operative relations are fostered with the theological departments in the universities, not least ACU where theology and philosophy operate at faculty level. The emergence of the Council of Deans of Theology is a tangible sign of the co-operative ethos across the sector.

Finally, all the colleges involved in the consortia, the MCD included, continue to be highly dependent on the churches that sponsor them, or encourage students to enrol at them. To this extent, all are involved in ongoing 'leaps of faith', not only for the year immediately ahead, but the decades-long resources needed to support research, reflection and long-term learning.

Charles Sherlock | 06 September 2011  

Engaging in theological debate with HARRY WILSON is a bit like trying to argue climate change with Lord Monkton or Alan Jones. They barge in with way-out views that are set in concrete and manipulate the conversation to the extent that it's just too tiresome to even begin dialogue with them. Maybe they'd find more playmates to bully if you posted your views in the The Daily Telegraph.

AURELIUS | 07 September 2011  

Sorry Harry, but the facts seem to be against you. In the recently published global university ranking, six out of the top ten universities in the world - Harvard, Cambridge, Princeton, Columbia, Chicago, and Oxford - all have active theological faculties/schools. On world standards our university system is the odd one out in having so little engagement with theology. These great universities recognise the positive contribution of theology to their curriculums.

Neil Ormerod | 07 September 2011  

I hope Neil that you are not implying that there is a causal relationship between having theology faculties and being among the top ten universities. May I suggest to you that the fact that those universities have theology faculties has more to do with the era in which they were established rather than any current recognition of their value? And may I suggest that 'our system has so little engagement with theology' because in the era in which they were established theology was not considered a proper subject and discipline for a university? In fact, as I understand it, the legislation that established Sydney University specifically forbid a theology faculty.

Ginger Meggs | 07 September 2011  

AURELIUS, a little testy old chap.

Wjat's this 'barging in' business? Do you own this space, or what?

Ginger Meggs seems to get it, even if you are 'set in concrete', or is it amber?,or aspic? with your one eyed view of the world, expecting all others to hold your view, or take off.

There is certainly a very 'jolly' and 'self congratulatory' about much of the comment on this blog, not to mention some of the articles, but really AURELIUS, you have no need to be quite so rude.

I doubt that any Australian university that adds theology to its 'consumer offerings' will be rising through any world rankings within the next 200 years, to be honest.

Since the 'modern' Australian university barely even offers philosophy these days, a far more useful topic, I am not convinced that a theology led intellectual recovery will come to much.

Harry Wilson | 07 September 2011  

HARRY, we are trying to engage in meaningful intellectual and theological debate in this forum, but if you cannot make any convincing arguments, then it's best to say little. Even if one's argument is false, we should at least back it up with something better than mistruths and 'quotation marks'. As MARCUS AURELIUS said many centuries ago: 'It's hard to soar like an eagle when one is surrounded by turkeys.'

AURELIUS | 08 September 2011  

May I go back to the first line in Harry's first posting and MBG's response. MBG is correct when s/he says that Neil's article doesn't use the words 'faith based' but when one looks at all the tertiary institutions offering courses on theology and/or religion in this country, all, except UNE, offer nothing but Christian theology.

Isn't that at least part of what Harry means by the phrase 'faith based'?

Or to put it another way, if the proposed 'MCD University of Divinity' will not offer the opportunity to study a broad range of religions and theologies and focuses only on orthodox Christian theology, then surely it can be reasonably be called 'faith-based'?

Ginger Meggs | 08 September 2011  

It is good to see some robust debate about the teaching of theology in our universities. I believe it to be a good thing along with the teaching of the philosophy disciplines of logic, morality and ethics as well as the teaching of literature and cinema. Such teachings provide people with a greater capacity for rational and logical thinking and better decision making in all aspects of life. In Australia the lack of such qualities has resulted in a significant number of people suffering from anxiety, depression, unhappiness, alienation and isolation. I am pleased to read that the Melbourne College of Divinity has included the Salvation Army and the Lutheran Church with the Catholic Church to broaden it's ecumenical character. I would encourage it to further include other religious groups such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism etc.

Mark Doyle | 09 September 2011  


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up