Friday, August 03, 2012

UNE, its future and that of its colleges

Back in July 2008 (Storms gather over UNE colleges) I reported on problems facing the University of New England College system. By then, failure to carry out proper maintenance had led to a $22 million back log in maintenance. By then, too, many of us with UNE connections had long begun to despair that the place could ever get its act together,

My own college, Wright College, had been closed over the opposition of its alumni because its "temporary" buildings had become to expensive to maintain and no one had any rebuild vision. Drummond College, the College named after my grandfather, had been closed, reopened, then forcibly merged with SH Smith House to form Drummond-Smith College. At least this made a little sense in that Smith was the head of Drummond's NSW Education Department when Drummond was minister.

One of the constant complaints of all of us connected with UNE's college system over decades was the failure of the University to allow the colleges to grow as independent entities in their own right and as key marketing vehicles for the university itself. They were seen as, and just treated as, residential vehicles, something absolutely anathema to the real ideal of a collegiate university.

On July 18 2012, the University of New England announced a major rebuild program for the College system.   According to UNE VC Jim Barber, “UNE aims to be the country’s pre-eminent collegiate university, and to do that we need modern infrastructure and greater student accommodation options.

The first stage of the University of New England’s residential college redevelopment will see a major modernisation of Robb College and a new 200-bed college built at UNE.

On 1, 2 and 3 October 2010, Rob College celebrated its fiftieth birthday, something Paul Barratt celebrated in Fiftieth anniversary of Robb College, UNE. Taken in 1960 from Paul's front door, the photo shows the first block of Robb College. In talking about the Robb modernisation, Professor Jim Barber said the Robb College plans would be respectful of the College’s rich history while also being modern in their design.

“We plan to keep the building that houses the dining hall and the common rooms, but to rebuild the three residential buildings on their existing footprints,” Professor Barber said. “Our unique partnership with UniLodge, in which we will maintain our contribution to the College’s operating costs, allows us to retain the UNE culture and lifestyle and avoid privatisation.

“We will not compromise on maintaining the positive aspects of the Robb College culture and lifestyle.”

In addition to the Robb modernisation, the new 200 bed college will be built on or near the site of Wright College. The whole project will be managed by UniLodge, a major provider of student accommodation services in Sydney.

What none of us know at this stage is just how all this will fit with the re-development of UNE and especially its Armidale campus as a truly collegiate university. It used to be, and then the place lost the plot. Or will the colleges become just halls of residence?

The older UNE alumni who are so fanatical in their support of the institution are so not just because they shared the vision of of the founders, but because they found the College and University as it was to be a good thing from deeply imprinted personal experience.

I have written a fair bit trying to bring the UNE experience alive and to explain its Australian and indeed global contribution to culture and thought. Still, I thought that I should leave the least word to Paul. In What a privilege it was ..., he said in part:

When I entered the University in 1961 it had about 600 full-time undergraduates on about 740 acres of land, effectively running less than one student to the acre.  The campus was spacious and attractively landscaped, with the beautiful Booloominbah at the centre and heart of it all. Everything was a short walk from everything else.

In those days the University was fully residential. All students were required to live in the on-campus colleges, the only exceptions being those who were living at home in Armidale with their parents (who had to apply in writing for this exception to be granted).  Want to play rugby, soccer or hockey? Attend training a couple of nights a week on the Consett Davis playing fields a couple of hundred metres away; run down there straight after college dinner, do a couple of hours training, run back to college, have a shower and back to the assignments. Want to play cricket? There is a lovely oval right over there near Robb College.

The staff-student ratio was extraordinary (something like 1.6:1 in 1961) and classes were small.  In my chosen subject of Physics there were about a hundred students in first year (it was a compulsory subject for Rural Science I), eight in second year, four in third year, and five in my honours year. In first year we had a tutorial every week. There were nine in my tutorial group. The tutor was the Professor of Physics.  This was no degree factory. No wonder so many of us prospered.

Professor Barber, we count on you to deliver a real vision.

1 comment:

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