Thoughts from Kit Thompson

Kit Thompson, University of Macau

Penned from London after rewarding, if agglomerative, whistle-stop visits to Durham, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and now nestling back en route to Macau.  Redolent images: rich, heavy night scents of Cambridge’s ambrosial limes; the skyline of Durham’s monumental Cathedral lit by late evening sun; frenzied hordes of summer-closeted and newly-released high-schoolers stretching from the Cherwell and Magdalen Bridge the length and breadth of Oxford High.

Far from the Madding Crowd, Oxford really does have a tavern named after Gray’s Elegy [1], and Hardy’s novel [2], the trip was far from a Cook’s tour, or a travel diary in which to record adventures.

University of Macau colleagues and I shall be speaking at Collegiate Way on the aspiration of the University of Macau to create, purportedly, the largest collegiate system in Asia, on an island campus leased from China under jurisdiction of European, Portuguese law.

For the moment, here is something of a brief reflection on recent visits to US and British colleges, and, moreover, on the initial year of operation spent on UM’s new Hengqin campus.

Firstly, I would wish to extend a special note of gratitude to the Masters I was fortunate to encounter. In sharing their experience and practice, Masters’ generosity was unrestrained. Each in different ways was, it seemed, searching for pragmatic ways of realising the extraordinary fertile environment and experiential riches contained within their colleges to inspire students and enhance their lives. Their experience, narratives and counter-narratives will be left behind for the next generation of Masters.  It has been a fascinating and insightful trip. It reinforced the potential of a council of Masters and Principals engaged within the Collegiate Way, a regular international forum of peers where commonalities and diversity can be seen, nuanced or revealed in bold relief, and best practice shared.  It also seems to prompt what might be termed emeritus Masterships, to keep the experience accessible once serving Masters have relinquished the mantel.

From start up on a new campus some eleven months ago, we have moved through two successful semesters, each with seminal and defining moments. We have, it seems, now begun to define a prototype of a residential college, serving both an academic community of practitioner-teacher-scholars, and a communitarian model serving a larger, broader local community of Macau, the greater Pearl River Delta, and all its stakeholders, alumni, business and employees, arts organisations, consular corps, and strategic partners – Mainland and international.

There are key strategic alliances underway with leading international universities, organisations, and individuals, together with more local connections and considerable interplay of locally-represented international associations. Inevitably, operationally, there will also be constant challenges in terms of buildings, their upkeep and adaptability.

Undoubtedly, the planning process and transition from what was essentially a faculty-based structure to a collegiate residential system represents a sizeable strategic shift. The resulting human, spatial and physical (building) implications required to effect that change alone, notwithstanding the co-curricular imperatives, crystallise a near sea change in the signal character of University of Macau’s undergraduate provision.

The locus of collegiate activities themselves within the totality of the student learning environment, and the quality of intellectual depth and weight of co-curricular activities, will be decisive in building credibility and respect for residential colleges (RCs) across faculties, within the University itself, and beyond to the external and international world at large.

For the future there is much to be done from embedding the UM collegiate structure, phasing co-curricular activities appropriately, to seeing through the RC concept from aspiration to reality, if we are to underpin the development of a truly RC system, rather than simply represent a federation of constituent colleges.

Collegiate universities, in which students share similar academic, social or cultural interests, differ extensively in type, shape and complexion.  Within these are first-year commons communities for freshmen (similar to those found in Harvard Yard and UM’s pilot Freshmen Colleges), designed to help incoming students embark upon their journey through university with greater surety of step. The benefits of participating in the first-year commons programme are thought to be legion. Students at once have access to integrated support systems, a network of professional staff and to experienced, more senior, peers. These serve as role models for their residents and focus programme topics pertaining to common first-year experiences. Representative programmes may include time management, note taking, study and communication skills.

Given differences in size, structure and traditions, those where tutorials and teaching take place within the colleges, and those, as in the case of the ‘Durham difference’, where predominantly teaching takes place in faculties rather than constituent colleges, the degree of disparity in complexion and intention is particularly extensive. Some are all-graduate colleges, others entirely given over to freshmen. Still others are premised on outdoor and environmental pursuits, public outreach, the services and community engagement, or on religious or cultural dimensions. Others have become known through their alumni to excel in fields of cultural diplomacy, politics and debate.  Some, through the creativity of their graduates and faculty, are especially strong in the arts and expressive fields. There are also, even within the same university, differing degrees of devolvement and gradations of subsidiarity, in some cases diverse levels of what might be termed ‘devolved autonomy’ from central university administration. Decentralisation is more pertinent, it seems, than command-and-control in a flat world.

Masters represent a particular kind of hyphenated academic, albeit with their own professional identities and wider cultural interests. They inhabit intellectual and College leadership rôles. They intersect their institutions with specific credentials and experience. Clearly apparent was how soon new Masters and students, early adapters and early adopters, celebrated and took pride in their college’s distinctive cultures, traditions and narratives, retellings stretching centuries. Narratives in which narratives, like Russian dolls, reside within narratives. Inside one is another. And yet, how quickly new Masters open up new ways of seeing, how quickly their interests and enthusiasms became acculturated into the character of the College. Acculturation both ways, it seems.  Seen through the lens of time, these first perceived liminal figures, leave indelible marks on a College’s much storied history.

At risk of sliding into anecdote, in one instance reciprocity was most apparent with the appointment of a new Master whereby his young family had been enthusiastically embraced by, it seems, the whole of the collegiate community and received into its activities.  Students, in turn, seem to feel part of the College Master’s, albeit extended, familial circle and were openly appreciative of developing and sharing their collegiate experience along with his young children.

Similarly, there was noticeable reciprocity in terms of some of the fabric of the Colleges, the surroundings and built environment, venerable ancient and modern, each born out of time. A building may be conceived and designed by architects, yet soon after the building is in use, it seems, people begin to take on something of the quality of the buildings in which they reside.

One hears it in the voices, in the acoustics, naturally, in the invention of ideas, but also sees it in terms of the spaces – enclosed or open – the quality of natural light, sun exposure, in the ambience of filtered light, in landscaping surrounding the Colleges, in the artwork created and displayed. Artworks by John Piper are visible within the footprint, stained-glass windows and on the walls of Robinson College Cambridge. There are potters’ wheels in Yale College, and designs were found in Worcester College Oxford, of Shakespeare’s indoor Jacobean Southbank theatre. ‘We shape our buildings’, Churchill said, ‘and afterwards, our buildings shape us.’

Knowledge has to be acquired first-hand.  The writer learns, for example, that a few simple, classic lines and lean precepts inform the sketchbooks and design principles of so many successful colleges – a primacy of enlightenment over conservatism.

With all colleges, the approach to residential communities is predicated on the assumption that students engaged in living and learning communities are more likely to succeed, receive higher marks and graduate. In short, the assertion held is that, whether on campus or, after first-year commons, within the community at large, having made a personal, experiential investment in residential communities facilitates student success and makes for a rich and rewarding time at university.

Based on a US model, (Adam Peck, Stephen F. Austin State University  Texas), Moon Chun Memorial College surveyed freshmen at the end of their initial year, and replicated similar results to those at SFA.  In brief, more students found that they learnt verbal communication, teamwork, decision-making and problem solving skills, planning and organising, use of computer software and persuasion when taking part in extra-curricular activities.

As UM Masters, we have been considering the wider issues and challenges faced by UM and Macau’s educational, cultural, environmental, and rapid economic development. If the RC’s mission – in the broadest sense – is worth doing, it is worth doing in its entirety. RCs enable something of the complexity of academic study, academic time and academic practice to be seen in the round.

What qualifies, if not always quantifies, as academic study manifests itself across a wide range of life skills, life styles, cultural values and knowledge work, each interpenetrating others.

For faculty, engagement with residential colleges, and the collaborative relationships therein, can crosscut disciplinary boundaries and enrich the intellectual context of their work.

For students, the opportunity to integrate their work as collaborators with faculty in an informal and relaxed setting of an RC, gives for learners unparalleled contact.  It allows a more realised sense of the intellectual climate and academic ecology across the university, and of the landscape of scholarship. In short it offers education on a personal scale.

As their conceptual shape begins to take tangible form, I have every confidence in the potential of RCs within UM. There is, of course, much to learn from the peer masters and heads of colleges, wherever they are found. There is much to do to prefigure future collegiate development in terms of RCs as part of the fundamental and integral structure of UM, international in ambition and, over time, reckoned with the best of the best, be they within the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge, in Durham, or in those in United States and other parts of the world.  Happily, many of which will be represented at Collegiate Way.


1. Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife…’ Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray, 1716-1771

2. Title of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)

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