Are colleges elitist?

Barbara Green, Principal, St Hilda’s College, University of Melbourne

What does it mean to be elitist?  Popular connotations of the concept may include perspectives on superiority and exclusivity and may be accompanied by negative views about such exclusivity together with a preference for a more egalitarian and populist model.

But what does it mean for our colleges to be labelled in such a way?  Is this a hangover from previous times when only those who enjoyed the privileges of wealth, social status and membership of the dominant social class were entitled to attend university and to belong to a residential college?  Might it also be a label directed towards colleges from those outside college communities who do not know what happens behind our walls, in our courtyards and away from public view?  Does there remain a view that only students from wealthy and privileged backgrounds would ever contemplate, let alone be admitted to, membership of our college communities?

There are many ways to look at this issue.  When I consider my own college, I think about an organisation that is just 50 years old and where the architecture is typical of the 1960s and certainly does not include the towers and spires of older places.  Students come to us in the main from communities in rural Victoria, they are often the first in their family to attend university, they do not come from wealthy backgrounds, they often attended poorly resourced government secondary schools and many receive significant financial assistance from the college or the government.  College membership and the benefits it bestows are possible for these students because the college, as part of its commitment to access and equity programs and understanding the need to have diversity within its student population, is able to provide financial support in the form of scholarships, bursaries, payment plans and employment.

These students do not belong to what would normally be considered the social or economic elite of Australian society.  But they are members of an elite and they join a university and college community which celebrates their achievements. As a result of these academic achievements, they qualified for admission to one of the most highly ranked universities in the Australia, a university which is well recognised globally and which has demanding admission requirements.  Their academic achievements, gained at high school, open doors for them and these are doors which remain closed to others.  In addition, by meeting college selection requirements and by joining a college affiliated with that university they become a member of a cohort of approximately 2,300 students out of a total university population of 45,000.  On one level, these numbers say it all for the context in which I work.

Their experiences of university will differ vastly from their friends who do not, for whatever reason, belong to a college community.  College membership is about more than accommodation.  As such, the college student’s transition from secondary school to university, particularly a large university, is eased as a result of their membership of their college community.  In addition, college students will benefit from academic support and academic activities, they will have access to mentoring, co-curricular activities and leadership opportunities, they will develop close and ongoing friendships and they will start to develop networks that will be invaluable in their professional lives. In so doing, the membership of these professional networks also becomes more diversified.

There is no doubting that college membership bestows certain benefits and enhances a student’s university experience.  It is also an experience which opens doors and provides opportunities to students who do not belong to the traditional elites of society. These are privileges and benefits which are not enjoyed by all students in many university contexts and as such it can be argued that colleges are elitist, but this is an elitism based more firmly on achievement and potential contribution to society than one necessarily based on social or economic privilege.

For many of us, the challenge is one of scale, financial resources and of our capacity to ensure that the advantages of college membership are made available to as many students as is possible and that college membership is seen as an intrinsic feature of a university experience.  To some extent, non-resident programs may well address part of this need.

Understanding what makes colleges elitist in a positive and progressive sense, and understanding the nature of that elitism, are therefore vital to the pursuit of the collegiate way.

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