Martyn Evans on The Collegiate Way

Martyn Evans, Trevelyan College, Durham, UK

When in 1999 my long-held personal ambition to visit far-away New Zealand was finally fulfilled, I little imagined that it would lead either to a further ten visits to that country and to its oldest university, nor eventually to the Collegiate Way conference 2014…

As a visiting Fellow (and later visiting Professor) in the Bioethics Centre at the University of Otago, for several years I pursued my research and academic collaborations in complete ignorance of the university’s collegiate nature and of its specific colleges themselves. In 2005 I actually stayed in one of them for a conference, but still the penny didn’t drop! Perhaps this was because I myself was still relatively new to a collegiate system in any case; I studied at an ordinary non-collegiate university, and I was appointed to the Principalship of a Durham College quite ‘out of the blue’ in 2002, having had – or so I thought at the time – no prior aspirations of a collegiate nature. Well, sometimes others really do know best what is best for us…

At any rate, on a later stay at Otago in 2011 I was invited to include a collegiate dimension to my academic purposes, and to visit eight of the University’s Colleges in a whistle-stop tour. It was a wonderful experience, and a defining moment, allowing me to recognise that the ‘collegiate way’ expressed a common purpose across different universities, a purpose whose pursuit could conceal important, interesting and above all instructive variations in practices. As I wrote up a synoptic report of my experiences (subsequently presented to authorities in both Otago and Durham) the idea began to take shape in my mind of some sort of on-going conversation between colleges from both universities. When, a year later, I shared this thought with Chris Massey of University of Western Australia – he and I were the two external members of a review of pastoral care provision in the Otago Colleges – it had broadened from a bilateral conversation to a full-scale conference for any and all universities dedicated to the collegiate way of university life and education. And so planning began.

The idea would have remained just an idea, however, were it not intensely energised by my sense of privilege at being able to experience at first hand two comparable collegiate systems and, above all, by being able to witness fellow practitioners of my own ‘craft’ (as it were) and be able to appreciate and admire their thoughts, purposes, deeds and achievements in a different system from the one I knew – acknowledging in so many cases how much further they had travelled than I along the collegiate way. Energising indeed! – and suggestive of a golden opportunity to compare, identify and where possible share best practices where the relevant institutional contexts and constraints sufficiently overlapped as to allow it.

It would be invidious in this Blog to start suggesting which practices are best – I can happily leave that to what will surely constitute some of the chief conversations occupying us at the Collegiate Way 2014 conference itself! However to whet the appetite, some points of comparison follow together with the questions they prompted in my mind, hopefully illustrating what the conference’s informal conversations might be able to consider.

Who ‘owns’ a college? At both Universities, the majority of colleges are owned and maintained by the university, but a small number are owned by independent Christian denominational foundations, though in the present day having the non-denominational role of providing full student accommodation services to the university. What other models are to be found elsewhere, I wonder?

Next, how big is a college? It depends on how this is counted – whether by membership, or by residence only. In Otago these are the same thing, as only resident students are members; whereas in Durham students join as resident first-years and retain their membership throughout their degree studies, whether or not they return to residence later on. An advantage of the residence-only model in Otago is that, unlike Durham, students are not obliged to be members of a college. As a result, students freely choose whether or not to apply to a college at all on the basis of their accommodation needs, and so are arguably more likely to make their preference for an individual college a significant factor in application. Again, a significantly larger membership obviously requires a corresponding larger effort in terms of managing welfare support and more general student experience matters. However on the other hand, returning students offer invaluable continuity to the college community. One quite different, and more ‘function-orientated,’ answer might be: a college is as big as the largest number who can sit down to dine together in the same room at the same time! This might be an unfair way to classify existing colleges particularly if they have ‘inherited’ buildings that were not purpose-built, but if the ‘fellowship of the table’ is an important focus of college life, then it is worth thinking about whenever a new college is conceived and designed.

How ‘big’ is the role of a Head of College? In Durham it’s a half-time role (at least, in theory!) with the other half being made up of a research-orientated academic appointment, normally professorial. In Otago it’s a full-time role with no departmental responsibilities – but additional college duties over and above those at Durham, notably involving close attention to selection and admission of students. Single-minded attention or divided attention? These are the broad choices on offer, with the split role enabling the College Head to undertake leadership of a scholarly community from the standpoint of an active researcher, but at the cost – perhaps – of doing too many things. What other models or proportions might be found?

What are the essential social facilities in a college? In both Universities common rooms, in both the physical sense and as representative organisations, are viewed as central to the collegiate experience, and virtually all colleges have at least one common social space of significant size in addition to dining facilities. But a striking difference is to be found in the matter of college Bars – standard at Durham, but almost entirely absent at Otago, even though students may consume privately-bought alcohol on college premises there. The Durham credo is that drinking within College bars is more easily monitored and moderated, and hence offers better opportunities to encourage responsible social drinking, compared with drinking in establishments run by others. Even so, the Otago Colleges naturally have central social rooms that play the role of “the heart of College life” and so this function of Durham College Bars is perhaps already accomplished. (See also David Held’s Blog earlier in this series.)

What is the proper academic mission of a college that is only a part of a wider university? Both the Otago and the Durham systems rightly proclaim the academic relevance and character of their personal development programmes and of general learning support schemes, but on top of this, subject-specific academic tutorial support is provided in Otago colleges, unlike in Durham where this is presently the sole preserve of academic Departments. Questions arise as to the range of relationships between colleges and departments, the desirability (or otherwise) of academic specialisations in colleges, and how tutorial standards can be made consistent within the purview of academic Boards of Study. These are far-reaching questions, but they do go to the heart of what it is we attempt in our various interpretations of the collegiate way.

Finally, how do we best embrace academic faculty and professional members of a university and its environment within a college community? I was struck that Senior Common Rooms, something I’d taken as sine qua non in Durham, are not generally a feature of Otago colleges. Their ‘populations’ – the tutors, mentors and Fellows etc – are variously part of college life in Otago, but not quite in the recognised sense represented by an SCR. Of course it’s people who matter, and structures are secondary – colleges as natural cross-disciplinary communities have a key role to play in furthering the research mission of any university, and the key question is how best to promote those conversations.

One way, we hope, will be to come together to discuss these and other questions in the Collegiate Way 2014 conference in November…





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