Sunday, November 04, 2007

Musings on the University of New England Experience

I have always felt lucky to have attended the University of New England when I did. Even today and despite all the changes that have occurred, the University does well measured by student satisfaction rankings and by my own discussions with students on fleeting annual visits. The place still feels like a university.

In saying all this I could be accused, perhaps with justice, of suffering from nostalgia. Yet I don't think that this is the case, or at least not completely.

My eldest started at UTS Sydney and then, dissatisfied, switched to UNSW. Most of her friends go to Sydney universities - Sydney, UTS, UNSW. A number of the people I work with are also studying at these universities. Their experiences are so different from my own at UNE that they could be on another planet.

Size is one factor. These are big universities.

According to the latest stats that I could find, in 2006 Sydney had 45,848 students, UNSW 38,776 and UTS 32,712. In theory, size allows the universities to offer a wide range of courses. In practice, size translates to bigger classes and tutorials, to remoteness, to lack of contact with staff.

By contrast, when I was at UNE there were around 1,200 full time undergraduates on campus, nearly all living in. Classes were reasonably small, tutorials even more so. We knew every member of staff personally.

Overseas, full fee paying students, is another variable. In 2006, Sydney had 9,680 overseas students, UTS 8,954 and UNSW 8,618. These are big groups.

Local students complain, with some justice, about the dominance of overseas students in some courses, students who mix with themselves, squeezing out the locals. There are exceptions, International House at Sydney is one example where mixing occurs, but the pattern does appear to be common.

At UNE when I was there, 10% of students were overseas, mainly on Colombo Plan arrangements. These students lived with everybody else, with considerable mixing. The Overseas Students Association was the largest student society, with a very large number of Australian associate members including me. My own group of friends included a number of overseas students.

Today's students are time poor. Most local students have to work, at a pub in the case of eldest. So they fit together work, active social lives, and study in a complex pattern.

Most go to campus just to attend lectures or tutorials. Because they are local, their social life tends to revolve around existing groups outside university and is centred on specific venues. The Bay, the Palace, whatever. There is some university based social life - UNSW hockey is an example - but it tends to be limited.

Again by contrast, when I was at UNE very few students worked. Most were in fact on scholarship, Teachers College or Commonwealth. The last were means tested, but in all cases paid fees including union fees.

Most students lived in. I did not because I was a local, but I was still a genuine full time student. I was at university by nine, leaving sometimes as late as six. Not all this time was study. In fact, a large part was not, at least in a formal sense. I spent an awful lot of time in the union!

Often at night I was back at the university for a party or function. When partying in town or going to the pub, it was usually with fellow students.

Teaching and studying were different.

There was none of the current official emphasis on teaching. A few of the lecturers were, quite frankly, dreadful. But this was compensated for by the general closeness with staff and by cooperative study techniques.

The modern idea of team based or problem based learning did not exist. Not for us the problems of group assignments with some members refusing to pull their weight! Nor, for that matter, did we leave campus as soon as the lecture or tute was finished.

We tended to gather together in the union after lectures and talk. We wrote essays in the union. As exams came close, we gathered together in groups to study, going through topics and past exams. This was really critical in getting me through.

Overall, there was an intensity to UNE student life that my kids will never know.

I did in fact try to encourage both of them to consider UNE even though I would miss them dreadfully, but to no avail. Today's middle class Sydney young, or so it seems to me, are both stay-at-home and clannish.

Last year, not one of the St Catherine's year 12 class went to UNE, very few went to a university outside Sydney. They want to be close to home and friends. Even in Sydney, few want to go to a Sydney university outside their immediate area. So Eastern Suburbs kids focus on Sydney, UNSW or, perhaps, UTS.

In all this, and perhaps it is a sign of getting older, I find it sad that so many many kids including my own will never experience the true intellectual stimulation of university life.

There will always be some kids - I have a few in mind here - whose intellectual or artistic interests will draw them into the university world despite the odds. But for the mass of kids, university is now a means to an end, the acquisition of a ticket.


Nimmi said...

I was at UNE between 1997 and 1980 doing a masters in Economics, and I do agree it was a great place to be. I was from Sri Lanka and was very fortunate to get a tutorship to fund myself. Some of my closest friendships are from that time. As part of the small overseas students body you get to meet(and eat)and argue with a wide ranging bunch of people. The actual academic content of my degree was not that inspiring and I deviated into other areas subsequently (my first degree in Peradeniya, Sri Lanka where I studied Economic History with 'Tawny' Rajaratnam was my formative one).

But I think these are the times we live in. I think we are victims of marketing - we are all told that we need to have something because "your worth it", so our self worth is caught up with having something. This leads onto being able to afford it and so we have to make so much more. So the focus on getting a ticket to somewhere. The pleasure and interest of having a mind and using it has been lost for most.

Jim Belshaw said...

Grand to hear from you Nimmi.I probably should not comment on economics at UNE in that period. I was too far away, and also have a bit of a biased perspective. If you have the time, do tell me a little about the Sri Lanka experience.

On the times and marketing, I ahve to agree with you. Sometimes I feel a bit old fashioned, maybe more than a bit sometimes, but I do feel that university should be an education in just the way you say, the pleasure and interest of having a mind and using it.