ACU (Australian Catholic University)

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Signadou by decades

Before 1960

In 1959 Archbishop Eris O’Brien invited the Dominican Sisters of Australia to open a College in Canberra to prepare Sisters from a number of congregations as teachers for the rapidly expanding diocesan Catholic Primary School system. Sr Philomena Waite agreed, and negotiations for a site began. A large site in the new northern suburb of Watson was made available for a Dominican complex: and plans developed for two buildings in modern monastic style - a Priory and House of Studies for Dominican Priests, and the national headquarters for the Dominican Sisters (the Generalizia) in a building which would include the Teachers’ Training College - and a parish with both a church and primary school.

1960s

The first building to be completed was Signadou, the name given to the Sisters’ building. On a torrentially wet day in March 1963 the building was opened by the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies. Classes had already commenced for the new students – 19 young women from four different religious congregations – Dominicans, Sisters of Mercy, Ursulines and Sisters of St Joseph. Their course was for one year and they received a Teachers’ Certificate at the end of it. Sr Margaret Mary Brown OP (then Sr Gerard) was the first principal.

The next few years brought many and rapid changes. The second Vatican Council was under way and Australian society was also undergoing transformation. The first lay student enrolled at Signadou in 1964, but in 1966 a group of young women received scholarships  from the Catholic Education Office in Canberra to study as teachers for the Catholic school system and this sponsorship by the CEO continued for many years. At the same time the numbers of women entering or remaining in religious life was declining. The transition to a two year Certificate was gradual,  formalised in 1967.

1970s

In 1970 the Teachers’ Certificate course became a three year program. Students did periods of teaching practice each year, in eleven of Canberra’s Catholic primary schools. The number of lay students increased, and in 1975 the first male students enrolled. By the following year the population was predominantly lay. In 1976 Sr Margaret Mary finished her term as principal and Sr Deirdre O’Sullivan OP from the North Adelaide province of the Dominican Sisters succeeded her in 1977.

Government expectations of appropriate education for teachers continued to grow, and in 1979 the College was approved to offer a three year Diploma of Teaching (with retrospective effect for students who had commenced in 1978). Like other Australian higher education institutions the College was now receiving most of its funding through the Commonwealth government. At the same time a series of upgrading courses were offered, to permit teachers with one, two or three year certificate qualifications to upgrade to Diploma level.

1980s

In 1981 the first completely new course (a Graduate Diploma in Religious Education) was approved for Signadou, though even it was in a related field. The first students graduated in 1983. In 1982 Sr Pauline Riley OP was appointed Principal. The College had remained as a free-standing independent institution and was having increasing difficulty in attracting students in the numbers the Commonwealth government increasingly expected. The courses continued to develop, keeping pace with state and diocesan requirements. 

In 1987 Sr Rosemary Lewins took over as Principal, at a time of major challenge. The proposed abolition of the well-established two-tier system of higher education in Australia meant that existing Colleges of Advanced Education were to become Universities or funding would reduce and finally cease. Urgent negotiations between the four Catholic Colleges in eastern Australia commenced (Catholic College of Education Sydney, Institute of Catholic Education Victoria, McAuley College of Education in Brisbane, and Signadou). In 1989 they announced a formal amalgamation and Australian Catholic University would commence operations on 1 January 1991. The first Bachelor’s degree course (Bachelor of Education) was approved in 1989, to commence in 1990.

1990s

As a campus of a new University Signadou shared in the challenges and excitement as Australian Catholic University began to define itself, establishing new administrative and academic structures, developing strategic plans, and later refining them.  Schools of Education and Religion and Philosophy (which later became a School of Theology) were established at Signadou. Some Dominican sisters were still living in the Signadou building, but a decision that they relocate to smaller houses off site meant that the whole building was now available for campus use, and some important modifications were made to improve the physical facilities. Academic programs on campus evolved too – further qualifications were offered at various levels in education, and the first moves were made towards a qualification in theology (the Graduate Diploma in Religion Studies). Later courses followed. The first completely new academic area on campus was Social Work.  A Bachelor of Social Work approved by the Australian Society of Social Workers commenced in 1995 and higher degree courses followed quickly.

Meantime the University continued to move to a more integrated national structure. In 1995 Sr Rosemary took up a position as first Dean of Students within the University, based in Sydney, and Professor David Parker was appointed to the new position of Rector of Signadou Campus in Canberra, followed by Associate Professor Tim O’Hearn and in 1999 by Associate Professor (later Professor) Peter Camilleri who was also Head of School of Social Work.

2000s and beyond

A significant move for the campus was the decision in 2004 of the Dominican priests to vacate their Priory building, making it available for purchase by the University in association with the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn. This meant that for the first time a large amount of new space was available, with resulting opportunities for much improved facilities. New teaching and office spaces became available, much improved facilities for students were created, and the canteen which had operated in a demountable now had a fine new area as a college café. The library in particular benefited from both additional space and a much appreciated and splendid refurbishment. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s developments in technological infrastructure meant that staff and students benefited from the online revolution.

Two important research Institutes were established on campus during this period – the Institute of Child Protection Studies in 2005, and in 2009 the Public Policy Institute. Meantime academic staff within the ACU Faculties represented at Signadou continued to conduct and supervise research and work with many community and Church organisations.

A Bachelor of Nursing degree started on campus in 2007 – initially as a program by which Enrolled Nurses could upgrade to Registered Nurses, bringing a new cohort of students to the campus. In 2012 a first group of Paramedicine students commenced their course on campus. Meantime the School of Education diversified into secondary education and early childhood education, the School of Theology had moved into new areas – joining with the School of Social Work to provide a dual degree, and developing innovative programs in interfaith relations and spiritual direction, and Social Work which had begun its life at ACU at Signadou was now a national school, taught at Strathfield and Brisbane as well as at Signadou.

A further structural review led to a revised role for the campus within the University. Associate Professor Patrick McArdle was appointed Campus Dean in 2009.
In 2013 Canberra Campus (Signadou) celebrates 50 years since its establishment as a small training college to prepare religious women for the primary school classroom.

Page last updated: 15 Dec 2015

Short url: http://www.acu.edu.au/460313