Orientating the heart

Published: Wednesday 24th February 2016

By Associate Vice-Chancellor (Brisbane) Professor Jim Nyland

This week ACU Brisbane emerged as the second largest campus of the University achieving its fifth consecutive year of double digit growth with more than 5,800 students now on campus. This is a magnificent achievement for the campus that has experienced a significant increase in first preference students in 2016 – my thanks to all colleagues involved in ensuring ACU Brisbane continues to compete and win in the demand driven system.

The Banyo campus has been a site for learning for Catholic higher education for three quarters of a century and as well as reporting the positive news of record student numbers this week we also received the sad news of the passing of the last surviving Priest from the original class of Seminarians at Banyo some 75 years ago.

I am proud to say that the legacy of Catholic education began at Banyo during the World War II continues to go from strength to strength following the advent of the University’s learning community over the last decade or so.

Universities are always thought of as somehow being learning communities; if not this then what are they? The relationship a university has to its own community may involve a strong connection to the local or regional town or city and stand for a set of localised identities.

On the other hand a university may not aspire to being a physical community but to being a learning community without borders of a conventional kind. At ACU we aspire to both as evidenced by the very different national campus communities that we serve including our newest international campus in Rome, demonstrating how a distinctive mission can enable a university to define its learning community as well as be part of it on a global scale.

Pope Francis reminds us that the "real" world out there still consists of millions who are without an adequate income to rear their families, a world without dignity or education, without clean water or adequate food and medicine and whose share of world wealth is actually diminishing. And that there is also a world out there where climate change and pollution are far from improving. The arguments for devising engagement opportunities on a massive scale and a new university curriculum which addresses these issues in a way that the sector can meaningfully respond to them seems to be self-evident.

The good news is the sector itself has identified Engagement as its major theme for 2016, evidenced by Universities Australia’s national HE conference next month titled, ‘Transforming Australia: universities and their communities.’

Looking at the thousands of students attending Orientation this week in Brisbane we have every reason to be confident that our student community is up to the challenge. By way of example, I had the privilege of welcoming 70 students to campus through our Early Achievers Program a few days ago which rightly recognized their outstanding commitment to community service in terms of their entry requirements.

The most powerful message that resonates with students (and staff) at Orientation is that offered by the Vice-Chancellor who reminds us that educating the mind without educating the heart is servicing a machine and not building a person.

The panoply of learnings relevant to engagement within ACU that stress the importance of common identity, shared values and a sense of shared experience aimed at changing and conserving valued traditions.

For some daring outreach programs the community, in a sense, may become the curriculum and a belief can emerge in a large reservoir of talent and ability within individuals and their communal experience that can be tapped and released.

The university can sponsor learning which revolves around this growing and developing sense of awareness. The innovative work with refugees through the ‘Narratives of Hope’ program on the McAuley at Banyo campus ably led by our senior Engagement Facilitator, Ms. Janine Quine, is a case in point.

Universities are diverse institutions and to cope with a changing future they will have to play a fully developed role in the emerging civil society; a society that on a global scale is faced with a series of problems and issues such as those outlined by His Holiness.

The community must be a focus for engagement, and a university must play its part in improving among other things the environment, local education and health and community outcomes.

Those who would advocate a reverse gear for higher education have simply got it wrong. What is required is not merely a scaling up of existing provision but a wholesale re-thinking of learning for those billions of people who can view the benefits of advanced industrial society (via their hand-held devices and computers) but who cannot achieve it.

Change yourself and you change your situation is no mean epithet, especially when allied to a notion of a community since all individual action needs to find its appropriate object and community, as we have experienced during our time on the McAuley at Banyo campus, is one of the longings of our century.