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New England University Needs A Good Academic Reputation

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Saturday 23 October 1954, The Sydney Morning Herald


The words “rural” and “rustic” once held the same meaning; but now “rustic” more often means “unsophisticated, unpolished and unrefined.” Is it possible that a rural university might, in like manner, become a rustic university?

More specifically, can the University of New England, set among the gum trees of Armidale, attain the same standards as a metropolitan university?

The University of New England, after 16 years of dependency and less than one year of autonomy, already has some advantages over Australia’s older universities.

It has a cohesive, though small, student body; Armidale provides it with plentiful and inexpensive accommodation; and its teaching facilities are adequate.

Some of its more obvious shortcomings-a ludicrously inadequate library, common room and staff offices-will be remedied soon enough. But Australia’s first rural university has three other needs that may be harder to satisfy: more students, a good academic reputation, and deeper roots in the black soil of New England.

The visitor scarcely knows what to expect as he drives the three miles from Armidale, past rows of pines and elms, to New England University. He has been told by the local member of Parliament: “It’s one of the best things that ever happened to New England.” Another New Englander, measuring the university more critically, has said: “Can you imagine a university at which students can read and pass the course for diploma of education without reading either Book II of the Nichomachean Ethics, or the Cave Allegory in ‘The Republic’?” And the Mayor of Armidale has said: “Wait and see.”

The university is pleasing in appearance, perhaps more pleasing than any other university in Australia. Although far from complete, its gardens and red tiled buildings on a sloping hillside form a unit; it is no sprawling, loosely connected community.

The main building, “Booloominbah,” was once a station homestead. This red brick manor of three or four storeys (the division is not always clear) and 50 rooms contains the university’s administration offices, common rooms, dining-room and library. The two main teaching buildings -the Booth block and Belshaw building-are relatively new and spacious structures of brick and concrete.

Only 75 of the university’s 240 students live at the university, though in time the university will be fully residential. The remaining 165 students lodge at nine hostels in Armidale, but spend most of their time at the university. They pay only £3/10/ a week for complete board, but the hostels are overcrowded and in some cases far from comfortable.

The library is sadly short of books, periodicals and reading space. Geology journals, for instance, cover only five or six years when they should go back for 20 or 30 years.

The university has in hand £330,000 with which it will build student residences and a union building. It will need further funds for the new library and Arts block.

Student life is gregarious and vigorous. Undergraduates spend so much time at the university, and there are so few counter attractions in Armidale that the university’s societies are more active, or at least more fully representative of the student body, than societies at Sydney University.

The only exceptions to this are the political clubs, which are strangely inert. Religion seems to have replaced politics at New England; the Student Christian Movement, Newman Society and Evangelical Union are the university’s most vigorous groups.

“You can hardly start a conversation without getting into an argument about religion,” says one undergraduate. “You argue all day; there’s plenty of chance for swapping ideas.”

Two Faculties

There is a literature society, Arts society, Science society and philomuse society; the dramatic society is nothing if not ambitious (“Ring Round the Moon,” “Antigone” and “The Glass Menagerie”).

Some undergraduates say they miss the contact with other faculties which they would enjoy at a metropolitan university. At present there are only two faculties-Arts and Science-at New England; but faculties of Rural Science and Agricultural Economics will be founded before long.

The student body is a little apprehensive about this. “Neucleus,” every bit as irreverent and heavy-handed as any other student journal, has this to say about it: “Several colleges of Armidale University are being established – at Hawkesbury, Hurlstone, Farrar, Alice Springs and Woomera. In this way the University hopes to eradicate slums and increase Australian salmon exports.”

For all that, it is generally agreed at New England that a rural university should serve the district that supports it. And it can do this, the administrators at New England claim, without becoming in any way rustic.

There is some superficial evidence of the university’s impact on New England, and particularly on the city of Armidale.

Ten New England Rotary Clubs, seeking some way to mark their own jubilee, have employed the Sydney sculptor Tom Bass to create a statue for the grounds of New England University.

Dyason lecturers, the latest of whom was the American Judge Mr. William O. Douglas, now visit Armidale; Australian Broadcasting Commission artists, the latest of whom was the pianist Bela Siki, play to appreciative audiences in Armidale; and there are a greater number of dramatic productions in Armidale than in any other country community of similar size.

But these symptoms are produced more by Armidale’s unusually large academic population (the city of 8,500 people has seven schools and a teachers’ college as well as the university) than by any wider appreciation of such events. In general, the academic population through no fault of its own remains remote, if not aloof, from the general population of New England.

New England University is anxious to bridge this gap. Some members of its staff have already rendered practical help to New England. Professor A. H. Voisey, Professor of Geology, solved a construction problem at the new Oakey River dam; and Mr. E. Thorpe, Senior Lecturer in Geography, recently conducted a survey of flood damage in the Macleay River valley.

Next year, New England University will offer external study courses by post in English, maths., geography, psychology, philosophy, Latin and the diploma of education. The Arts course, which takes three years for full-time students, will take at least five years by correspondence.

External studies may produce closer contact between the university and the people of New England, but they can scarcely enhance the university’s academic standing.

For 16 years, New England was a university college controlled by Sydney University. It could hardly be expected, in its brief period of autonomy since last February, to have established a reputation of its own. Yet New England is proud of the academic standing of its teaching staff. And it is the teaching staff that establishes a university’s reputation.

During the last three years, no fewer than 20 members of the total teaching staff of 60 have travelled abroad on fellowships or scholarships.

Dr. J. M. Somerville, Professor of Physics, spent a year in Britain at the invitation of the Royal Society; Professor J. P. Belshaw, Professor of Economics, went to Harvard; and Mr. P. E. Barrett, a lecturer in the Psychology Department, studied at Oxford.

A considerable amount of research is being carried out at New England. The Physics Department is making ionospheric investigations in co-operation with the Universities of Sydney and Brisbane. The Professor of Psychology, Professor D. Howie, is making statistical studies of ability.

There is no shortage of equipment or teaching space at New England. “Of course, we’re always crying out for more equipment,” said one faculty member, “but no good man has been stopped in work that has been justified. And overcrowding in lecture rooms is unknown here. Sometimes, in fact, there are too few students. There are 50, perhaps, in some of the first year classes; but in later years there may only be six, three or even two students.”

And that, perhaps, is the key to New England University’s future. Will the university be able to attract students in sufficient numbers to ensure that it does not become merely an agricultural institute or a training college for schoolteachers?

At present, more than half the university’s undergraduates hold Teachers’ College scholarships. As Teachers’ College scholars they were directed to New England University by the Department of Education. They did not choose New England instead of Sydney; they were sent there.

Without this compulsion, it is doubtful whether New England would have sufficient students. Some students, 44 per cent, of the entire student body in fact have come to New England of their own free will. Some have come to avoid the congestion in Sydney; some because New England was closer to home; others – and this is an important reason – because their High School teachers suggested it.

“No Confidence”

“We have academic grandchildren by the hundred,” says the Registrar, Mr. W. M. Robb. “Our graduates who are now teaching in country High Schools put in a good word for us.”

Whatever their reasons for coming in the first place, most undergraduates at New England seem content with their university. This applies equally to the 40 third-year students who are this year passing a curious vote of no confidence in their own university.

Before the granting of autonomy to New England, its students graduated from Sydney University. This year -for the first and last time-third year students at New England can decide for themselves whether they will graduate with a Sydney or an Armidale degree. Almost to a man, the 40 students have chosen the Sydney degree.

“Sydney’s degrees are worth more when you’re looking for employment,” one of them explains. “But for what you get out of university life, I prefer Armidale.”

Written by macalba

September 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

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