There’s more to university than the qualification at the end

Students aren’t as passionate about Australian universities as those in other countries. Kevin Coles/Flickr

Australia has many world class universities but some are failing their students by not providing the on-campus, life changing experiences available elsewhere.

Many students live a protected life at home and associate in the main with those from their school and suburb. This is limiting their preparation for life, the expansion and enriching of their social networks.

Universities in Australia seem to be primarily seen as functional qualification factories, equipping people for their future careers. Students choose and compete for entry on this basis. But is that all there is and all there should be?

This functional focus is too narrow and deals with only part of the education experience. Policy makers, administrators, academics and even students do not seem to understand this because this has been, for most, their only experience of uni.

At the University of New South Wales the students are mostly commuters. They flood in during the day and evening to take their courses, while often having a job on the side, and once done flood away again to their homes, where they grew up and where they live with mum and dad.

Extra-curricular activities are not well attended and not of much interest except for a few and the international students who do live on campus or nearby.

This is the same at most universities in Australia because they are in big cities, have limited on campus accommodation, and the costs of living force you to stay at home.

I remember back to my uni days in the UK, when we rushed to get away from home.

We wanted to join with others in poverty, sin, study, fun, sport, discussion, theatre, debating, dances etc and engage in the wonderful process of opening up and growing up in all its messy dimensions.

We debated what to cook, whether to clean (or not). We lived and fought together. We got to know strangers with strange habits, who become mates. We learned to manage and mismanage money, argued over who ate my food or left the milk out, suffered and savoured life together, discovered, decided whether to be responsible or irresponsible.

My long-term friends were made at uni not at school. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with the friends you make at school but campus life opens up so many more possibilities that can serve you well in the future.

The problem is that universities here resemble schools in the way they are consumed by students.

As a result students miss out on making other kinds of friends and one example of this malaise is the idea of choosing related majors or electives to help boost your career not your larger life.

Where and when better to indulge your fancy and whim, to try out a whole new topic and experience that might open up new places to go and things to do in your mind and life.

I wish we could do more about this but I fear it is impossible, when all our major universities are in big cities with the problems I listed before.

UNSW recently added a major new student accommodation building, which was over-subscribed immediately. Not, I suspect, by those from Sydney.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could require that students live on campus for at least one year? In the USA students run away to college and get the kind of experience I had in the UK.

In other countries it is the same. But not here. I believe this is a factor that impacts on international student destination choices.

I know people who have considered Australia but then turned to universities elsewhere that offer a true campus experience.

International students here also complain about only meeting each other and not really interacting with the local students in meaningful ways.

Sitting together in a class and working on a group assignment is one thing. Living, drinking, dating and playing sport together is another.

There are exceptions. ANU has more students living away from home and so do rural-based universities. I recently moved to the University of Sydney and it seems to have a more viable campus atmosphere and spirit.

My daughter went to Charles Sturt University in Bathurst. She resisted it mightily until the first night of the first day of orientation. I had stuffed up her registration and she had to share a room in a smaller student residence just off campus and cater for herself. All the things she said she definitely did not want to do.

We were more interested in the much smaller sized tutorials, lectures and the student experience she could have. But after the party the first night she was hooked, not by the classes, but the social life.

She continued in the same residence in a shared room for three years and then decided to do another degree, having at last found out what she wanted to do.

It was all we wanted and what she wanted too. She kept in touch with her mates from home and they even visited for the parties and festivities.

So let’s get away from this narrow functionalist agenda for our universities at least at the undergraduate level - and let us mean something more by student experience than the experience in class, lectures, exams and value only in terms of job prospects.

We need to broaden our universities’ cultural DNA.