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Australian universities and religion: tales of horror and hope

Decisions made when the University of Sydney was founded in 1852 laid the historical foundation for a curious relationship between universities and religion in Australia. AAP/Paul Miller

Australian universities have had a curious relationship with religion. The nation’s first university excluded clerical teachers of religion, which soon had the unintended consequence of marginalising religious scholarship. Recent changes in the churches and wider society have forced a rethinking of the role of religion in universities, but policy makers and university leaders have been slow to respond.

As a result, we have a lesser education system than we could. The impact on our capacity to deal with religious issues threatens the health of a free society. This is a result of a mixture of historical accident and ignorance and self-interest in relation to the religious dimensions of higher education. These dimensions are intertwined with private higher education in Australia.

The origins of separation

Australia’s first university, the University of Sydney was founded in 1852, modelled on the great British universities. Oxford and Cambridge at this time were engulfed by controversy over the restriction of entry to members of the established Anglican Church. In the colony of New South Wales, the presence of Irish Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians made an Anglican monopoly inconceivable.

The group of mostly lay Anglicans who set up the University of Sydney kept the divisive teaching of theology at arm’s length from the new institution. The churches were given land at the university to build colleges for their own students – hence St Paul’s for Anglicans, St Andrew’s for Presbyterians, St John’s for Catholic students and so forth.

In any case theological education was already in place in the colony - for example, the Anglican Lyndhurst College from 1847 and soon after Moore College. A Roman Catholic seminary had been operating since 1834. It was a separation put in place by mostly religious founders for religious reasons.

In Melbourne, the story was similar. The university’s foundation in 1854 excluded both the teaching of Divinity and clergy holding academic positions. Theological education in the colleges was stronger than in Sydney, especially the Anglican Trinity founded in 1878, the Presbyterian Ormond College and Queens College.

The exclusion of theology from the university led to the foundation of the Melbourne College of Divinity in 1910, with its own Act of Parliament. Melbourne became a pioneer in ecumenical theological education.

Times of change and reconnection

Since the 1960s, the separate systems of theological and university education have tentatively reconnected. Declining church attendance and reduced public influence of the churches moderated some of the dangers that the founders wished to avoid. It was also a time of higher education expansion and rising expectations of degree qualifications in many occupations, including Christian ministry.

A mark of the limited reconnection was the suggestion of the 1964 Martin Report that universities offer theologically relevant courses of a non-dogmatic character. Newer universities such as Flinders, Murdoch and Charles Sturt began teaching theology, often in association with local theological consortia.

Federal funding of universities based on student numbers drove this trend further. Entrepreneurial arts deans looking down the road saw the absorption of a local theological college as a new source of revenue, and cash-strapped colleges were usually willing to agree.

Some interesting experiments emerged. A group of lay evangelicals began Macquarie Christian Studies Institute, where university students could take theological courses for credit as part of their Macquarie degrees and, more importantly, subjects integrating theology with their chosen fields, including mentoring and spiritual formation. The institute operated from 2000 to 2008, when the university moved against it to stop the leakage of student load.

Another experiment was the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle in 2006 closing the college it had operated since 1898, St John’s Morpeth, to endow a chair in theology at the University of Newcastle and move the training of clergy to the university. Roman Catholics formed their own universities in these years: Australian Catholic University in 1991 (which put together Catholic teacher and nursing training colleges around the country, but not diocesan seminaries), the University of Notre Dame in 1999 and the liberal arts Campion College in 2000.

Some long-standing Bible colleges, such as my own institution Alphacrucis College (formerly Southern Cross College, which has educated Pentecostal ministers since 1948) are expanding their subject offerings, introducing research degrees and heading towards university status.

Current developments are being driven by changes in government policy and funding, especially the emphasis on postgraduates and research, alongside huge changes in theological education. Theological colleges are no longer filled with clean-cut young men seeking ordination - less than 20% of theology students are candidates for ordination. Students are increasingly older, female, part-time and undertaking research degrees.

Changes outpace regulation

Regulatory arrangements have not kept pace with the changes. Policy settings for secondary and higher education are particularly inconsistent. Current secondary education policy emphasises quality, local autonomy, innovation and choice. Higher education policy channels funding and discriminates in favour of incumbent public institutions, some of which have serious quality and efficiency issues.

Twenty years after the Hilmer report on competition policy, the sector that most needs it, higher education, is perhaps least touched by the principles of competitive neutrality. We need efficient and high-quality higher education not just because of the size of its government subsidies, but because its performance is crucial in a world where skills and networks determine winners and losers.

Treatment of private institutions and new entrants intersects with the place of religion in higher education because of our history of theological education outside universities. We need quality, depth and diversity in the way we deal with higher education because so many important public policy issues involve the relationship between religion and some other field.

For instance, well over 50% of social services in Australia are delivered under contract by church-related organisations. To properly understand and construct appropriate regulatory arrangements, input is required from economics, law, sociology and theology.

Researchers and students with a good theological education are also needed to support Australia’s engagement with Asia. Our sharp separation between religion and other areas of scholarships puzzles Asians. The proportion of resources devoted to religion scholarship is tiny compared to other countries engaging with Asia such as the US or UK.

Regulatory horrors

There are three main problems, “horrors”, with the current regulatory arrangements:

  1. Discrimination in student funding. Although students outside the universities have had access to the Commonwealth loan scheme in recent years, their institutions receive no funding.

For instance, Charles Sturt University receives Commonwealth funding for a theology student enrolled at the Anglican St Marks’s Theological College in Canberra, since it affiliated with the university in 1997. The Australian College of Theology, a fully accredited and highly respected theological provider since 1891, receives nothing for an almost identical Anglican student. Both students could be candidates for Anglican ministry.

Alphacrucis College receives no funding for its students, whether in theology or in the new faculties of education and business. Australian Catholic University receives full Commonwealth funding while offering similar courses taught in some cases by the same staff. Both are fully accredited by TEQSA. Both are open to all students regardless of religious faith or lack thereof.

Measures such as entry TERs, skills of graduating students and employment rates suggest that the quality is higher at the institution that receives no funding. The fact that students are prepared to pay significant sums of money for similar courses that receive no funding also suggests that quality is higher than at the heavily subsidised public university alternative.

No wonder university chiefs are keen to maintain the funding status quo. Reading suggestions like opening funding to all accredited providers and using minimum quality standards (not necessarily TERs) to control the Commonwealth’s budget contribution cause university chiefs at marginal metropolitan universities to choke on their breakfasts.

  1. Discrimination in research student funding. The situation is even stranger here. Funding follows the choice of institution of a theology PhD student to Charles Sturt University, or even Melbourne College of Divinity, but not to institutions like the Australian College of Theology, which are fully accredited to offer the degree and have produced some of the leading scholars in the field. Again the fact that students choose these unfunded providers says something about quality.

The strange arrangements deliver strange outcomes - such as students enrolling in one institution but being effectively attached to and supervised by staff at another institution, or diverting students to lesser but funded institutions for their PhDs.

Fixing this would not be costly. The main effect of the discriminatory funding arrangements is reallocating students between institutions rather than increasing the total number of PhD students.

  1. Discrimination in research funding. Despite research capacity being a key requirement for private providers to receive accreditation to offer degrees, and eventually advance to university status, they are ineligible for Australian Research Council (ARC) funding.

At a recent workshop involving senior ARC staff and leaders of the major religion and theology providers, both public and private, the conclusion was that fixing this is a political decision. It involves changes to the list of eligible institutions in the funding rules that the education minister approves for each ARC scheme each round. Surely allowing everyone to apply means that the available pool of money is distributed to the best research projects at institutions that have the infrastructure to support research? Research environment is a key assessment criterion for ARC applications.

In relation to theology, existing ARC processes have problems. These include lack of expertise on the panels, shallowness of the assessor pool in theology, and issues of classification. Some of the problems come from the changes in the theology sector and theology academics’ lack of familiarity and expertise with ARC processes.

Theology researchers look forward to progress after the generous engagement of senior ARC staff at the workshop. The highly successful Religion and Society program funded jointly by the Humanities Research Council and the Social Science Sesearch Council in the UK might be a model for Australia.

That there are problems with research funding is not in doubt. From 2002-13, 38 ARC grants were made in religion, representing 0.2% of grants and 0.1% of funding. Only two grants were recognisably theological – many seem to be resolutely negative (as opposed to critical) about the religious tradition under study. Judging by grants awarded, Muslims mainly want to blow us up and mainstream Christians are a threat to society in all manner of other ways.

Some benchmarks for the broader category of religion grants are that the field produces 2.7% of books and 0.4% of refereed journal articles. Of academic staff, 0.3% who work at ARC-eligible institutions and 0.9% in the higher education system nominate religion as their primary research field.


Despite the horrors, which would be remarkably easy and inexpensive to fix, I have hope for religious and theological scholarship in Australia. A great opportunity exists for transformative philanthropy in an area where the government has not kept pace with the changes.

In Australia, debates about religion tend not to be disfigured by the political polarisation and ill-temper that we see in the US, nor by the association of religion with national causes and long history of conflict that characterises European debates. We can become a centre of religion scholarship, connecting with the religiously vibrant societies of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

This article is based on Paul Oslington’s lecture at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney on February 20, 2014, under the auspices of their Religion in a Free Society program. A video of the full lecture can be seen here and links to the supporting data are available at the CIS website.

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