From Washington, DC, Australia is over 10,000 miles away; from Los Angeles, it’s only a mere 7,800 miles. No matter the point of departure, the trek to Australia, affectionately know as “The Land Down Under,” by 40 participants and 5 faculty members was well worth the time and effort. From May 16-31, 2005 ACPA, ACUI and NASPA co-sponsored a student affairs study tour for the first time. The participants represented close to thirty different colleges and universities; most were graduate students while others were full-time student affairs professionals.
With a curricular focus, the study tour was designed to do several things:
- Develop an understanding of the structure and practice of Australian higher education;
- Learn about the structure and practice of student services in the context of Australian higher education; and
- Gain insight into the issues and strategic directions for Australian higher education and student services.
Participants had the option to earn three semester hours of course credit or receive a program study certificate from the University of Arizona Center for the Study of Higher Education. All participants were required to participate in large and small group discussions and do readings of articles published on Australian higher education. Dr. Doug Woodard, faculty member at the University of Arizona and past president of NASPA, created the study tour curriculum and conducted lectures throughout the two-week visit.
The study tour included visits to eight Australian universities: University of Sydney, University of Newcastle, University of Wollongong, LaTrobe University, University of Melbourne, Monash University, Victoria University, and Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT). Student services representatives at each university conducted presentations to the study tour group about their programs and services for students. There were also many opportunities to network with Australian colleagues and compare and contrast student services in the U.S. and Australia, as well as national higher education policies. While there were similarities in a few typical functional areas associated with student services, the study tour group also discovered fundamental differences.
The group learned that there are no professional preparation programs for those who wish to pursue a career in student services. Instead, most entered the field through the faculty ranks, from other academic offices, or did related work in social service or non-profit organizations. Unlike the U.S. where graduate preparation programs teach student development theory and this theory is applied in the work setting, the Australian counterparts were not very familiar with psychosocial development for college students, although a few knew the U.S. student affairs field widely used developmental theory in their work with students. Even the names of particular functional areas did not always reflect the same intent or focus in the U.S. For example, instead of using “Housing/Residence Life,” this service is known as “Accommodations.” And in Australia, the staff primarily assist students with finding housing, with little or no attention given to residence education.
A much larger issue for Australian universities is the recruitment and retention of indigenous students or those of Aboriginal ancestry. Most of the institutions visited had a program designated to the academic and personal/social support of this student population. When asked about overall retention and graduation rates, representatives admitted that the rates were poor (e.g. retention at one university was less than 50%). Relations between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples remain somewhat constrained; however, leaders are working towards national reconciliation to better group relations and enhance the quality of life for Aboriginal peoples. Known as the “Traditional Welcome,” it is expected that higher education institutions officially acknowledge to campus visitors that the grounds on which the university is located must be attributed to its original Aboriginal owners.
The Australian higher education policies for federal support and student fees were very much in the forefront of national news during the group’s visit. Over the last ten years or so, the Australian government has dramatically reduced its funding of higher education institutions. In the past, education was basically free for those who were privileged to be accepted into one of the 32 Australian universities, but today most students must pay for most of their educational costs. Students can apply for a payment program which will allow them to defer the costs; however, following graduation, the student is required to pay back the government. An unusual twist to this arrangement is the student must make at least $32,000 (USD) to be required to make these payments.
Another fiercely divisive issue is the federal government’s plan to dissolve mandatory student fees for student unions. These fees are a major source for staffing, both professionals and student staff wages and organizational activities and services funding. Pegged by the government as “voluntary student unions,” staff at all of the universities visited expressed great anxiety about the significant implications the fee removal could have if the policy is adopted by the government. Many student union leaders and student services staff feared that programs and services would be dramatically reduced, if not disappear, due to lack of adequate funding.
Beyond the campus visits, hosted receptions and dinners, and formal group discussions the group participated in tours to various historic and scenic sites including beaches and mountains and a visit to Parliament to observe the House representatives’ Q&A session with the Prime Minister. Kangaroos hopping through the wild during the group’s sojourn from Sydney to Melbourne; and learning the “Aussie lingo” made the trip wondrous, exciting, and intellectually stimulating.
ACPA plans to continue sponsoring future student affairs study tours and will explore other international opportunities for its members including global internships and colloquia.