Alister Henskens portrait
Alister Henskens portrait

Saint John's College Bill 2017

St John's College

Mr ALISTER HENSKENS ( Ku-ring-gai ) ( 12:21 :35 ): I commence my contribution to debate on the Saint John's College Bill 2017 by thanking the shadow Minister for Education, and member for Lakemba, both for his collaborative work on the bill and his consideration of the amendments to it. I speak to the bill as an interested outsider. I was conferred with degrees in economics and law from the University of Sydney after having lived at St Andrew's College for five years in the 1980s. A healthy rivalry exists between the University of Sydney colleges. Many of my St Andrew's College friends may find it somewhat curious that I have taken an interest in this bill. But all who value the University of Sydney colleges have an interest in each of them flourishing into the future. Through consideration of this bill, I have very much enjoyed meeting the Chair of the interim College Council and the St John's College Rector, as well as some of the alumni, a few of whom I have known for many years.

St John's College, together with St Andrew's College, St Paul's College, Sancta Sophia College, Wesley College and The Women's College, is one of the ancient residential colleges of the University of Sydney, Australia's first university. Each college has its own unique Act of Parliament, governance and history. These colleges were established through the donations of lay members of various Christian faiths to promote tertiary education upon the Oxbridge model of university residential colleges. The creation of these colleges reflected great democratic and grassroots support of, and an interest in, tertiary education in New South Wales. St John's College was established in 1857, in the very early life of white settlement in this State. These colleges form an important part of university life. They encourage the academic performance of their resident students through tutorials and mentoring by resident senior academics, postgraduate students and peer learning. When I was at college, one of my law lecturers, Dr Robert Stein, was the Deputy Principal of St Andrew's College. Tragically, he died at a very young age.

The colleges also encourage the full development of students through sport, drama, music, community service, leadership and personal development. At a time when university education is being treated by many as an ordinary commodity, with students spending minimal time on campus, the university colleges promote the notion that tertiary education involves the all-round development of a student as a human being. University education is special and should be treated specially. It is an exhilarating and impressionable time of life. At university colleges ideas are still thrashed out—sometimes late at night—logical thought is developed, new ideas encouraged and perspectives expanded. Contrary to the misconception frequently perpetuated by the media by reason of the usual sandstone walls, the colleges have promoted the development of many scholarships, including Indigenous scholarships, so that talented residents from low socio-economic groups may attend university with the greatest of support. Historically, university residential colleges have provided an important step‑up to many regional students to whom Sydney is an intimidating, confronting and lonely place in which to live and study, but the best place for their tertiary education.

Before speaking to the detail of the bill, I praise the way in which all of the key stakeholders have engaged with each other in a genuine manner to improve the bill, as originally read by the Minister. Earlier this week, the Minister for Education announced a $2.6 million grant to St Lucy's School in my electorate and spoke to a meeting in my electorate on education policy. The Minister for Education is nothing short of exceptional. While his academic and educational credentials are first class, he has many other exceptional qualities. Indeed, New South Wales is very fortunate to have such an intelligent, well read and open-minded education Minister, who always puts the best interests of the community first.

After the bill was first read, some constructive discussions were facilitated by the Minister with the Archbishop of Sydney, the Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, the Chair of the College Council, Dr Bernadette Tobin, the Rector of St John's College, the shadow Minister for Education, and the St John's College Alumni Association comprising President Paul Dellow, Andrew Coorey, John Coorey, Kyle Oliver and Gerard Phillips. All concerned should be thanked for the energy and support they have given both to the college and in the interests of improving the bill. I acknowledge that the Alumni Association was not happy with the bill in its original form. All of its suggested amendments will not be acceded to, but I congratulate all stakeholders on their understanding that they could not all get what they wanted. I acknowledge the way in which they have worked constructively together in good faith and in the best interests of the college as well as the leadership of the Minister.

I agree with the suggestions that the bill can be improved in a number of respects from its original form, especially in relation to the college governance. It should be changed to make it clearer that the college is a charitable education institution. I think we can reasonably temper the manner in which the College Council may be extraordinarily dismissed and that some oversight by the vice-chancellor is desirable. It is also desirable to ensure that the College Council cannot be made inquorate and its leadership of the college frustrated. The new College Council should elect the four council-appointed lay members of council; the lay members should not be elected by the interim council. Gender diversity is also desirable on the council to support the relatively recent coeducational status of the college. I thank the Minister for wisely giving consideration to those changes. From my discussions with the present Chair of the College Council, the rector and the Alumni Association, St John's College has a bright future. We cannot and should not airbrush the problems that led to the intervention in 2012, but there have been major improvements in the behaviour of the college and these improvements have been given greater direction by the recent Broderick review.

With better governance in place, one can confidently look to St John's College and its alumni enjoying well in excess of another 150 years of achievement in the future. The college has as its alumni well-educated and outstanding women and men, many of whom are community leaders. I encourage them now to come together to work to continually improve the college culture and the valuable community of learning that it contains. I congratulate the Minister, and his staff who have given him such great assistance with the careful navigation of the concerned interests and his consideration of constructive amendments to the bill. We have a great education system in all its shapes and forms—primary, secondary and tertiary. I thank the Minister for his general educational leadership and his leadership in respect of this bill.