The race to uni status for Christian higher education providers

It is good to see Eternity covering higher education. Today more than 40 per cent of school students attend non-government schools, most of which are connected to Christian churches.

In higher education about 10 per cent (and growing) of enrolments are outside the government universities. Some are in theological colleges which were set up to train denominational ministers. A growing number are studying education or business at Christian colleges, some of which are moving towards university accreditation. There is a spirit of (mostly) friendly competition in the race to become Australia’s first non-Catholic Christian university.

The race may be decided sooner than you think because prospective Christian universities no longer have to pass through the category of university college in their journey from accredited higher education provider to university. University college looks like becoming a destination for private colleges with no research aspirations.

One institution that is already over the finish line is University of Divinity (formerly Melbourne College of Divinity), a consortium of theological colleges established in 1910. It gained university status from the Victorian government in 2012, just before the commonwealth took over responsibility for this, and has a special category “university of specialisation” to accommodate it in the Commonwealth Act.

Aside from the status (especially important for international students) this gave it access to commonwealth funding for its degrees. The potential cost, however, of attaining this special funding access and status is marginalisation as an exclusively theological institution.

For instance, it had to sever ties with University of Melbourne as part of becoming a university in its own right.

This new category of university – called Australian University of Specialisation – is for institutions that can’t meet the requirement of at least three areas of study for “normal” universities.

Readers of Eternity should consider colleges such as Excelsior, Alphacrucis, Avondale and Tabor as alternatives to enrolling in business or teaching programmes at public universities.

The University of Divinity links a group of colleges mostly in Melbourne but also interstate including the Australian Lutheran College in Adelaide and Morling College in Sydney (also in the ACT). Another group of colleges awards degrees from The Australian College of Theology (ACT). It too has aspirations to become a University of Specialisation. (This group includes Vose Seminary in Perth and institutions that started as Bible colleges such as Melbourne School of Theology and Sydney Missionary and Bible College).

Eternity readers may be aware that the institution featured recently in the newspaper, Excelsia College (previously named Wesley Institute but bought last year and renamed by Indiana Wesleyan University) is not the only college aiming to becoming our first non-Catholic Christian “normal” university. Nor is it even the closest to achieving that aim. Excelsia College offers bachelors’ and masters’ degrees in the creative arts, and in teaching. It has moved out of its temporary premises in Drummoyne and now operates out of a new campus in Macquarie Park.

Alphacrucis College with a $30 million high-tech campus at Parramatta, and new campuses in Auckland, Brisbane and Perth, has trained pentecostal pastors for 80 years. Its new education programmes are designed to equip Christian teachers for ministry in church and government schools.

I joined Alphacrucis three years ago to lead the new business programmes, including an undergraduate business degree and a unique combined degree in business and ministry. This combined degree equips ministers of any denomination to read financial statements, manage volunteers, deal with human resource and legal issues, etc.

The combined degree means that students can get credit for their previous degree from another college in theology, then complete our degree in two years part-time, either on campus or online.

At the next level, our Master of Leadership and Doctor of Ministry programmes have a mix of pastors, not-for-profit leaders and business people.
Avondale, the Seventh Day Adventist college on the NSW central coast that has operated since the 19th century, probably has its nose ahead in the race to become Australia’s first non-Catholic Christian university. Avondale offers degrees in teaching, business and, importantly, a medical programme through links to the Adventist hospital in Sydney. An isolated location and a connection to a less well-known denomination count against Avondale in the race.

Other contenders such as Christian Heritage College in Brisbane and Tabor Colleges in Adelaide and Melbourne offer a broad range of programmes but are well behind Avondale and Alphacrucis in research output and research quality, which are key requirements for university accreditation.

Colleges in the race are quite denominationally mixed. At Alphacrucis, for instance, our Principal and our Head of New Testament trained at Moore College, members of staff attend Anglican, Uniting, Catholic, Orthodox and independent churches, and our governing body includes Catholic, Sydney Anglican and pentecostal Christians. Our honorary professors include leading overseas pentecostal theologians such as Amos Yong and Allan Anderson, as well as a denominationally mixed group of locals including Edwin Judge, Robert Banks, Tony Golsby-Smith, Mark Hutchinson, Stuart Piggin, and Ruth Powell from NCLS.

Not all students at these colleges are Christian. Alphacrucis, for instance, has a group of Muslim students in the business programme to whom we endeavour to be a hospitable as we can while being very clear about our Christian identity through our compulsory Christian Worldview course and in other ways. The same is true for several Hindu students. As far as I know, none of the colleges in the race has a faith test for students.

This will be even more so with the possibility (if the government can get its higher education reforms through the Senate) that government funding will be extended to undergraduate students at these colleges on the same basis as students at public universities. I have worked in several Australian universities, and all of these Christian colleges are impressive places with excellent faculty and higher academic standards than many universities.

Alphacrucis, like Moore College, has been recently accredited to offer a PhD programme, and ours is available across all disciplines and to students of all denominational backgrounds.

However, like the PhD programmes of the Australian College of Theology and other longstanding theological colleges, they receive no government funding, even though all their PhD programmes must satisfy the same accreditation criteria with government body TEQSA as PhD programmes of public universities.

This puts the Christian colleges at a $50,000-$70,000 funding disadvantage, which translates to a fee disadvantage of about $30,000 over the duration of the PhD when competing with the often lower- quality PhD programmes offered by public universities.

Readers of Eternity should feel free to express their view about this outrageous breach of competitive neutrality policy principles – a breach that undermines the efficiency and fairness of our higher education system.

They might also mention to their local MP the outrageous exclusion of these colleges from even being able to apply for government research funding, such as Australian Research Council grants and various teaching development grants.

Aside from the public policy issues, another thing that would greatly strengthen the sector would be more cooperation among the colleges. Many have small think-tanks devoted to bringing theology into public policy debates, but under-resourcing and petty rivalries sometimes limit their effectiveness. College ventures into marketplace ministry suffer from similar problems.

In my view the greatest benefits from cooperation are in teacher training. Scattered and under-resourced, and often very similar, programmes are offered by colleges.

If 40 per cent of students attend non-government schools (mostly linked to churches); if teacher quality is the most powerful driver of educational outcomes; if Christian witness in Australia is increasingly through Christian schools, hospitals and social services rather than congregations, then surely we should be getting our act together in teacher training.

There is scope for pooling resources, for better cross- credit arrangements that allow specialised options at one college to be taken by students at other colleges, for collaborative research efforts (especially on the Christian dimensions of teacher training). There would even be a case for a consortium of colleges seeking state or commonwealth government funding to kick-start this collaboration.

In this article I’ve focused on the colleges aiming to become Christian universities in the next few years, and there is further discussion of the engagement of the existing universities with theology in an article “Religion and Australian Universities: Tales of Horror and Hope,” The Conversation, February 2014, available at

This also discusses the short-lived but excellent Macquarie Christian Studies Institute attempt to achieve what some of the Christian colleges are trying to do through collaboration with a university. Comparisons with overseas experiments are a subject perhaps for a future article, but we have to be very careful in view of Australia’s distinctive religious history and culture, and higher education regulatory framework.

I’ve not discussed two types of institutions in this article. The first is the longstanding theological colleges, which focus on training candidates for ordained ministry, such as Moore Theological College in Sydney. These are accredited to award degrees in their own right and have no reason to seek university status and may continue as well respected institutions. (Editor’s note: Eternity understands that Moore may consider applying for University of Specialisation).

The second group of institutions are the theological colleges that have affiliated with universities, such as St Mark’s in Canberra, and the United Theological College, with Charles Sturt University.

They have gained the advantages of government funding and status but at some cost to their autonomy, and it remains to be seen what their future is once government funding is extended to non-university higher education providers. Perhaps some will leave their relationship of convenience with universities if they can be funded in their own right.

Readers who doubt the claims that Christian colleges discussed in this article offer higher quality undergraduate degrees than many universities might want to look at “Advanced Degrees in Condescension,” Quadrant online, October 2014, and “Bumcrack College Cracks Back” The Australian Higher Education online, 7 October 2014, available at

Professor Paul Oslington is Dean of Business, Alphacrucis College, and attends St Swithun’s Anglican Church, Pymble in NSW.