Visits to four collegiate universities

Professor Martyn Evans

Principal, Trevelyan College, Durham University


Last September I briefly visited four collegiate universities, in Singapore (both National University of Singapore and Yale-NUS), New Zealand (University of Otago) and Macau (University of Macau), in each case staying in residential colleges.

The visits arose like this. During 2014 I was invited by University of Otago to serve on a panel reviewing Te Rangi Hiroa College, its newest college. The review was scheduled for September 2015.

However, back in November 2014 we held the inaugural Collegiate Conference in Durham, at which all four of these universities were represented. General invitations abounded among the delegates to visit one another’s colleges when opportunities arose. The planned visit to Otago meant that travel plans could easily incorporate Singapore and Macau, since both Singapore and Hong Kong are used as refuelling stops for major airlines flying between New Zealand and the UK.

Tembusu College, National University of Singapore, 4th-6th September 2015

Late in the institution’s maturity, residential colleges arrived in the National University of Singapore (NUS) two-by-two: Tembusu was one of the first pair along with neighbouring Cinnamon College (established five years ago), and two later colleges bring the current total to four. The tembusu is a deciduous tree native to SE Asia, and the original choice of having native trees as names for the new colleges perhaps reflects aspirant notions of stability, authenticity, belonging, a sense of place, literally-organic growth and flourishing; altogether fittingly, a stately tembusu tree is to be found a few metres away from the college.

In a country with an exuberant economy but well under a thousand square kilometres of land area, land prices are simply astronomical: cost-effective new building obviously has to be vertical, and Tembusu consists of a 21-storey accommodation tower, a dining hall shared with Cinnamon College, a basement complex supporting offices, recreational, social and seminar spaces, and an adjoining two-storey teaching block.

Itself a part of ‘U-Town’ (a largely-collegiate expansion of NUS built on an old golf course donated to the University), Tembusu’s tower overlooks a central green oval around which are grouped the colleges, other student residence halls, Faculty teaching buildings, shared common services, a sports hall and abundant retail student ‘eateries’ in food-court style.

The green spaces, thoroughfares and decked footways are fringed everywhere with tropical trees and shrubs (and are constantly hand-swept of fallen leaves by maintenance staff), amid rectilinear water features and canopies. The impression is of a large, integrated plan that has been undertaken unswervingly – but with the game-changing benefit of real investment in the sort of quality design (one that is not shy of graceful sweeping curved structures) and the sort of top-class construction, finishes and material appointment that come from serious capital investment and a determination to see the vision through. Let me add here that I assume that U-Town’s conception and construction will have at some point coincided with NUS’s centenary; banners everywhere announce that it’s presently in its 110th year.

Tembusu’s student members are all resident, and all are on a fully-catered package – the tower shares its very large and airy dining hall and servery with neighbouring Cinnamon College, to whose own tower Tembusu is thereby physically attached. As with the other three colleges, for the first two years of studies residence is automatic for student members (since those who leave residence leave college membership as well), and options exist for third- and fourth-year students to return as seniors after ‘graduating’ from the College at the end of second year. To be a student at NUS does not entail being a member of a college, but for those students who are, their degree studies include college-specific programmes as a component of a larger Faculty-based complete degree. This component – the ‘University Town College Programme’ (UTCP) – combines a range of topic-based seminars taught by resident College Fellows (recruited for their subject expertise as well as for their collegiate aspirations) with a communications and critical skills course delivered in association with the campus’s English language centre. It is from this UTC Programme that Tembusu – like the other U-Town colleges – ‘graduates’ its second-year students.

Professor Greg Clancey, a historian specialising in science and technology studies, is the founding Master of Tembusu and was handpicked for the role (he was also a delegate at Collegiate Way 2014 and co-presented there an overview of the U-Town campus). Greg developed the Tembusu vision of opportunity amid self-discovery in community, in concert with the assembled team of Fellows and a group of existing U-Town students who volunteered to think through ‘the collegiate way’ as it might emerge at NUS – many of these students then going on to become actual foundation student members of the resultant college. In the college’s second year of operation, applications exceeded available places and the college’s sustained life had begun.

Tembusu is divided into ‘Houses’ each spanning three floors of the college’s tower under the supervision of a resident College Fellow, sharing in both pastoral and teaching responsibilities under the UTCP programme. The programme is delivered to mixed-discipline groups drawn from various Houses – the intention being to place each student into as many different groupings as are practicable, presenting correspondingly many opportunities for personal development and discovery.

Straddling all of the College’s subdivisions both physical and scholarly are the many concerns and shared interests of ‘tribal’ student life – societies, clubs, sports teams and so forth – and these are the customarily self-organised affairs that might be found in any collegiate setting. Greg would understandably would like to have additional distinct social spaces for these groups, noting how much each would like to customise a dedicated social space. In reality, a music room, a fitness suite and a really rather dauntingly-civilised lounge are the spaces available for students to colonise; in the two teaching ‘lobes’ (one of which is in the separate small building, the other in the basement of the tower) multi-purpose rooms are faculty-orientated.

The Master’s accommodation is a flat on the second floor of the tower, on which floor can also be found a Fellow’s flat, a very comfortable Visitor’s flat (in which I stayed), a splendid lounge known as the Master’s Common Room, and elegant garden constructions similar to rooftop gardens with abundant tropical foliage and an impressively well-stocked water feature in which students run experiments in ecology.

Complications in the travel arrangements meant that my stay was effectively confined to a short weekend and sadly I was not able to observe or engage in substantive College events with students, either academic or cultural. Notwithstanding, Greg gave me a very generous amount of his own time in valuable and enjoyable personal conversations chiefly comparing our collegiate systems, and introducing me to some of the resident Fellows and other academics.

In the course of this very brief visit I also renewed my acquaintance with Professor Tan Tai Yong who, in his earlier role as Vice-Provost (Student Life) had steered the development of U-Town and the collegiate system and had brought Greg to the role of Master. Tai Yong has since transferred to a new position of Vice-Rector in the Yale-NUS development within the NUS campus – effectively one collegiate university within the precincts of another – and on the second morning of my visit I toured Yale-NUS with him, as I shall now describe.

Yale-NUS, morning of 6th September 2015

This new liberal arts college represents a commingling of part of NUS with what is ordinarily a competitor institution, Yale University, of North America’s Ivy League! Like other premium universities (predominantly in the States), Yale lures away some of Singapore’s brightest and best young minds for a similarly-premium quality liberal university education; although many return to Singapore, many others do not. Singapore’s answer? – to bring the process back home. Thus Yale was invited to establish a joint venture, and manifestly not a franchise or a subordinate satellite, in NUS to deliver a joint programme satisfying the standards of both universities and the aspirations of the city-state. After what one imagines to have been a suitably-coy courtship, the deal was sealed: Yale-NUS would teach degree programmes that both universities could legitimately validate, and on Singaporean soil – indeed, as it turns out, part of the very tranche of land made available to the U-Town development.

Thus Yale-NUS was born, assuming the local phenotype of twinned-tower-block developments for each of its three component colleges, planted together in an organic ground-plan and embracing also some modestly-proportioned administrative and executive blocks that successfully echo the colonial style of the whole, complete with echoes of New England clapboard fascias. The effect of the whole, in luxuriantly-planted landscaping and grounds, is, frankly, lovely.

The project is materially more or less complete; but as an institution it is still somewhat under construction; faculty are still be recruited, and half of the intended student body are now  in residence, pursuing a curriculum that is coming on stream as students progress in their degree programs. The overall impression, nonetheless, is of no expense being spared – either materially or in the calibre of appointments. I was slightly surprised that the wonderfully-conceived space given over to the Library was not more heavily stocked with books; e-resources are presumably an increasing emphasis. Cultural spaces were quite stunning, including a truly superb art studio. The senior common rooms and in particular the airy dining rooms, with their opulent mahogany panelling and cornicing on the ceilings, were simply splendid and, one imagines, somewhat redolent of originals to be found at Yale itself.

Student accommodation is again essentially a matter of tower blocks with, on each floor, a number of six-bedroom cluster flats with shared bathrooms, kitchenettes and lounges. These are of a very high standard – in all senses: I was a little taken aback by the waist-level railings on shared external balconies twenty-something floors up, which clearly rely on students’ sensible and temperate conduct at all times!

Owing both to time constraints and to the still-nascent stage of development, this lightning-quick visit was essentially a tour of buildings and grounds – but one that built up into a picture of an ambitious project of great vision and the resources needed to realise it, with the collegiate ethos at its heart.

Arana College and Te Rangi Hiroa College, University of Otago, New Zealand, 7th-15th September 2015

The core of this visit was the University’s Review of its newest college, Te Rangi Hiroa College (opened 2013), for which a panel was convened in the period 9th-11th September; I was the appointed external member. Either side of that period I was occupied with engagements in the Otago Bioethics Centre (at which I am a visiting professor) including two seminars and a public lecture in relation to my work on wonder, music and embodiment; and occupied also with renewing contacts with colleagues both there and in the Department of Music. During the period as a whole I stayed in Arana College, renewing cordial collegial relations with staff there under the leadership of Warden Jamie Gilbertson; Arana has an informal ‘twinning’ arrangement with Trevelyan, arrangements that we plan to intensify (the visit included discussions to that end). Jamie, along with Dr Charles Tustin (Warden of Abbey College) and James Lindsay, Director of Accommodation for the University of Otago, formed the Otago delegation to the Collegiate Way 2014 conference in Durham.

The review’s Report is a confidential document and I will not here include any details that would prejudice that confidentiality. Like all the Otago colleges, Te Rangi Hiroa provides membership only to residents; their membership ceases when they move out of college. Te Rangi Hiroa’s advent increases the number of Otago students who can be offered college accommodation, which it provides to a very high standard in a location that is closer to the city’s CBD than it is to the rest of the University. This drawback is mitigated both by the enormously skilled and experienced leadership, and by a number of practical arrangements with its nearest-neighbouring colleges with whom it shares some facilities and operations, including some co-run tutorial and other academic ventures.

As might any college in its formative years, Te Rangi Hiroa is in the business of defining its identity, which may well include greater and more visible emphasis on aspects of Māori heritage that were influential in its founding and naming (Te Rangi Hiroa himself was more widely known as the eminent anthropologist Sir Peter Buck, of Irish and Māori descent, and the first Māori graduate of Otago’s medical school precisely a century ago). The college also faces a slightly paradoxical challenge, and certainly an illuminating one: the very virtues of its spacious en-suite rooms, arranged as they are around the structure of the hotel that was the building’s former incarnation, make it tempting for residents to remain in comfortable isolation rather than engage in collegiate activities! This challenge, and the stratagems that the College must develop to overcome it, may well turn out to be helpfully instructive to the further development of the collegiate system in the Otago colleges as a whole. One aspect of this is particularly interesting from a Durham perspective. The University of Otago is, I think, now actively considering a possible role for college bars as social spaces in which students’ relationship with alcohol can be managed in safe environments much as we arrange things in Durham, rather than – as presently in Dunedin – eschewing this and ‘devolving’ student drinking onto the abundant clubs and pubs in town.

This was the second time I’ve been involved as an external member of a review panel concerned with collegiate matters in Otago. Notwithstanding the confidentiality of the details of the review, I would record that on both occasions the conduct, openness, thoroughness, maturity, insightfulness and sheer collegiality of the review process was exemplary – a compelling model to others for how reviews can be thoroughly constructive and even uplifting experiences for reviewees and reviewers alike, and an enduring credit to the University of Otago.

In between whiles I had the opportunity to experience something of college life at Arana, where I was accommodated throughout. Arana is one of the most established of the colleges though not the oldest. It is fully-catered, has a very strong identity that is fiercely defended in the sporting arena, and deservedly enjoys a reputation for scholarly endeavour and success: its subject-specific tutorial system stands out alongside that of neighbouring St Margaret’s College as perhaps the best-developed to be found in the Otago colleges.

College leadership is in the hands of the hugely experienced full-time Warden, a Deputy Warden, and a team of Assistant Wardens who are in fact senior students. The Residential Assistant system of senior students is widespread in Otago, and makes use of the relatively low number of returning students to be found in most of the colleges; Arana has proportionately more returners than average.

Other than my conversations with Jamie, most of my time at Arana was divided between my Edwardian-style Fellow’s flat – rather noisily-located above the College’s north entrance – and, more abundantly, the dining room where at virtually every mealtime that I spent there I was able to join the Warden with a reliably-large number of Assistant Wardens who collectively make use of the opportunity to exchange news, gossip, plans, sporting results, even the occasional welfare concern (in suitably generalised terms). Arana’s mid-sized dining room is a very welcoming, bustling place – and a very democratised incarnation of ‘the fellowship of the table.’

In Jamie and his team, the College has a Warden and leadership who are highly engaged with the students, seeming to know a bewilderingly large number of them not only by name but by interest, attainment, background and potential. I could only envy (indeed marvel at) the degree of involvement that is possible for a full-time head of college.

This is not the place to report in any detail the somewhat off-piste nature of my limited free time at Arana, beyond exulting in the privilege of a magnificent twenty-four hour trip at the weekend to the temperate rainforest abutting the south-western coast of the South Island, in the incomparable company of Warden Gilbertson and Director of Accommodation James Lindsay. Having received from them the instruction that ‘What happens on tour stays on tour,’ I propose to follow it to the letter…

Moon Chun Memorial College, University of Macau, 15th-17th September 2015

The final stop on this somewhat breathless tour was the University of Macau, the principal university of Macau itself. Macau was formerly a Portuguese enclave and since 1999 has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These details are important; while from its founding in 1988 the University originally occupied a site in the historical Portuguese district of Macau, in 2009 it began a wholesale physical transplantation to a new campus on Hengqin Island, Guangdong, in what is unambiguously Chinese territory. The PRC gave a square kilometre of this island to the University and allowed the Macau administration to hold jurisdiction over the campus – to put it perhaps fancifully, the University is a kind of academic ‘state within a state,’ surrounded on one side by the deep-water Pearl River estuary and on the other three by what is in effect an international frontier, albeit one that marks a somewhat-permeable boundary between what are ‘two systems within one country.’ The Campus is accessible only by a tunnel under the sea from Macau itself; staff, students and the residents of the islands of Macau, Taipa and Coloane can come and go freely by this means, but may not enter into China across the campus’s perimeter (the accoutrements of this border include a concrete wall and, where one end of the wall meets the sea, a command post).

If this sounds a little disconcerting, on arrival one’s reservations are dispelled at a glance by the scale and sheer bravura of the development, reflecting the literally billions of dollars’ investment that have been poured into the campus in material terms alone; one can only imagine the recurrent costs. It is a staggering, indeed grandiose, accomplishment incorporating eight brand-new high-rise colleges (including two already-extant colleges that made the transition from the old campus) as well as spectacular academic and administrative buildings and facilities, a concert hall, library, sports stadium and so forth, all in varying degrees of opulence and set in a comprehensive tapestry of planned grounds, courtyards and interconnecting roads. Ancillary staff are everywhere – loading, driving, sweeping, portering, guiding, directing, scrutinising, mending, painting, digging, weeding and doubtless much else. Students and more particularly academic staff are a little less conspicuous outdoors: the heat and hammer-blow humidity discourage walking between anything other than adjacent doorways. Virtually every journey I made among buildings none of which could have been more than a few hundred metres apart was by car or minibus, with a driver specifically detached to collect and deposit me. (My first engagement got off to a literally shaky start in my own case; I foolishly declined the offer of a car, took the half-kilometre walk to the main auditorium under the noon sun, and arrived feeling dismally faint.)

Although my actual overnight accommodation was in the separate Postgraduate Residence, my hosts in every other sense were Moon Chun Memorial College (MCMC), one of the first to be added to the University in its new campus home. MCMC’s Master is an eminent one: Professor Kit Thompson was formerly founding Director of the Birmingham Conservatoire and more recently Director of the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts. As I was to learn, the new college Masters have been appointed from conspicuously prestigious backgrounds, all being formerly Vice-Chancellors or their very close equivalents – another illustration of the unswerving Macau ambition and commitment to succeed. Accordingly, MCMC’s conception and establishment runs in parallel with those of the other new colleges: Macau is simultaneously creating the collegiate student experience in up to eight incarnations. Initially this struck me as daunting to the point of impossibility, but further reflection suggested that the approach has its advantages – the colleges themselves constitute, after all, a kind of collective ‘learning cohort’ encouraging, instructing, and spurring one another onward through the challenges of their shared early years. One official forum for this sharing of practice and ideas is the Council of Masters; it is creatively underpinned of course by the regular spontaneous exchanges between Faculty and students of so many colleges in such physical proximity.

Kit led the Macau delegation to Collegiate Way 2014 (and I was delighted to meet again their other two members, Andy Ip and Kenneth Leung, during the visit). Kit and his wife, music educationalist Dr Patricia Thompson, exemplified Moon Chun Memorial College’s particular form of commitment to the collegiate way, combining warmth, energy, generosity, courtesy, imagination and sheer style in abundance, dispensed unstintingly to the benefit of students, faculty and visitors alike: they treated me royally, and their graciousness is clearly contagious and habit-forming, for the same graciousness was evident among the college as a whole. My abiding impression of the students was that of happy, polite and good-natured enthusiasm and dedication to a shared adventure. Courtesy might sometimes gently echo conformity, of course: for instance, alcohol was conspicuous by its absence, whereas in most other respects the visible and ceremonial trappings of colleges are inevitably those of the western traditional mould; the gowned Formals that I attended in two colleges were deferential to a fault, though at the same time strongly affirmative of community loyalties, and they showcased students’ really superb musical talents. The University is taking early steps in an important transition, and perhaps at this stage it’s crucial that the colleges’ student members ‘take on trust’ both the still-novel destination of the collegiate way, and the presumed reliability of the perhaps unfamiliar signposts along that way.

Of course the signposts and the scenery and in a way even the conception of the road itself varies with collegiate systems. Macau’s is distinct from the Oxbridge-style federal system, and distinct also from Durham’s, since the Macanese colleges engage in some academic teaching within a degree system that – somewhat like NUS’s – formally includes a curriculum element tied to collegiate life and to community and ‘peer education,’ an intriguing initiative whose development will be fascinating to follow. Appropriately, the different colleges pursue the University’s collegiate mission in their own styles. At Moon Chun, one clear pointer to the future is the high degree of town-and-gown engagement (Kit is enviably well-placed to facilitate such engagement with both cultural and business partners of national and international prominence); another is the stream of international visitors from Fulbright Scholars to notable authors, from Oxbridge College Masters to musicians from the Royal College of Music.

As a modestly-informed visitor myself with a desire both to observe and, in a small way participate, I was kept delightfully busy – my itinerary being continually added to both before and during the period of the stay! I cannot adequately convey the warmth and generosity of my reception, and of the interest shown in the Durham model. I had four public engagements and one formal private meeting, in addition to abundant informal conversations, all of them coordinated (I should really say ‘orchestrated’!) through Kit and his sterling team.

The first and largest event was an on-stage conversation with Kit, in front of a capacity audience of staff and Faculty from across the colleges and the University in a dismayingly large auditorium; the subject was collegiate learning in a social context, and the backdrop was the tongue-in-cheek question of how closely Hogwarts approaches a Durham college! The students’ intense interest, humbling in itself, was matched by their penetrating questions in an absorbing discussion session.

Subsequently I gave after-dinner speeches at Formals in MCMC and neighbouring Stanley Ho East Asia College on consecutive nights, and found myself the ‘castaway’ in a Desert-Island-Discs style event for students from the General Education (Music) class, with the ‘Kirsty Young’ role played to perfection by Dr Patricia Thompson. In addition I had a very encouraging discussion with Prof. Haydn Chen, the University’s Vice-Rector for Student Affairs, on the challenges of the collegiate style of university life and administration (including the challenge of devising formal assessments of the community and ‘peer education’ component of the Macau degrees). Prof. Chen was also a High Table guest at the MCMC Formal, part of an illustrious company that included other College Masters, the Chair of the University’s Council, and the Chair of the British Business Association of Macau – Durham alumnus Henry Brockman, sometime of Castle (University College)!

Informal engagements included an all-too-brief reunion with Prof. Kenneth Leung, Master of Shiu Pong College, and a lively question-and-answer session with students from Chao Kuang Piu College, whose Master, Prof. Lui Chuang Sheng (a world-renowned plasma physicist) delightedly revealed that he had just discovered that the ‘father’ of Chinese aviation was in fact a Durham Alumnus – Wong Tsu, who graduated BSc (Dunelm) in 1914, from what was then Armstrong College Durham.

Concluding remarks

It’s obviously impossible in a short summary report to do justice to even a fraction of the impressions, excitements, anxieties(!), courtesies and kindnesses encountered in a trip of this nature, let alone the warm esteem in which I hold the very, very, many collegiate friends and colleagues in the universities visited. It was uplifting and heartening to see the energy, commitment and enthusiasm being poured into the evolution of new colleges and new or rejuvenating college systems in those universities. I’m grateful for having had that opportunity, and returning home to my own college I find myself in the position of one who, as it were, feel moved to re-affirm his vows.

H M Evans

Trevelyan College

November 2015