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A National Catholic University: the allure and the struggle

The Australian Catholic University (ACU) spread over four states and the ACT, educates almost 35,000 students across several faculties (2,300 members). It includes its core original disciplines - teaching and nursing. Why,  could be asked,  would a Catholic teacher in the past want to go to university? As the Catholic system of education developed from the 1880’s in Australia especially when schools were legislated as “free, compulsory and secular”, the question of teacher training was answered by bishops importing religious orders, largely from Ireland, for an Irish-Catholic Church.

Why would young Catholics – ‘rockchoppers,’ ‘bog-Irish,’ ‘paddies’ – need more education than the ‘penny catechism’ and other Catholic tracts? The plethora of religious teaching orders showed the answer: they gradually established their own teaching and nursing training colleges beyond the hierarchy across the colonies and then states. Of course, these incorporated strong education in Christian faith. It took another hundred years before the Catholic Church entered the arena of university education with the ACU.

A quick gallop over the De La Salle journey in teacher training over the years is instructive.

Australian Catholics & Higher Education

“The Idea of a University” had famously been explored by the great St. John Henry Newman. He led Christ College Dublin for the Catholic disadvantaged. The core goal was to enable students with the capacity to think, the mind trained and formed, to see all knowledge panoptically, and indeed holistically, (and not in a confessional mode). A church university would not easily be conceived in the colonies under British aegis.

The imposing Sydney seminary opened by Cardinal Moran in 1889 would, he hoped,  be a university, but, according to historian John Hirst “major dioceses had never co-operated on any significant project”. Within the culture and canons of the predominantly Irish Church, each diocesan bishop was king of his own castle, and regularly drew up the draw-bridge at any perceived danger. (Interestingly, there have been only four national synods of Australian bishops in the Church’s 200-year history).The idea of a Catholic university was resisted, especially by Archbishop Daniel Mannix of Melbourne on the grounds of cost, and of siphoning off the brightest and best of his flock, planned to invade the social elite in Victoria.

By the 1920’s, the secular universities were now 70 years strong. University studies for religious teachers , had to be pursued after teaching school, in evening classes. However, Australia, with its interstate rivalries and its sectarian religious culture, was not conducive to eirenic religious academies. Sydney, by the 1940’s,  needed a university in the eyes of Cardinal Gilroy. The secular onslaughts (e.g., the discipleship and free-thinking of Prof. John Anderson and other non-religionists at Sydney University), had been outraging various Christian churches. Difficulty of funding, and resistance of other churches to a government university charter for Catholics alone were some factors in the failure of his venture.

Lasallian Earlier Days

The De La Salle Brothers, from the District founding in1906 through the 1920’s exhibited a neuralgic strain in view of higher education, due to the person of its first Provincial, Br. Paul Phelan.  The tradition prescribed teaching mainly primary school students the core basics, and certainly not Latin,  a prerequisite for any professional higher studies. However, by the late 1920’s Br. Patrick, Visitor was encouraging younger Brothers to study and upgrade their base in-house teaching qualifications .

At the end of World War 2, the new Visitor, Jerome Foley envisaged that up to a third of Brothers should take up university studies, but the strictures of providing school personnel precluded any universal pursuance of on-site tertiary qualifications. By the mid-60’s it was finally accepted at the persistent promptings of Brothers like Aloysius Carmody, Gerard Rummery and Ambrose Payne that a university degree was a benchmark for trainee Brothers. They, like some other Brothers, had post-graduate degrees. Br Ambrose became a lecturer at the Brothers’ teacher college at 31.

The Movers for Change

Several factors, among others,  opened up the possibility of Church and Lasallian involvement beyond secondary school teaching. By the early 1970’s, with the fall-off of religious vocations and increasing numbers of laity teaching in Catholic schools, it became imperative for the Church to promote lay teacher training. All Lasallian schools – and Church-run schools- now had a large majority of laity on their staffs; Brothers were withdrawing from some schools. Thus, sustainability of this specific Catholic mission was critical.

Secondly, finance was important. The 1972 Labor Whitlam government took over the funding of colleges of advanced education from the states.

The federal Commission required recognised standards in the higher education sector; it officially recognised the courses of the Catholic College of Education (CCE) in 1974 with its two campuses at Dundas (the Marist Brothers) and Castle Hill (De La Salle Brothers). The Marists, Brs. Kieran Geaney and Charles Howard were important, as was Br. Ambrose. The CCE allowed lay teachers, male and female, and religious brothers, to graduate with a certified Diploma of Teaching after three years. By 1976, there were 380 students, studying on the DLS Training College site and at the Marist College at Dundas.

Another contributing factor was the positive attitude of the Brother Visitor and his Council to move into higher education, albeit with reduced personnel. By 1975, there were nine DLS Brothers, including Ambrose Payne, the Principal, on staff, some with higher degrees. This was a great sacrifice and a testament to change, when Brother-personnel was shrinking, and the withdrawal from small schools was taking place. By 1980, the Good Samaritan Sisters at Glebe finally became incorporated with the CCE to form a brief amalgamation - Polding College. The Oakhill site demanded more infrastructure and commitment, with the stalling of federal funding. An important figure in Sydney Catholic education over these decades was Archbishop James Carroll, as advocate and facilitator.

A fourth influence was the impact of the commissioned Ramsey Report on higher education presented to the Sydney archdiocese by Br. Ambrose in 1982. It recommended a single teacher’s college, and he was elected and appointed Principal of Catholic College of Education Sydney (CCES). It was an amalgamation of the three independent Catholic colleges – the Josephite Sisters Nth Sydney, the Christian Brs at Strathfield and Polding . There were five religious orders and the Sydney archdiocesan Trustees to negotiate with. Mons. Slowey, Sr. Leone Ryan and Dr. Victor Couch, a Sydney Archdiocesan educational expert, were- among others - representative stakeholders.

Yet Br Ambrose was the backbone of the enterprise, using a “touch of genius” (Couch said) to assuage fears, reconcile parties and formulate structures. He encouraged CCES lecturers to pursue higher degrees. His profile grew and led to consultation work within and beyond the Sydney archdiocese, as well as presence in national Catholic education decision-making.  

By 1987, John Dawkins, federal education minister, was driving a process to produce a national system of universities where smaller colleges of advanced education (CAE’s) would aggregate into more efficient and vocationally-oriented institutions, with research, foreign-student in-take and federal funding; this would power economic growth.

Fear, dismay if not perhaps loathing greeted the new vision among the small Catholic colleges which saw their institutions educating holistically for the mission of the Church. Through and with the National Catholic Education Commission they (especially the Victorian Institute) reasoned for flexibility in a national system, with Dawkins and resisted one-size-fits-all approach.

Ambrose Payne: Vision and Pragmatism

However, as amalgamations of the CAE’s gathered pace, the CCES opted for a different approach under the leadership of Br. Ambrose and others: to become a university in due course, initiate research and become reconciled, with funding (of which CCES was the first Catholic college recipient). Dawkins played hard-ball: only one cheque would be written for the Catholic colleges. Now, Ambrose, “a cool-headed strategist” (Hirst, 15), switched horses in arguing for a loose association of the four institutions, at least to co-ordinate their presence and ethos in training, perhaps as an institute.

Of course, territorial rivalries emerged. Why should Sydney be in control? How practical was this, said one bishop, for a suburban (Brisbane) college of 500 students and resistant lecturers? The chief strategist focused on Victoria; with NSW it was the larger entity. Bishop George Pell, vicar for education and Sir Bernard Callinan, the Institute’s Council head, were influential Victorians. Bishops started warming to the idea of public funding of a Catholic “university” in the education sector.

The crunch meeting of Ambrose Payne, Bernard Callinan and Gerry Gleeson that was engineered with Dawkins resulted in the minister agreeing to reverse his task force’s refusal to incorporate an association of Catholic colleges as a university. Dawkins’ acceptance of a public AND Catholic university, funded by all tax-payers, was a decisive point which allowed planning to begin. Alternatives could have been amalgamations with current universities, the bishops with their political power going it alone- the status quo, or arguing for government aid, as it existed for primary & secondary Catholic schools.

Hirst, in his ACU history, points to the person who untied the Gordian knot of agonising and uncertainty. The person who was - to use Hirst’s unsympathetic words- to “bludgeon the laggards into line” was the clear-headed and already-seasoned political performer, Br. Ambrose Payne.

There had been a dry-run for amalgamation with the Sydney religious teachers colleges. Br. Ambrose, with single-mindedness, persistence, and a subtle, accomplished diplomacy, showed through the thickets of detail and planning that there was no barbarian at the gates of Rome (or of Melbourne). This loyal son of the Church convinced the four Colleges’ leaders to accept an expedient and indeterminate future-oriented offer. His understanding of the landscape was perceptive: economies of scale were important, as federal funding was not limitless. But academically, the educational advantage was that quality was more assured in larger teaching units. For sustainability, religious orders had to change their training to survive.

The Amalgamation Implementation Committee of the four councils and its CEO Br Ambrose found an ultimate sponsorship in La Trobe University, which produced a fruitful engagement with the nascent body; doctoral candidates – only 60 members of staff in 1990 – would do so under the rules of La Trobe. Decisions on governance (e.g., staff being in one of 3 faculties nationwide), state chapters, the wide freedom mandated to the vice-chancellor, and professorships decided from beyond current staff were thrashed out. Br. Ambrose was rock-solid on the worked details. “The dilemma of how freedom of enquiry within a Catholic university could be reconciled with clerical control now emerged starkly” (Hirst, 26).

In terms of theology and governance, the bishops or their nominees finally acquired 70% of the company, whose management would be the representative Senate of religious orders, staff, students and bishops. It was resolved that state chapters’ nominations would be made by local bishops. A final hurdle were decisions on who would take the top jobs and where would the chancelry be located. Br. Ambrose’s comprehensive package shared the spoils between Sydney and Melbourne in an amicable arrangement.

In the previous amalgamations the players had elected him for the leadership. As Hirst (35) quotes him: “I did not ride roughshod. I did have their confidence.” The national scene was different. That the “maestro amalgamator” did not assume the vice-chancellorship was a blow to him, but reasonable in the much bigger picture: he did not have a doctorate; he was a religious brother; he was not a current university man of the academy. His neutrality could not be accepted by the other players, as Hirst (27) sees it. The executive head job went to Peter Drake, an economic historian and deputy vice-chancellor from the UNE.

The university began on 1 January 1991. Sixteen months later, the official inauguration in Sydney Town Hall recognised the “two founders,” as Hirst calls them, Bernard Callinan, a retired engineer and Ambrose Payne, a religious brother. Perhaps fittingly, no academic or bishop, but laymen in a Church originally populated by convicts, and now the largest church denomination in Australia. A cardinal, five archbishops and 18 bishops were present with leaders from 20 Australian universities, and Gough Whitlam, ex-Prime Minister. No drum-beating alarms from other denominations or politicians about a Catholic university supported by public funds greeted the occasion.

 For ACU’s historian, this was  an event in national history. Later, an honorary doctorate was conferred on Br. Ambrose. The nation recognised him with the honour of an AO, and later he has become an Officer. The De La Salle Brothers subsequently have had one only Brother – Benildus Larkin- on any faculty, and this for 33 years on the Banyo campus as a nurse educator.

In 2023, Australian Catholic University could boast top national ranking and 34th in the world for Theology, Divinity and Religious Studies, according to the QS World University Rankings by Subject. There were also quite high rankings for Nursing and Sports-related subjects (27 March 2023).  

A prominent Lasallian Brother stands uncontested as a prime initiator of a vibrant and important Catholic education provider of today.


Source: Br Gary Wilson FSC
(Disclaimer:  I have studied the craft of teaching as a Brother-in-training, lived in community with Br Ambrose, and exercised ministry under his provincialship, this over many years)
  • John Hirst,          Australia’s Catholic University: The first twenty-five years (2015)
  • Peter Donovan, For youth and the Poor: The De La Salle Brothers in ANZPNG 1906-2000 (2001)