University Colleges – Unique Communities of Learning

In the fourth of our series of conversations with leaders in the higher education sector, we speak with Associate Professor Jane Munroe AM, recently retired Head of College, International House.  International House is the most internationally diverse residence at the University of Melbourne, with 60% of students coming from over 35 different countries around the world.  

As Jane now concludes her highly successful 11 years as Head she reflects on some of the changes within the College environment.  Given her career as a school principal and academic, both here and offshore, she brings unique insight into the challenges ahead for the sector.

How have you seen the role of a University College evolve over the past few years and what have been some of the most interesting changes?

I think one of the most obvious changes has been that students have a lot more autonomy than in the past and they are much more active contributors to the leadership and direction of the college.  I believe that college life is much better when students and the head of college can work together to achieve shared outcomes.  In the past, I think the head of college and senior academics were more distant.  Today there is much more of a customer focus and I ultimately think this helps students learn better.

Are students demanding more or less of the college now – what are they seeking from the experience?

While I think parents are looking for a place where their sons and daughters can achieve academic success, learn life skills and be safe, the students are fundamentally looking for a place where they can be happy.  I don’t think this has changed in the last decade and longer.  What has changed is the fact that staff and students work together much more to ensure that this occurs – it is a much more collaborative environment.

As an educationalist, what do you see as the real benefits of a college experience?

The most fundamental benefit is the connectedness that college life brings and this assists the learning process.  This level of engagement with both peers and tutors within a community of learning is pretty unique.  You might not be studying maths but you are sitting next to a maths tutor at breakfast and you start discussing some of the aspects of the discipline which leads to a much richer educational experience.  Day students don’t have this opportunity and with the increased use of technology I think the college experience is something that is becoming even more valuable.

What do you see as the future for university colleges; will they have the same role in ten years?

They will absolutely have the same role but their delivery will no doubt be different.  I think some of the formality which still exists will possibly relax, reflecting changes in society. We will still focus very much on building a learning community, it’s just the way that we do this is likely to be different. 

What about overseas, what are some of the trends?

One of the key things I observe overseas is the impact of aging infrastructure, particularly in the US, requiring the investment of significant amounts of money to update the facilities.  This is a constant challenge and one that is only increasing.

What about the role of a college head – I think it would be fair to say that it is an almost unique position.  Reflecting back on your time, what were some of the biggest highlights and challenges?

The role of a college head is still pretty unique in the educational and broader community setting.  It is still genuinely a 24 x 7 position.  I think a couple of the factors that are underestimated is the fact that you need to continually appreciate that as a head, you and most of your staff are at a different stage of personal development to the students.  This is something that you constantly need to make adjustments for.  Secondly, the role of fundraising is a critical and increasing pressure, particularly if we want to attract students to College who are not only from wealthy families.

I think the most attractive part of the role is the atmosphere and the feeling of community.  Within a College, and particularly this one, people are willing to go the extra mile for others, and this is something that I think is incredibly special.  During my period here I have been fortunate that we have students who are excelling in academic life, we have developed a good team and I leave with a fantastic new postgraduate building about to be opened.

About Associate Professor Jane Munro

Associate Professor Jane Munro concluded her term as Head of College at International House at the end of 2014.  International House is the residential college of the University of Melbourne and has approximately 300 residents and provides an academic community life for Australian and international students. 

Associate Professor Munro has also been active in public life, most recently as the Convenor of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s national Advisory Council and earlier as the Convenor of the Victoria Women’s Council.  She has served on numerous boards such as that of Opera Australia, the Melbourne Festival, and The Sydney Institute.

As an undergraduate Professor Munro studied Arts at the University of Sydney, gaining first class honours in Japanese and the University Medal.  She then attended Harvard University and was awarded a Master’s and a PhD degree. 

Her move into educational administration began when she was appointed Director of the Institute of Languages at the University of New South Wales, continued when she was appointed Principal of Firbank Grammar School in Brighton and Sandringham (Victoria) until her appointment to International House in 2004.

Rohan A. Carr
January 2015

To view other blogs by The Insight Group please click here.

Did you like this? Share it:

Comments are closed.