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Anti-religious card is poor way to oppose Abbott's uni policy

By Mike Bird - posted Thursday, 11 December 2014

Matthew Knott's article in The Age on Abbott government cuts university support; funds priests' training raises good questions about the role of government in funding theological education, but it was unfortunately let down by its biased perspective and a highly selective rendition of the facts.

The crux of the matter is that the Abbott government intends to deregulate university fees, cut university funding, and provide funding to private universities and colleges. It's a controversial policy, the universities have mixed feelings about of it, and small tertiary providers will be the ones who largely stand to benefit.

Knott's objection to funding private colleges rests on the grounds that some of these private colleges are theological colleges which train "priests." Let me say a few things about that.


First, to clarify, only a few colleges actually train priests. Most colleges train pastors, hospital chaplains, military chaplains, missionaries, youth workers, overseas aid workers, and social workers. Putting "priests" in the headline might be a big attention grabber, but it is also misleading.

Second, the private tertiary sector includes all sorts of institutions ranging from sports fitness, to naturopathy, to hospitality, to music, to agriculture, to wine-making. So let's be clear. The theological colleges are only one small subset of the private colleges operating in the tertiary sector. To say that the government should not provide funds to private colleges because it will mean assisting theological colleges is like saying that we shouldn't have free healthcare because it might mean providing health benefits to Imams and Rabbis.

Third, Knott zeroes in on Catholics by paying special attention to the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family with its courses on family planning. Now I'm not Catholic, but I find it disturbing that a journalist would raise the Catholics and contraception card to make a point about how inappropriate it would be to fund theological colleges. Christian theological education is not all rosaries and Hail Mary's. The fact is that theological colleges teach a variety courses on subjects like ancient Greek, ancient Hebrew, introduction to philosophy, ethics, Reformation history, overseas aid and development, introduction to world religions, youth ministry, and ministering to the dying and bereaved. These courses are intellectually rigorous, academically respectable, and are not filled with the religious eccentricities that Knott seems to imply.

Fourth, I would point out that our secular universities have a long history of training priests and clergy and do so with government funding. Charles Sturt University has a close relationship with a number of theological colleges. The Australian Catholic University has priests on faculty teaching biblical and theological studies. Melbourne's University of Divinity specializing in theological education is a fully accredited university that was originally established by an act of the Victorian parliament. Speaking for myself, I did an honours degree and doctoral degree for my theological training at the University of Queensland. Strangely though I don't hear anyone complaining about the government funding degrees at secular universities that are taken by clergy. Here's a point to ponder: If universities can receive funding for programs that train religious professionals, then why not private colleges as well? That is a fair point as any and does not encroach on separation of church and state.

Fifth, I would add that many of these theological colleges contain faculty who are internationally recognized researchers in the fields of archaeology, ancient languages, biblical studies, theology, church history, inter-faith relations, philosophy of religion, ethics, and pastoral practice. They are accredited institutions lined with faculty who have research profiles that would be the envy of many university departments. In other words, theological colleges are not glorified Sunday schools, they are serious educational centers concerned with the interface between religion and public life and train students in that context.

There is no doubt that Abbott's policy on tertiary funding is controversial. Personally I think helping private colleges in all sectors become competitive in the tertiary marketplace is probably a good idea in the long run. That said, I fully admit that the issues of deregulation and funding are contentious and complex. We need a robust discussion on how to make tertiary education fair, effective, and affordable for both tertiary providers and students. However, in that discussion, playing the anti-religious card to push back on de-regulation appears to be both prejudicial and poorly informed. There are better ways of carrying out this debate.

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About the Author

Michael Bird is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne and is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

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