The Founding of The University of Notre Dame Australia
A brief history of its establishment and formative years
By Dr Peter Tannock, 16 June 2008
The idea of a Catholic University in Perth emerged in the second half of the 1980s. Its initial stimulus was the realisation by the Catholic Education authorities in Western Australia that there were inadequate means of providing special training for large numbers of lay teachers who would be needed for future service in the extensive Catholic school system. Unlike other States and Territories, Western Australia had no Catholic Teachers College. There was also concern in some quarters that the large Catholic hospital system in the State had no formal means of preparing lay professional staff for the special mission of Catholic health care into the future.
The newly appointed Director of Catholic Education in Western Australia, Dr Peter Tannock, discussed the problem on several occasions in 1985 and 1986 with the Archbishop of Perth, William Foley, and was encouraged to pursue the idea of developing a private Catholic tertiary education institution in Perth. It was agreed that Dr Tannock would approach Mr Denis Horgan, a prominent and wealthy Catholic businessman and entrepreneur in Perth, to seek his support and financial assistance. Mr Horgan agreed to be involved and to provide financial support for the project. A Planning Committee was established in 1987 comprising Mr Horgan (chairman) Dr Peter Tannock, Dr Michael Quinlan (a leader in the medical profession and Catholic health care in WA) and Archbishop Foley.
In 1987 a Planning Office was established to be overseen by Father John Neill OP, who had a long-standing interest in the idea of a Catholic university in Australia modelled on the University of Notre Dame in the United States. Various models were developed, papers written, and feasibility studies undertaken. The funding of all this planning and development activity ultimately came from the Archdiocese of Perth and the Catholic Education Office of Western Australia. Consultation took place with Catholic university leaders in other parts of the world, particularly the University of Notre Dame in the United States (NDUS), widely regarded as the best and most prestigious of its kind. The Planning Committee was encouraged to approach NDUS for support by Father Ted Hesburgh CSC and Father Ned Joyce CSC, recently retired leaders of NDUS. They had visited Fremantle in February, 1988 and, at the invitation of Denis Horgan, met with the Planning Committee to discuss the idea of this first Australian Catholic university and for NDUS to be involved in some way. It was a major piece of good fortune that NDUS, led by its new President, Father Edward Malloy CSC, supported by his Executive Vice President, Father E W Beauchamp CSC, and his Provost, Professor Tim O’Meara, agreed to consider becoming involved in supporting this new initiative in Catholic higher education in distant Western Australia. Indeed, the early NDUS commitment and involvement was the perhaps most important single factor in causing this project to proceed beyond the feasibility study stage. It was the NDUS presence that gave the Archdiocese of Perth, and State and Commonwealth governments, confidence that the project might succeed.
Following visits to Perth in 1987 and 1988 from the leaders of NDUS, and with their concurrence and that of the State Government of Western Australia, a decision was taken in 1989 to proceed with the project. Whilst there was enthusiasm from many for the idea of a private Catholic university in Perth, there were also many critics and doubters.
The new Catholic university was to be named the University of Notre Dame Australia (UNDA) after its namesake and founding ‘partner’ in the United States. It was to be based in the West End of Fremantle mainly in unused and derelict former warehouse buildings which were to be acquired for this purpose.
It was initially intended that this new university be a privately funded venture. It was to rely on tuition fees, benefactors, and various forms of corporate and individual support. The State Government promised a substantial land endowment in the northern suburbs of Perth. The Commonwealth Government declined to provide any initial support. The Archdiocese of Perth was to have no direct financial obligation: Archbishop Foley made it clear that the University of Notre Dame Australia was not to be a direct financial charge upon the Archdiocese of Perth nor its agencies. Nor was it to receive any direct financial support from the University of Notre Dame in the United States. Its principal initial private benefactor was to be Mr Denis Horgan and the Barrack House Group of Companies. To this end, the Barrack House Group, using borrowed funds, began acquiring properties in Fremantle with a view to on-selling them to the University at cost, or leasing, some or all of them, to the University.
The University of Notre Dame Australia was formally established by an Act of the Parliament of Western Australia on 21 December, 1989 as Australia’s first Catholic university. It was given a Canonical Statute of the Archdiocese of Perth on 2 July 1991. In mid-1990, shortly after the proclamation of the enabling legislation, and with the first Board of Governors (chaired initially by Mr Denis Horgan) and first Vice Chancellor, Professor David Link, barely in place (he was Dean of Law at NDUS, seconded to UNDA for 18 months) the University of Notre Dame Australia almost collapsed. The Barrack House Group, which was to be the core source of the new University’s start-up capital, became insolvent. Its insolvency led to the disposal by its creditors of its property assets in the West End of Fremantle, and the involuntary assumption by the Archdiocese of Perth of all of the costs and debts the University had run up during its planning stage.
In the face of this potential disaster, the Archdiocese of Perth (led by Archbishop Foley’s successor, the newly appointed Archbishop, Barry Hickey), the Catholic Education Commission of Western Australia, the Sisters of Saint John of God, the University of Notre Dame in the United States, and the Board of Governors of UNDA (led by its second Chancellor, Mr Terry O’Connor who succeeded Denis Horgan in 1990) made the decision in 1991 to ‘soldier on’ with the project. They concluded that the idea was so worthy, the initial outlays had been so substantial, and the long-term prospects were sufficiently positive to warrant continuation, notwithstanding the risks and burdens.
Funds for start up operations were made available by the Archdiocese of Perth and the Catholic Education Commission of WA, and land and buildings were purchased in Fremantle from the disposal of the Barrack House assets through the financial support and generosity of the Archdiocese of Perth and the Sisters of St John of God. Staff were engaged, and work began on the refurbishment of the University’s first major building (ND1) with money provided by the Catholic Education Commission. A major fundraising program was undertaken, focusing on the Catholic parishes, religious orders, and lay members of the Western Australian Catholic community. The National Australia Bank agreed to provide loan facilities for the new University.
1992-2000: Establishment of the Institution
In 1992 the University enrolled its first students – about 70 in teacher education, all of them postgraduate – in its first College, the College of Education. In August 1992 NDUS sent its first group of twenty-five Study Abroad students (who spent one semester in Fremantle), a significant vote of confidence by Father Malloy in the future of UNDA. In December 1992, the University’s second Vice Chancellor, Dr Peter Tannock, commenced duties on the Fremantle Campus (having resigned as Deputy Chancellor of the University, and as Director of Catholic Education in Western Australia, to take up the position).
It was, to say the least, a precarious time for the new University. The next eight years, the establishment period, were an immense struggle to survive, to grow academically, physically and culturally, to define itself, to achieve balance, harmony and community acceptance, and to set in place an academic and management structure which would support it for the long term. There were many challenges and milestones in this crucial establishment period. These included:
- the introduction of undergraduate studies, commencing in 1994;
- the establishment of various foundation Colleges: Arts and Sciences, Education, Business, Law, Nursing and Theology;
- the development of the NDUS relationship and its accompanying Study Abroad program;
- the foundation of its Broome Campus in 1994 (at the invitation of Bishop John Jobst, Bishop of Broome) with its focus on the advancement of the Aboriginal people of the region and reconciliation between Aboriginal and non Aboriginal Australians;
- the growth, development and diversification of the Fremantle Campus;
- the development of the University’s undergraduate Core Curriculum (compulsory units in Theology, Ethics and Philosophy for all undergraduate courses) as the centrepiece of its Catholic values and culture strategy;
- the decisions of Australian and Western Australian Governments to give UNDA access to public funding through the Commonwealth’s Higher Education Funding Act and the State’s Low Interest Loans Scheme;
- the introduction of a unique individual contract employment system for academic and general staff, with the agreement of the National Tertiary Education Union and the endorsement of the Industrial Relations Commission.
- the acceptance into membership and active participation in the International Federation of Catholic Universities (IFCU) and the Association of East and South East Asian Catholic Colleges and Universities(ASEACCU);
- the expansion of the UNDA Study Abroad Program among various Catholic universities in the US;
- the steep rise to viable levels in the University’s domestic and international enrolments;
- the recruitment and retention of a core of outstanding academic and administrative staff who worked tirelessly and creatively to bring the new university into being.
Of critical importance during this initial establishment phase was the achievement, in 2000, of the University’s first modest budget surplus. After nearly a decade of deficit funding, UNDA was finally operating ‘in the black’.
There were many factors that contributed to this achievement of initial financial stability. They include:
- sharp enrolment and tuition fee income growth;
- the generous restructuring and write-off of large original capital debts by the Archdiocese of Perth, the Catholic Education Commission of WA and the Sisters of Saint John of God;
- the decision of the Commonwealth Government, approved by both the major political parties in the Commonwealth Parliament, to give Notre Dame’s students access to Commonwealth-funded HECS places in teaching, nursing, and for the Broome Campus;
- the decision of the Western Australian State Government, approved by both the major political parties in the WA Parliament, to give the University access to State low interest loans for approved capital works;
- the willingness of the administration, supported by the Board of Governors (led by the Chancellor, Mr Terry O’Connor), to make painful but necessary decisions about the rationalization of positions and programs in order to meet budget imperatives;
- much improved marketing of the University and its courses;
- donations from many small and some very large private benefactors (most notably the family of Bernie and Mary Prindiville);
- much improved financial management;
- the patience and support of the National Australia Bank;
- more efficient use of the University’s resources;
- the gaining of access to capital loan facilities from the Archdiocesan Development Fund in Brisbane.
2001-2008: Notre Dame Evolves
During this period, the goals, strategic plans and the structure and academic profile of Notre Dame as a whole were developed and refined. Perhaps the most significant initiative was the decision to establish a Medical School in Fremantle, and a new Campus in Sydney.
In 2004 the University, having received approval from the Australian Government and with the support of the Western Australian State Government, achieved accreditation from the Australian Medical Council to open a medical school on the Fremantle Campus, the second medical school in Western Australia and the first in Australia at a private university. The first intake of 81 students began in 2005. The Australian Government supported this new Medical School with funded Medical places, and a capital grant for facilities. The State Government provided a low interest capital loan.
A parallel initiative of great significance for the University was the decision taken in 2001 to commence teaching in Health Sciences on the Fremantle Campus, and to open a School of Health Sciences with programs in such areas as Physiotherapy and Health and Physical Education.
This period also saw major changes to the governance structure at Notre Dame, reflecting substantial revisions to the University’s Act of Parliament. The University now had separate but related Boards of Trustees, Directors and Governors, each chaired by the new Chancellor of the University, Mr Justice Neville Owen, who assumed office from Terry O’Connor in 2005. These legislative changes defined the University’s Objects more clearly and provided a framework which would set the University up for the long term. They were accompanied by substantial changes to the University’s Statutes and Regulations.
The physical facilities on the Fremantle and Broome Campuses were upgraded and expanded, to the point where they could cater for over 6,000 students.
This period saw a very significant development in Notre Dame’s relationship with the Australian Government. The Howard Government decided to declare the academic areas of teaching, nursing and medicine as National Priorities, and invited Notre Dame to develop major courses in each of them. The Howard Government also introduced a scheme known as Fee Help whereby fee paying undergraduate students at Notre Dame could borrow from the Australian Government at very low interest rates to meet the cost of tuition.
When the Rudd Labor Government was elected to office in 2007 it maintained and indeed enhanced the support of its predecessor. It committed itself to a ‘compact’ with Notre Dame whereby the University would specialize and grow in the Health and Education fields. This initiative is of far-reaching significance for Notre Dame and its future. The result of this enhanced relationship with the Australian Government was reflected in substantial allocations in the 2008/2009 Federal Budget of Commonwealth Supported Places (CSP’s) and capital grants for related facilities, serving the National Priority areas of teaching, nursing and medicine.
The Sydney Campus
Another major development in this period was the result of an invitation in 2003 from His Eminence, George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney, to open a Campus in Sydney NSW. A feasibility study was undertaken and, at the end of 2004, after intensive discussions with Church and government officials, the Board of Governors endorsed the proposal to open a Campus on the site of the historic St Benedict’s Church and School in Broadway, Sydney in 2006. A formal agreement was signed between the Archdiocese of Sydney and the University.
Cardinal Pell invited Notre Dame to Sydney because he wished to diversify and expand Catholic higher education in his diocese and because he wanted to see a Catholic medical school and a Catholic law school established there. UNDA accepted the invitation because it perceived a ‘call to mission’ and because it believed that a Sydney Campus would take it to a new level of national significance, adding great value to the education and qualifications it offered. This move to Sydney was strongly supported by the NDUS leaders.
This Sydney project was advanced greatly by the announcement of the Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, on 1 August 2004 of Commonwealth approval for Notre Dame’s Sydney Campus. The Prime Minister announced Commonwealth support for a new Sydney medical school, capital funding for new facilities at Broadway and Darlinghurst, and Commonwealth-funded places (CSP’s) in teaching, nursing and medicine.
Courses in the new Schools of Arts, Business, Education, Law and Nursing commenced in Sydney in February 2006 with an initial intake of over 450 students. A second site in Sydney at the Sacred Heart Parish complex in Darlinghurst was opened in 2008. It contains the University’s Schools of Medicine and Nursing.
The University’s Sydney Campus has had a very promising start. By 2008 enrolments had grown to 1,700 students, mainly school-leaver undergraduates. Foundation Schools of Arts and Sciences, Business, Education, Law, Medicine and Philosophy and Theology had been established. Beautiful facilities on the historic Broadway and Darlinghurst sites allocated by the Archdiocese to the University had been developed. Additional land and buildings adjacent to St Benedict’s, Broadway have been acquired, and a major capital development program is planned to take total enrolments to 5,000 by 2018.
The Next Phase: 2008 and Beyond
The University of Notre Dame Australia is entering a new phase in its life. A new Vice Chancellor, Professor Celia Hammond, has been appointed to replace the retiring Dr Tannock on 1 August, 2008. In the next few years, there are major challenges to be faced. These include:
- Developing further the Sydney Campus at Broadway to enable Sydney enrolment growth to reach the target level of 5,000 equivalent full time students by 2018 (at the latest).
- Building the financial base of the University so that it operates in surplus and with a growing endowment fund.
- Developing the University’s ‘compact’ with the Federal Government such that Notre Dame becomes a major contributor to Health and Education training and research in Australia.
- Developing the Broome Campus as a centre for Indigenous research and education and for advancement of the Aboriginal people of the north-western region of Australia.
- Maintaining and enhancing the enrolment base and quality of the University as a whole in a very competitive environment.
Notre Dame has developed from an inspired concept to a thriving institution in two decades. To do so it has had to face and overcome many challenges. It has well-established Objects. It knows what it is and what it wants to be. It has achieved this because the foundation idea was a good one; because of the extraordinary and inspirational efforts of a substantial group of people in Australia and the United States; because of the generous and often courageous moral and material support it received from the Church and its agencies, and from individuals and groups in the community; because of the commitment to it from Federal and State governments and from both sides of politics in Australia; because of the faith and dedication of so many of its teachers, students and administrative staff; and because Jesus was at its heart.
The University faces many challenges in the period ahead: It must be true to its Objects and its traditions; it must persuade Australian and State Governments of its continued worthiness for support; it must extend the range and number of its private benefactors; it must expand in Sydney; and it must be faithful to the Church.
The University is still relatively young and, no doubt, it will be some years before it can be regarded as a mature institution. However, the potential for this unique University is very great indeed.