Living in a residential college can be a very important experience of university study. While I have never lived in a residential college myself, from many discussions with friends and colleagues and through reading, it is clear that a good university college experience is about much more than having a place to sleep, eat and study.
University study is about broadening your perspectives and gaining a much greater awareness of the world around you, learning how to learn and preparing for a career, developing and expanding your professional and personal networks, and transitioning from childhood to adulthood through independent living and bearing full responsibility for your life choices.
Good residential colleges greatly facilitate this process by providing a “half-way house” living situation that is less protected than home but more protected than living alone. Good colleges provide lots of spaces and opportunities for group learning and socialization. They also have counselors and tutors on hand to monitor and assist students. These are especially needed because university students are often testing boundaries with alcohol, drugs, and sex and they often need guidance and advice on the risks and rewards inherent in different life choices. University students also often get distracted or flounder in their academic studies and need tutorial assistance close by to get them back on track.
According to the available published information, the dormitories at the university where I currently teach part-time aim to provide an international residential college experience for the students. As I am teaching a research methods course, I tasked some student teams to conduct focus group studies to evaluate the quality and success of the dormitories from the students’ perspectives. Sadly, the university experience of residential college life in Macau seems to fall well short of the international ideal, at least at this university.
The over 35 students who participated in the six focus group sessions organized by my students complained about curfews and limited Internet access in their dormitories. They were also concerned about limited communal spaces and washing and cooking facilities. Their comments indicated that the student living spaces really were just dormitories rather than residential colleges.
Moreover, the residential students are separated by gender into different buildings and those studying for similar degrees are grouped together. This severely limits the broadening that you want to achieve by mixing together students from different backgrounds and different social and career perspectives. Additionally, according to the students, the dormitories have few common areas where they can socially interact or study together. Furthermore, the social activities organized within the dormitories also seem quite limited and are often held during semester breaks when the students are back home with their families.
Finally, the university dormitories do not seem to have live-in counselors or tutors to monitor or assist the students. To me, this is actually the most important element of any worthwhile residential college experience – totally left to fend for themselves there will inevitably be many potentially good students who fall through the cracks and are lost to the university (and community).
I fully agree that Macau should develop international university education and a very important part of such an initiative is excellent university residential colleges. We clearly need improvements in this area, but there are many good international role models that we can emulate if the desire is there.