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Stories of college life at ‘Kenso’

Claire Scobie

In her illustrated history of three residential colleges at the University of New South Wales – Basser, Philip Baxter and Goldstein – Claire Scobie takes her story beyond the college walls, tracking 50 years of educational change and the spirited students who lived the on-campus life with gusto.

The history of Basser, Philip Baxter and Goldstein colleges – the Kensington Colleges – is a history about people. Residential college life promises much more than bed and board; it enables students to find community, broadens horizons, offers academic support and sculpts career choices. For students arriving from the bush or overseas, it can provide an instant support network and a family of like-minded souls. ‘It was such a fantastic start to our university life. You have to realise that living at college didn’t happen so often for country kids in Australia. It shaped our transition into adulthood. It was about building individual resilience, accountability, standing on our own two feet’, says Roger Norton, who joined Goldstein as a young navy officer in 1978.

From the start, each Kensington College carved its own niche within the university’s larger structure, each establishing a distinct voice. Together they have created a world within a world. Thousands of individuals have been transformed after living in the bare brick buildings in an area no larger than two football pitches. They have found husbands and wives; they have married and had children, sending them back to enjoy the same narrow study rooms, sit at the same hefty trestle tables and eat dining-hall food. Collectively these individuals have created the unique character of each college and it is in this spirit that the Kenso Colleges, as they are known, will move forward in their new incarnation opened in 2014.

Early days: a typical room in Philip Baxter Coll​ege, UNSW, 1960s. 
Photo: Max Dupain. UNSW Archives.

In this narrative, what is striking is the two separate histories: the personal experiences, memories and anecdotes – some repeatable, some better shared among friends – and the story of the institution. These often ran parallel and did not always intersect. When the Kensington Colleges began the university was forging a new path within Australian higher education. Despite looking towards the establishment universities for their earlier traditions, students differentiated themselves with their gaze to Asia and the pragmatic leaning towards technical studies rather than arts. Goldstein architecture student Graeme Reading points out how unusual it was for an Australian university in the 1970s to have students from South-East Asia, England and Korea. ‘I was so fascinated by other cultures I’d met at Goldstein that after leaving I travelled through Asia. When I moved to Hong Kong in 1982 I had no problem settling in. I’ve been there ever since.’

To mark the new era of the Kensington Colleges, this history brings together anecdotes, interviews and, perhaps, a few tall tales. Many of the Kensington Colleges’ early records have been lost. A few devoted alumni have their own personal library, and the university has a selection in its archives, but much has not withstood the passing of time, staff changing offices and the colleges’ various phases of renovation and refurbishment. There could be many versions of this narrative, and each student would have his or her own. Indeed, after 50 years and several schooners, the same story has many versions. With each telling, truth is stretched and facts embroidered. This, then, is a collection of these stories, traditions and memories, held within the crucible of the Kensington Colleges and its place within the broader picture of UNSW as it turns a new page in its history.

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This is an edited extract from Basser, Philip Baxter and Goldstein: The Kensington Colleges by Claire Scobie, published in July 2015 by UNSW Press. You can order the book direct from the UNSW Bookshop: click here for details.