Prof Don Markwell: the former country boy who knows the value of a good education

As Trinity’s sixth Warden, Professor Don Markwell repositioned the Trinity Education Centre to become one of Trinity College’s key divisions, setting our Foundation Studies program up for long-term success. Oh, and he also used to have a pet kangaroo.

Professor Don Markwell_Trinity CollegeWhat are the key markers of a good school? Accomplished teachers? Strong syllabus? Extracurricular opportunities? How about optional footwear? For Trinity’s former Warden Don Markwell, the latter was a key deciding factor when it came to selecting a primary school.

Don’s family had moved to Brisbane from Quilpie – a remote town in Queensland’s far west – and the then-five-year-old pressed his parents to attend a school known to have lax uniform standards. Victorious in persuasion and feet scorching on the bitumen, Don skipped off to school in Northgate, and many years would pass before he came to fully appreciate that his parents had uprooted their country life (which had included their pet kangaroo ‘Kanga’) to ensure he and his siblings received a good education.

Come grade seven, a meeting with the headmaster for a suspected caning turned out to be an invitation to apply for a private school. ‘At the time I had no idea what a private school was, but I must’ve given some vague answer in the affirmative,’ recalls Don. The five-dollar application fee was a stretch for his family, but it paid off when Don aced his exam and secured a scholarship to attend Brisbane Grammar School. It paved the way to a Rhodes Scholarship in 1981.

The fortuitous collision of opportunity, talent and support came to underpin Don’s career philosophy when he later entered the education sector, as he was distinctly aware that ‘talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not’. ‘I’ve always wanted to offer students opportunities that could open up the world for them, no matter their background,’ he says.

After studying at Oxford, Don fell into academia and became increasingly passionate about education and wanting to make a valuable contribution to the tertiary sector. In particular, he was of the belief that the broadening effect of a collegiate education was of immense benefit to young students. And that’s how he ended up at Trinity.

When Trinity’s wardenship opened following the retirement of the Revd Dr Evan Burge, Don left an academic position at Oxford after walking around the Trinity campus one afternoon while on study leave and feeling drawn to the College. Upon assuming the Warden position in 1997, Don was ‘bowled over’ by a letter from the University of Melbourne’s then Vice-Chancellor, welcoming him to the University’s senior leadership team.

It was the beginnings of what would become a close working relationship throughout Don’s nine-year tenure at Trinity as he worked with the University to refine Trinity’s relatively new foundation program – then known as the Trinity Education Centre – to further strengthen the institution as a steadfast and academically rigorous pathway that led international students to the University of Melbourne.

Within Trinity, Don went about nesting what was essentially a satellite unit under the broader Trinity umbrella. ‘I saw it as enormously important to make Foundation Studies part of the College so that the whole of Trinity could benefit from the existence of Foundation Studies and Foundation Studies could benefit from the rest of Trinity,’ says Don. ‘It was a hugely important step in the development of modern Trinity and brought a stronger international ethos to the whole College.’ 

The Foundation Studies program grew rapidly, with high-quality teaching and good governance cementing Trinity as a prestigious organisation that become the institution of choice for many students, particularly those from Asia.

As Warden, Don also prioritised wellbeing and pastoral care, ensuring all students – including those enrolled in Foundation Studies – had access to personalised support throughout their studies; his rural upbringing and own experience studying abroad meant he was sensitive to the feeling of coming from afar. It was all part of creating what Don terms ‘a large and liberal education’ (which would become the title of his 2007 book), and ensuring Trinity College was not just a college, but one of the best – if not the best – of its kind.


Category: Foundation Studies