The story behind the Sue Harlen statue on Science Road

Without Harlen’s vision and leadership, the University of Sydney Foundation Program may have never come to be. Had that happened, the international student community at USyd, in 2023, would not be as strong as it is today. 

On the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus, at the intersection between the Wallace Lecture Theatre and Ross Street gate, lies an unassuming stone figure deep in meditation. An inscription, etched in dark grey granite, reads:

“In memory of Sue Harlen, Inaugural Director of the University of Sydney Foundation Program.” 

The statue celebrates one of USyd’s less well-known figures, the late Sue Harlen, who founded the University of Sydney Foundation Program (USFP), the university’s preparation course for international students. 

Prior to heading the foundation program, Harlen was a lecturer at USyd’s former English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students (ELICOS) Centre — the predecessor to today’s Centre for English Teaching (CET) — and was educated at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington. She was also Resident Librarian at The Women’s College in the early 1990’s. 

I spoke to Pernille Day, a media and communications teacher at the USFP and Taylors College Sydney since 2000. Although Day was not able to get to know Harlen closely due to the latter’s sudden passing, she got the impression that Harlen was “passionate” and cared deeply for the foundation program that she played a pivotal figure in. 

“She had a strong sense of integrity in her work habits and personal stance to most things that came across her path. She had a great sense of humour and pragmatism which grounded her and contributed to making her beloved by all staff and students,” Day said.  

Soon after Harlen’s death, a stone memorial was commissioned to commemorate her achievements and contributions to the University. Over the years, the sculpture has changed location several times for “different reasons” until settling near the Wallace Theatre. 

“When completed, the sculpture was much loved by USFP staff and the agreement was that Sue would have approved of it.” 

False negative photograph of Ms Sue Harlen, Inaugural Director of the University of Sydney Foundation Program. Photograph courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives. Archival identifier reference number: REF-00010203.

A brief history of the Foundation Program

Before USIPP, international students at Sydney University were few and far between in part, due to the University’s extremely stringent entry requirements.

Indeed, it was not until 2012 that the University recognised China’s infamously difficult gaokao for admission. For students whose high school qualifications were not recognised, Australian secondary schools or a university foundation program like that of the USFP were the only means of entry into Sydney University. In 1999, international students represented just under 10 per cent (out of nearly 37,000 students) of all students at USyd. Fast forward to 2021 and they now make up 44% of the students (they number just shy of 33,000). 

According to an edition of the University of Sydney News, the course began in December 1996 when the Senate approved $700,000 in seed funding – the equivalent of $1.3 million today. Sue Harlen, as the key figure behind the foundation program, became USIPP’s inaugural Director. The program’s first cohort attracted 45 students. 

Initially, the program offered fourteen subjects — ranging from linguistics, chemistry, physics, intercultural studies, economics and social studies. The subjects were intended to expose students to teaching style at the undergraduate level and are developed with academics at Sydney University. 

At the time, USIPP occupied the third floor USyd’s Trade Services Building located in Codrington Street adjacent to where Abercrombie Business School sits today – a simple Federation warehouse-style building with Art Deco elements, which cardboard manufacturer P. J. Firth once called home. 

Left: P. J. Firth Box Factory (source: David Firth). Right: University of Sydney Services Building (source: Ray Pecotich, April 2009).

Soon, history turned a page for the USIPP when the University and Study Group Australia (SGA) opened a dedicated building for the program in 2001 – called Taylors College Sydney – on Bourke Street in Waterloo for a sum of $36 million. The program also had a name change and this was to be its permanent home from then on. 

“One of the things that fascinated us has been the work we’ve been doing on intercultural studies with the students, and the intercultural issues with the students related to teaching and learning which have come up for them,” Harlen told University News

Life at the USFP — once it moved to Bourke Street — was, and remains, largely independent of the larger university. At one point, the Bourke Street premises hosted its own student accommodation on the uppermost floor for around 125 students. The vast majority of USFP students are enrolled on a packaged visa with a conditional offer to USyd: upon successful completion of the program, students could go on to the University. 

Taylors College and the USFP’s partnership with Study Group lasted for twenty-six years before Taylors College Sydney was acquired this year by Navitas alongside its counterpart in Auckland and the University of Waikato College in a significant coup for the company. With these three acquisitions, Navitas now manages fourteen Australian universities’ English language or foundation programs. 

What’s next for the USFP and Sue Harlen’s legacy

Taylors has not been without challenges over the years. When Australia and China’s relationship hit a low in 2019, Taylors and other university foundation programs were accused of lowering English language standards by conservative Australian think tanks. 

In a different vein, when strict COVID-19 lockdown measures were imposed in 2020, Taylors, like many institutions, reacted swiftly to ensure that students received a quality education. Like hundreds of institutions, it opened a Remote Learning Centre in Shanghai to deliver online classes in a physical setting in early 2021, mirroring USyd’s own temporary arrangements at the Centre in China located at Suzhou. 

Despite the hurdles, Day is confident that the future of the USFP is secure, not merely because of “financial or commercial reasons in view of Sydney University” but preparing students for success.

“I cannot see the day soon when this will no longer be the case. The only exception would be if USyd decides to make it [the USFP] an ‘in-house’ program, but essentially the principles of what Sue Harlen wanted to create would stay the same,” Day told Honi.

Some 25 years on, the core structure of the Program remains largely intact, supplemented by a new high achievers’ stream. Unlike the small pilot program that commenced in late 1996, the USFP now educates over a thousand students. 

In many ways, the relationship between the USFP and the University worked out for the better. The largely independent student life at Taylors means that international students, many of whom are leaving their home culture for the first time, can receive far more intensive and individualised guidance than they do in a 75,000-strong institution like USyd. 

Alumni of the USFP are varied as they are colourful, with many going on to make an indelible footprint on student politics, playing an instrumental role in the former international student faction Panda. Many others have gone on to successful careers in Sydney, elsewhere in the country and other nations. 

Without Harlen’s vision and leadership, the University of Sydney Foundation Program may have never come to be. Had that happened, the international student community at USyd, in 2023, would not be as strong as it is today. 

Taylors College Sydney in Bourke Street, Waterloo. Photo courtesy of the University of Sydney.

Disclaimer: Khanh Tran is an alumni of Taylors College Sydney and a recipient of the Sue Harlen Memorial Scholarship.