The wizards of Oz

The 'Melbourne model' has prompted universities worldwide to consider broadening undergraduate degrees. But, finds Hannah Fearn, the template does not win over everyone

January 8, 2009

One year on, the impact of the "Melbourne model" is being felt globally. When the University of Melbourne radically overhauled its curriculum in 2007, it was a bold move. Throwing out more than a century of academic tradition, the university decided that the graduates of the future would benefit from a much broader education.

It followed the American Ivy League model in offering a very general undergraduate degree, to be followed, if required, by more specialist postgraduate courses.

The curriculum change was implemented last January, with the university phasing out 96 old undergraduate courses in favour of six new broad first-degree programmes. In 2008, 70 per cent of the university's offers went to applicants seeking to enrol on these new courses, which require students to study a quarter of their modules from across other disciplines in so-called breadth subjects.

Degrees in the arts and in the sciences have proved most popular (the others are commerce, music, environments and biomedicine), and Melbourne has also had undergraduates transferring from courses at other universities to the new degrees. But the change has not stopped there. The university is riding the crest of a wave of innovation, not only in Australian higher education but around the world. Curriculum review is now happening across the globe, with major universities on all continents tearing up the syllabus and rewriting their degree programmes.

Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, is not surprised by this activity. In 2008, the university briefed delegations from Thailand, China, Scotland, Ireland, the US, Chile and Oman. Australian institutions have been watching closely and are already moving to adjust their curriculum.

"We have had considerable interest from other Australian universities and from universities around the world," Davis says. "University educators are now realising that the students of today and tomorrow need to be able to handle more complex knowledge and concepts, and this can be done more successfully at graduate level.

"At undergraduate level, today's students need to get deep discipline content and breadth of academic experience and develop the capacity to negotiate their way successfully in a world where knowledge boundaries are shifting and re-forming to create new frontiers and challenges almost daily."

Davis does admit to some teething troubles - the breadth subjects are under review after some were criticised for being "too broad" and others for not being fully integrated into the wider curriculum. And he accepts that not all Australian universities will follow suit. "Some will, and others will take (just some) elements of the Melbourne model. It is likely to change the shape of Australian higher education in that it is providing some diversity in an otherwise homogenised sector - 38 universities all doing the same thing. It is providing choice for students."

Davis predicts an international shift in undergraduate teaching in the wake of the Melbourne model. At first glance, it seems that his expectations are well founded.

At the University of Aberdeen, senior management late last year approved a programme of curriculum reform following a similar, if less radical, model to Melbourne. Two years ago, a commission was convened to begin the review. "Reviewing what we do as a university is something that we should be doing all the time," says Bryan MacGregor, chairman of the curriculum commission. "It's our duty as university academics to review how and what we teach."

Aware of the changes at Melbourne, an ongoing review of undergraduate course content at Harvard University (which raised tricky questions about whether students should have to study religion), and with both the Bologna and Lisbon processes marching on in Europe, Aberdeen decided to act. As a starting point, it asked Melbourne for advice. "They had seemed to have done a lot of background work and generated a lot of publicity for themselves. We needed to find out what they were doing."

After some debate, Aberdeen decided on the qualities it wanted to see in its graduates.

"We have established a set of 'graduate attributes' that cover four broad areas. One is a set linked to academic excellence; another is linked to critical thinking and effective communication; the third set is the openness to learning and personal development; and the fourth is about preparing for citizenship," explains MacGregor. "We took the design process forward from there."

Aberdeen, too, wanted to offer a broader undergraduate curriculum. The changes offer a more flexible entry process for students, allowing them to leave with a diploma if they cannot finish the course, and return later if they want to. "It's about flexibility and trying to find something that's more suitable to the student demographic of the future," MacGregor says.

Although it will retain its typical Scottish four-year degree, Aberdeen will soon require undergraduates to study outside their discipline. As well as modules from other subjects, students will also be required to take at least one course each year known as "sixth-century" - named in tribute to the university's sixth century of existence.

These will tackle big issues in citizenship including science, religion, ethics, geopolitics and climate change. "We're trying to build on our strengths to adjust what we do to take account of the best work across the world," MacGregor says.

Meanwhile, ears are pricking up farther afield. At the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, Juan Jose Ugarte, vice-president for academic affairs, was quick to make an appointment to talk to his Australian counterparts.

"The philosophy of the Melbourne model, based on a broader education followed by a later specialisation, met significantly with what we had in mind for our own educational structure and, in this sense, served as guidance in our curriculum development," he says. "Considering the needs of humanity nowadays, which can only be addressed by interdisciplinary approaches, it is my opinion that current and future professionals and scholars should have a broader knowledge and then specialise in a single field of study."

A pilot programme of change towards a broader undergraduate course has been launched at the university, but it is making very tentative steps at this stage. "This is basically due to our reality as a country, in which the structure of a long curriculum that leads to professional degrees is deeply instilled in the people's mentality and the labour market."

Back in Australia, rival universities are less keen to admit that any change is driven, or even inspired, by Melbourne. Nevertheless, the University of Western Australia is set to cut the number of undergraduate courses from more than 70 to six: arts, commerce, design, health, science and philosophy. It will then focus its efforts on professional, postgraduate education.

"I do think it is misleading to think of professional postgraduate education as being the 'Melbourne model'," says Don Markwell, deputy vice-chancellor for education at Western Australia. "The notion of broad undergraduate education followed by professional or specialised postgraduate education is a central feature of much US higher education. It connects with the Bologna model. Some of us in Australia have been advocates of it long before the Melbourne model."

When contemplating changes to its programmes, Western Australia spoke to a number of institutions, including universities in Singapore and Hong Kong that are also reconsidering what type of education an undergraduate degree should offer. "The focus on greater breadth and on skills that help students deal with rapid growth and change of knowledge is a response to the particular needs of the 21st century - a time of global forces and rapid change," Markwell explains.

But there is certainly a more fundamental motivation behind the desire to change with the biggest and the best. Western Australia has ambitions - by mid-century, it aims to be ranked in the top 50 universities worldwide.

"Our review of course structures relates closely to our work on identifying the educational attributes of the world's top 50 universities," Markwell says. "In a world of increasingly global competition between students, many universities are working hard to improve the quality of their offering and their attractiveness to students."

The ripples of change have spread as far as Ireland. When Don Barry, the new president of the University of Limerick, took up his post, he told the press that his focus would be on replicating what he considered to be the excellent education of the Ivy League.

"Nowhere in Ireland is there an undergraduate programme with the breadth of experience encountered by students in the most sought-after undergraduate programmes in the US," he says. "Today's employers are looking for someone who has a very well-rounded skill set. They want people who can communicate effectively, can function at a high level, both while working alone and as a team player. An education for a constantly changing world has to train students in a special way of thinking: one that leads them to see connections across disciplines, to notice what the tradition has valued and what it has neglected and to challenge their own conclusions and commitments."

The university cannot yet confirm that it is revamping its curriculum, but the new incumbent's vision is crystal clear. Like other institutional heads, he wants to produce a very different kind of graduate from the British and Irish graduates of today - a more diverse and well-rounded person.

Worldwide, it appears that there is a genuine demand for a university education that does not focus solely on academic prowess. Perhaps the most innovative of reviews of teaching methods is taking place at the University of Hong Kong. By 2012, its undergraduate programmes will be lengthened from three to four years. But the university has not simply reviewed the content of what is taught within the degree, it has also re-examined how it will teach.

"We have redefined the curriculum as the totality of learning experiences that are made available to students throughout their university education. Learning is not confined to the classroom or the campus," says Amy Tsui, the pro vice-chancellor. "It happens across a range of student experiences: meeting people from other countries in campus hostels, conducting field studies in the natural environment, going on overseas exchanges or performing service activities in the community."

In keeping with the results of other institutions' reviews, the University of Hong Kong is set to introduce a suite of "common core" courses to help students acquire the intellectual skills they need. These will include "the relationships and interdependencies between human beings, science, technology and nature; the beliefs and values that are essential to human bonding and to mediating tensions within and between groups; the aesthetic expressions of ideas and emotions; the relationship between our past, present and future". No small task.

Yet while many universities are undertaking such major reviews, others deny the need for any kind of overhaul at all. In Australia, the University of Sydney and Monash University have little interest in following any trend for rapid curriculum change.

"Our feedback through this process does not indicate demand to change to the Melbourne model, and we have no plans to do so," says Derrick Armstrong, acting deputy vice-chancellor for education at Sydney. "The university wishes to keep open multiple pathways as it recognises that people make choices about their careers at different times, whether for financial or other reasons.

"Some people wish to head straight into a professional career, and our degrees equip them to the highest standard. Others prefer to do a generalist degree before they decide on studies that will prepare them for a profession. Recognising that one size does not fit all, the university is keen to accommodate that choice."

Those sentiments are echoed by Tim Mitchell, a spokesman for Monash. He says that the university has "no intentions" of changing its current undergraduate structure. "We are experiencing strong demand for our course offerings. Almost one in four school-leavers in the state of Victoria puts Monash University as their first preference."

Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds and chair of the World Universities Network, says he is not surprised by the variety of reactions to the Melbourne model and the resulting movement towards change. He argues that the type of wholesale review taking place at many institutions is actually a regular occurrence, but that attention has been drawn to the issue by Melbourne's publicity drive. He calls what is happening a "constant renewal" of curriculum. "There is always that sort of thing going on in any vibrant university," he says.

But the pace and breadth of culture shift in the understanding of what an undergraduate education should be is certainly significant, and cannot be ignored.

"These cases have been pioneers in curriculum review ... they are the epitome of a deeper process, whose roots can be found in the economic, social and cultural forces that drive the global nowadays," says Ugarte from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile. "We believe that based on the advantages to society and students, every educational institution should follow a similar path."

WHAT IS THE MELBOURNE MODEL?

Undergraduates study one of six 'new generation' broad degrees in arts, biomedicine, commerce, environments, music or science.

Students then go on to specialise at postgraduate level, for example in architecture or law.

Undergraduate students will study 25 per cent of their modules from outside their degree programme - these are called breadth subjects.

The first students to follow the model began their studies in March 2008.

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