The new home of the best and brightest?

November 23, 2007

As the University of Melbourne implements a radical new higher education model, some UK universities are showing interest in following suit. Hannah Fearn reports. Glyn Davis, vice-chancellor of the University of Melbourne, admits that he is taking a considerable risk in pursuing changes that will sweep away 154 years of academic tradition.

"It is a risk; a change is a risk," he told The Times Higher . "But my idea has always been that the best time to change is when you're ahead - not when you have to, but when you can."

The changes are indeed substantial. From March, Melbourne's undergraduates will choose to study one of only six degree programmes. The university will instead focus its professional expertise on graduate students.

The model offers undergraduates the chance to study broadly across a range of disciplines and then to specialise at graduate level.

By 2011, most of the university's professional degrees will have migrated to graduate-level entry and half of all students will be postgraduates. In 2008, 13 new graduate programmes, including law, architecture, psychology and applied commerce, will be launched. Seven new graduate schools have been established, with another six to follow.

The aim is for Melbourne to cherry-pick its students from the best candidates studying in Australia. Shifting the emphasis to graduate study will allow the institution to do just that, Professor Davis said.

"At the time people leave university, you can make very accurate judgments about their academic ability - more accurate judgments than you can make when they leave school, when the effects of the school they went to are still very strong. Three years on, you get a better picture of where the real talent is."

Professor Davis's ambition is to create "the place where the best and the brightest want to be". The motivation behind the new curriculum, however, is born out of a feeling that the university could do better for its students.

He said academic staff feel that the education system in Australia forces young people to make a choice about where their skills and interests lie, and about their professional specialism, too early.

Like British A levels, the Australian Higher School Certificate requires students aged 16 to select a programme of study that will direct their university applications. It was not surprising that many make a choice they later regret, Professor Davis said.

"We know from tracking changes while people are doing their degrees, and their experience afterwards, that many students don't pursue the profession they've trained in," he said.

"This was reflected in our consultation with employers. They said, 'you're sending us these fabulous graduates but they're deciding within a year that it's not the right career for them'."

Melbourne's "new generation" of undergraduate degrees will allow students to postpone this important decision.

Many Australian graduates move overseas to find employment after completing their university education, so the university needs to offer a qualification that is recognised worldwide, particularly in America and Asia.

The University of Melbourne's model is based on the US structure, offering a general undergraduate degree followed by postgraduate professional training. It should be attractive to international students and those planning to take their skills abroad after graduation.

Melbourne is not the only higher education institution considering change. In Ireland, University College Dublin has overhauled its curriculum in a similar way. And since the adoption of the Bologna Convention other European universities have been considering their options. To remain competitive in an ever more globalised higher education market, Professor Davis said, Australian universities must adapt to these changing demands.

"We're looking at what's happening in the rest of the world. No doubt Britain can stand on its own, because it's such a magnet for higher education, but that's not so true for other countries," Professor Davis said.

"We figured that if we were going to stay in the game we were going to have to have a configuration that makes sense for the world that we're part of."

International students, particularly from Asia, are an important source of revenue for the university. It is hoped that the introduction of the Melbourne model will prove so popular that the institution's current level of international intake is maintained.

With such a substantial shift in focus, some dissent is to be expected. When the arts faculty found that it had to cut a number of its course options to accommodate the new degrees, existing students expressed concern.

Under the new model, undergraduates are required to study 25 per cent of their course as "breadth subjects" from another degree programme. Clearing space to teach these subjects meant streamlining the number of courses offered, and some are soon to be discontinued.

Overall, however, the process of designing the Melbourne model has run smoothly. Staff had two years to digest the changes and to make their opinions heard.

"By the time we signed off, there had been two years of conversation, which made it a lot easier," Professor Davis said. "It didn't have as many stumbling blocks as you might expect."

Because Melbourne has cut the number of its undergraduate courses from more than 90 to just six, overall demand has fallen for the 2008 intake. Some subjects, however, have done incredibly well out of the change. Demand for science has increased by 98 per cent, and for commerce by 37 per cent.

In the UK, Aberdeen University, for one, is watching Melbourne closely. An Aberdeen delegation has visited Melbourne to look at the university's work. Others have also acknowledged their enthusiasm. "We've had lots of interest with a number of British universities. We're not presuming that they're going to follow the Melbourne model, but they're very interested in what we're doing," Professor Davis said.

For the vice-chancellor, who has been the driving force behind this change for his two years in post, it was the changes both within his university and within higher education worldwide that proved the catalyst to the development of the model.

"This has all happened on my watch, but I think I've given shape and a timetable to an evolution that was happening to the institution anyway," he said. "We think this is part of something bigger. (Universities) spend a lot of time watching each other. We look for good ideas. You can't protect intellectual property about how you organise courses - if you have a great idea for a new degree there's nothing you can do to copyright it. This is a good thing. It means that innovation moves through the sector at great speed."

Which is exactly what he expects to happen across the country. The University of Western Australia is in the middle of a consultation over a similar shake-up, and others are beginning to change the focus of their courses. This could be the first tentative step in a dramatic overhaul of Australian higher education.

"If we're seen to have succeeded, I expect others will follow," Professor Davis said. "When one major player changes, it does tend to change the whole system."

hannah.fearn@thes.co.uk

IN NUMBERS

- The University of Melbourne has an annual revenue of A$1.3 billion;

- Its research income is A$280 million;

- It spends A$500 million a year on research;

- It has 45,000 students, of which 10,000 are international students and 10,000 are postgraduates;

- The university has 3,300 academic and 3,600 professional staff;

Figures are based on data for 2006.

THE MELBOURNE MODEL

- Undergraduates will choose to study one of six "new generation"' degrees: Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Biomedicine, Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Environments, Bachelor of Music or Bachelor of Science.

- Students go on to specialise in a professional discipline at postgraduate level. For example, landscape architecture, law, teaching or applied commerce.

- Seven new graduate schools have been established and six more will follow.

- Undergraduate course options will be year-specific, and each student will study 25 per cent of their courses from outside his or her degree programme.

- The first students to take the new degrees will begin their studies in March 2008. By 2011, Melbourne's professional degree courses will be offered at graduate level only.

- At least 50 per cent of places on the university's graduate courses will be Commonwealth-supported. Previously, this financial support was only available for undergraduate places.

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