6 October 2011
Behind the University of Melbourne's renowned research and education innovations is a passion for problem-solving, Glyn Davis states
The educational experience is transformative for every student, but the quality of that experience depends on the calibre of the university they attend. So what makes a world-class university?
At the University of Melbourne, we count research, teaching, learning and engagement not only as our key missions, but also as the measures by which we compare our work with that of our global peers. By our own and others' reckoning, we are doing well. Last year, this very publication named Melbourne an Australian and world leader, ranking it 36th in the 2010-11 Times Higher Education World University Rankings.
There are many elements, however, that contribute to each of these interwoven goals and make Melbourne world class.
The university's engagement with the wider community is facilitated by its location: the main campus is at the centre of a teaching and research precinct that includes eight hospitals and many leading research institutes. This proximity means that university staff and students have formed collaborative relationships with neighbouring institutions on many programmes.
And because the university is part of the city, its cultural life forms part of the city's cultural life. Many members of the public engage with the university's cultural organisations, which include the Melbourne Theatre Company, Melbourne University Publishing and the Ian Potter Museum of Art.
The university is home to an active community of researchers, including Nobel laureate Peter Doherty. The calibre of its research teaching is demonstrated by the success of its alumni, recent Physiology or Medicine Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn among them. Its researchers have long been engaged in world-changing projects, including the "bionic ear" cochlear implant, which was developed by Melbourne's department of otolaryngology. Today, university specialists are involved in the development of the first "bionic eye".
The Australian federal government recognises our strengths. Its 2010 Excellence in Research for Australia report showed that Melbourne is Australia's leading university for high-quality research with the greatest number of disciplines - 82 fields, or almost 80 per cent - ranked at "above world standard", the maximum level.
Melbourne's researchers are at the forefront of international scholarship in fields as diverse as human rights law, telecommunications and medical research.
They work in state-of-the-art facilities such as the Bio21 Institute, an A$140 million (£89 million) multidisciplinary research centre specialising in medical, agricultural and environmental biotechnology. Melbourne also invests heavily in other research and support infrastructure, including its new Economics, Commerce and Education Library, which supports the activities of the Faculty of Business and Economics and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Other new teaching facilities have been designed for small classes, in line with contemporary teaching and learning styles.
The research and research-led teaching that results from this hub of world-class researchers and facilities means that the university provides the highest-quality education for almost 49,000 undergraduates and postgraduates.
In recent years, the university has made the largest change to its curriculum in its almost 160-year history. Melbourne's revamped curriculum sees students complete a generalist undergraduate degree followed by a specialist professional postgraduate or research degree.
In their undergraduate studies, students complete up to 25 per cent of their subjects outside their core programme. These "breadth" options allow our science students to study languages and our commerce students to try philosophy. They give students the time to explore the university's many subject options and try different things to gain a better understanding of themselves and the career paths open to them.
When graduates move into the university's master's programmes, they join peers who are among the best and brightest in the nation to undertake challenging, fast-paced programmes such as the redesigned doctor of medicine, the master of teaching or the juris doctor in law.
The benefits of such experiences and the flexibility of mind they engender, coupled with the problem-solving approach to curricula fostered by research-led teaching, give Melbourne graduates an advantage in the global job market.
Such innovation will become increasingly important in coming years. The growth of international education has been a remarkable trend in recent decades, and the emerging market is a long way from maturity.
Perhaps what really makes Melbourne world class is its ability to innovate, to rise to the challenge of equipping a changing student population with the skills they will need in a global environment.
Future students will have more choices than ever before. This will require continued innovation by established institutions, which, in concert with a greater number of providers, will ultimately benefit students by giving them the opportunity to access truly transformative education.
Glyn Davis is vice-chancellor, University of Melbourne