Academic challenges and solutions in higher education: an Australian perspective

Universities function within multiple contexts: their individual history and missions; national political and funding regimes; and dynamic, even unpredictable, international developments. Across the world, however, universities which aim to be centres of academic excellence are confronting a range of similar challenges.

Among the most pressing of these are:

  1. Which curriculum structures are most useful for graduates in the new century?
  2. How can curriculum structures be distinctive in research-led universities?

This paper explores recent responses to these questions from the perspective of the University of Melbourne.

1. Which curriculum structures are most useful for graduates in the new century?

One of the most pressing issues for all universities is curriculum change, as universities increasingly need to respond to changing expectations of employers and students and to the dramatic shifts in access to knowledge and its dissemination. While reform is being contemplated or undertaken everywhere (for example, Hong Kong and Aberdeen), there is no one ‘correct’ model: universities need to think through how their curriculum structures best align with their local, national and international contexts and needs.

Curriculum change has usually happened by accretion and review; as a rule, universities have found it easier to add courses rather than to close them. Change is far more challenging when general and sweeping. Universities have also found that the risks are high if shared objectives in refreshing the curriculum spill over into internal curriculum ‘wars’ or if understandable professional conservatism undermines the necessary shifts in university culture. Many attempts at curriculum reform across the globe have atrophied because of an inability to mobilise academic staff around a shared vision of change.

So, why did the University of Melbourne feel that it was necessary to review tried and proven curriculum structures? There were many reasons. We were concerned that our high-achieving students were often choosing courses on the basis of secondary school results – for example, whether grades were high enough to get them into Law or Medicine – rather than as the result of considered, mature reflection. We were also very aware that employers in Australia and internationally were increasingly attracted to students with broader disciplinary knowledge and maturity as well as specific expertise: the ‘T’ graduate. The extensive changes in Europe known as the Bologna Process were another consideration, as more than fifty countries were seeking to harmonise their structures around a 3-2-3 Bachelors-Masters-Doctorate model. We needed to ensure that our large numbers of overseas students – about 30 percent of the student body – were graduating with qualifications and skills appropriate for the twenty-first century workplace. And finally, we were attracted to the richness of experience offered by the best graduate schools in North America, where cohorts of more mature students in professional programs have a more intense curriculum engagement than is possible in undergraduate double-degree programs.

The ‘Melbourne Model’ (as it was soon dubbed in the media) is an ambitious, unprecedented initiative in Australian higher education, breaking with longstanding practice of undergraduate entry into professional degrees such as Law, Medicine and Education. It draws on the Bologna Process, and the objectives of North American undergraduate ‘liberal education’, but it does so within the context of Australian higher education policy and history. In particular, its ‘new generation’ undergraduate degrees seek to provide both disciplinary depth and breadth and clear pathways into graduate programs and research higher degrees through Honours and Masters. It is a distinctive model which is aligned with rather than reproducing international structures.

The breadth component of the new generation undergraduate degrees offers University of Melbourne students the opportunity to develop an understanding and appreciation of fields of study and disciplines that contrast with, yet complement, their core disciplinary studies and majors. Breadth electives allow students to be exposed to and to learn about alternative domains of knowledge, different methods of enquiry and different ‘ways of knowing’. It is designed to ensure that Melbourne graduates are informed, well-rounded people who have knowledge, skills and approaches to learning that equip them for lives and careers in which knowledge boundaries are more permeable, the issues of professional practice often require interdisciplinary understanding, and knowledge is rapidly renewed.

The introduction of the Melbourne Model has been marked by widespread support and commitment. It is the single most significant differentiating factor between the University of Melbourne and other Australian universities and has no doubt played a central role in the University’s rise in world ranking where ‘reputation’ is assessed: in the Times Higher Education rankings, the University has gone from 43rd in the world in 2012 to 32nd in 2017.

At the same time, like all policies in large institutions, the Melbourne Model is vulnerable to erosion by internal and external factors. Internally, the constant and understandable search by constituent academic units – faculties and schools – to maximise their advantage creates pressures to dilute the essentials of the Model: so why not a few extra undergraduate degree programs? Why not make breadth subjects an optional extra to enable students to do more of ‘our’ subjects? The search for advantage is self-defeating.

2. How can curriculum structures be distinctive in research-led universities?

The ‘new generation’ undergraduate courses at the University of Melbourne are designed to provide a well-rounded education while at the same time ensuring the necessary academic preparation to succeed in chosen postgraduate programs. A challenge in the design of the new degrees was to maintain a sound discipline base with the opportunity for undergraduate students to undertake or to be introduced to research and at the same time to use the breadth of the new undergraduate degree structure to underpin a better understanding of the value of interdisciplinary connections. The cutting edge of research is often found between rather than within disciplines.

The ‘teaching-research nexus’ has the function of embedding research values throughout the university, and in developing students who are intellectually and morally autonomous. We have an obligation to raise with students explicitly and continuously the ethical dimensions of research. The new technologies also give staff an advanced capacity to introduce students to the excitement of research, and to sustain commitment to ‘pure’ or curiosity-driven research at a time of increasing pressure for ‘applied’ research and industry collaboration.

‘Research-led’ universities want their graduates to have a profound respect for truth and intellectual integrity, and for the ethics of research. Students educated at research-led universities should graduate with an appreciation of the contingent nature of knowledge, the capacity to frame research questions, and an excitement about discovery.

This is a summary of a paper delivered to a 2016 conference on "Higher Education Reforms for India", titled "Pathways for Change: Comparative Reflections for Reforms in Public Universities and Higher Education for India", convened by the National University for Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi.

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Peter McPhee