Australian universities seem to do “Big Change” a lot better than universities elsewhere. A few years ago, the University of Melbourne radically overhauled its entire curriculum in the space of about two years partly to create a more North American-like distinction between undergraduate and professional degrees and partly to reduce degree clutter by winnowing the number of different degrees from over a hundred to just six. (For a refresher, I wrote about this back here).
If you read press reports about the University of Sydney’s new strategic plan (read the full document here, it’s completely worth it) you might think Sydney is just aping Melbourne: it’s culling of degrees from 120 to 20, mostly by wiping out five-year “double degrees”, and also reducing the number of faculties from 16 to 6.
But the reduction in the number of degrees is actually a much less interesting story than what Sydney plans to do in terms of its curriculum. From 2018, every program is to have two courses in third-year: one to integrate and apply disciplinary skills and another to apply disciplinary knowledge and skills in context. Every degree will culminate in a final-year project or practicum. Every program will have cultural competency embedded within it, and support for international studies will rise so that (hopefully) the proportion of students with an international experience will rise from 19% to 50%. A strong framework to support career transitions will also be set up. Involving both curricular and co-curricular efforts
Here’s the most interesting bit: And an entirely new “open learning environment” will be created within the university, which will provide short, on-demand courses in areas such as entrepreneurship, ethics, project management, leadership (you know, all the employability-related skills universities usually claim students pick up by osmosis). Some of these courses will be online, while some will be blended online/workshop; some will be non-credit and some will be small-credit.
Did I mention they are going to develop a university-wide approach to measuring how desired graduate qualities such as disciplinary depth, interdisciplinary effectiveness, communication ability and cultural competence have been attained? Yes, really.
What makes this kind of change deeply impressive – and potentially highly significant – is that it is not coming from a second-tier, ambitious institution trying to catch attention by doing something new. This is the country’s oldest university. This is a big, old prestigious institution taking big serious steps to actually change the undergraduate degree structure in order to provide students with better skills without sacrificing academic rigour. It’s a research university that cares enough about undergraduate learning outcomes that it will measure them in some way beyond graduation rates and immediate employment rates.
This is cutting edge stuff. It may even be a world first. We should all hope it is not the last; this kind of approach needs to spread quickly.