Today, I want to tell you about one of the most amazing stories in recent higher education history. It happened at the University of Melbourne about eight years ago, and it involved having the country’s leading university completely up-end its entire curriculum – every single degree program – in the space of about 24 months. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you: the Melbourne Model.
The basic story is this: A decade ago, Melbourne – like all Australian universities – had a three-year undergraduate study degree, with law and medicine being direct-entry first degree programs (a bit like how Quebec allows direct-entry to these programs for select CEGEP grads), and with a fourth-year acting as an honours year for those wishing to pursue graduate (mainly doctoral) studies. Then in 2005, a new President (Glyn Davis) came to office, vowing to make Melbourne a more research-intensive kind of place. In the first draft of a widely-circulated strategic plan, Davis suggested it might be time to “examine the possibility” of moving to, what he called, a “US graduate-school model”, with a much more generalist three-year undergraduate program, followed by graduate/professional studies (it was referred to internally as a 3+2+3 system, which implied a much larger role for Master’s programs). The proposal was seen as useful both because it might increase research-intensiveness and because a major re-design might force the Melbourne community to think harder about graduate outcomes and what it actually meant to be a “Melbourne Graduate”.
The professional model was by no means the centrepiece of the strategic plan, but it generated curiously little comment, and eventually ended up in the final version in February 2006 without having been subject to much debate. Having got that far, Davis and his team went for broke: all faculties were told to re-design their curricula in time for implementation in January 2008.
It was at this point, of course, that people freaked. Much of the Arts faculty thought it was going to be sold down the river – until then, many of their students took joint courses with professional programs (e.g. law/history) and many reckoned that without the professional link, they’d be sunk. It took a while for it to sink-in that with law now inaccessible for direct entrants (a fact that enraged many parents), more students had time to take three years to study something purely for interest. History – and most of the rest of the Faculty – in fact did just fine.
One of the most interesting decisions was to limit the number of Bachelor’s degrees being offered to just six – Arts, Science, Bioscience, Environments, Music, and Commerce, and to some extent de-link the degree from the faculties in which professors resided (there were 12 faculties). These degrees were also designed to have common elements between them regarding program depth and what they called “knowledge transfer” (what we could probably call experiential learning). They didn’t achieve this goal perfectly, but then, when you’re trying to re-vamp every single degree in a university with 40,000 students in the space of under 18 months, you can tolerate the odd imperfection.
There still remained the trick of selling the idea to government and students. The former was important for financial reasons because Australia doesn’t fund non-research graduate degrees, so the switch to a “professional” model theoretically put money for all those students at risk – but since allowing the switch didn’t cost the government anything (it would spend what it had always spent on those students) it was a relatively quick sell. A more serious issue was convincing students that this was a good idea. After all, students bent on law or medicine would now have to go through three years of undergraduate study first, while other institutions could still offer it to them straight out of high school. Partly through effective marketing, and partly because of the institution’s own brand power (Melbourne is essentially Australia’s U of T) this fear never materialized. Applications from top students held up, and in some fields the institution was able to become even more selective.
Try, if you will, to imagine a Canadian institution that could re-jig all of its curricula from top to bottom in less than 24 months, not because a government told them to, but simply because it seemed like a good way to make the university a better place. I can’t, but I wish I could. What Melbourne achieved here is proof positive that universities can change, and at speed, if they wish to do so. And that’s news everyone needs to hear.