Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Undergraduate

October 10

A Miracle in Melbourne

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.

March 11

A European Perspective on Three-Year Degrees

Glen Murray may be gone, but the allure of three-year bachelor’s degrees remains.  In future, my guess is that they’ll be much like the German apprenticeship system – an educational deus ex machina that successive generations of Canadian politicians will “discover” anew every couple of years.  So it’s probably worth asking, after roughly a decade of Bologna implementation, how Europeans themselves feel the whole experience is panning out. My own sense from talking to people across the continent is that, while no one thinks the three-year bachelor’s degrees are a failure, no one considers them a triumph, either.

For much of Europe, the adoption of a three-year bachelor’s degree was an act of division, not subtraction. That’s because in Germany, and most countries to its north and east, the pre-Bologna initial degree was not a 4-year bachelor’s but a 5- or even 6-year degree, equivalent to our master’s degree.  The move to divide these degrees into a 3-year bachelor’s and a 2-year master’s seemed to make sense for three reasons: first, because governments were indeed looking for ways to reduce student time-to-completion; second, the creation of a new credential seemed like an opportunity to get universities to focus on a new type of student, who wanted less theory and more practice; and third, for those who were dubious about the first two reasons, there was an overriding desire not to get left behind in the creation of a single, pan-European Higher Education Area with harmonized degree-lengths.

On the demand side, it’s been a bigger-than-expected challenge to get students to take shorter programs. In Germany, for instance, 80-90% of bachelor’s graduates go on to get a master’s, because everyone assumes that this is what businesses will want.  And they’re not wrong: in Finland, post-graduation employment rates for master’s grads is nearly 20 points higher than for bachelor’s grads (for university graduates, anyway – Polytechnic bachelor’s degree-holders do better).

It’s been no easier on the providers’ side.  When you’re used to giving 6 years of instruction to someone before giving them a credential, it’s not super-obvious how to cope with doing something useful in half the time.  In a number of cases, institutions left their five-year programs more or less unchanged, and just handed out a credential after three years (which makes at least some sense if 80-90% of people are going on anyway).  Where compression has actually occurred, what tends to happen is that institutions elect to keep courses on technical, disciplinary skills, and get rid of pesky things like electives, and courses that help build transversal skills.  The result is a set of much narrower, less flexible degrees than before.

At least part of the problem is that there hasn’t been a lot of progress in terms of finding ways to deliver both “soft skills” and technical skills in the same courses, which permit delivery of a more rounded curriculum without extending time-to-completion.  But innovative curriculum planners are in short supply at the best of times; it’s the sort of thing that probably should have been considered before engaging in a continent-wide educational experiment like this.

All of which is to say: three-year degrees are not easy to design or deliver, and they don’t necessarily work in the labour market, either.  Shorter completion times are good, but caveat emptor.

August 24

The Road to Three

Glenn Murray is a man in a hurry. He talks – it’s never clear how seriously – about shortening degrees to three years within the lifetime of this government. Let’s be generous and grant that the McGuinty government will actually last a full four years – what are the odds of getting to achieving this?

Honestly? Zero. Zip. Bupkis. Here’s why:

There are only two feasible routes to three-year degrees – the compression model and the re-design model. The former is superficially a lot more palatable, in the sense that it doesn’t force profs to re-design curricula and can be implemented more quickly. But in practice, it’s not clear if this is actually the more workable path. The main barrier to this approach is that it still requires a major change in student behavior. And that isn’t going to happen without incentives.

Incentives could be made direct to students by improving student assistance. That sounds simple, if potentially expensive (this is possibly a deal-breaker, given that saving money is job one for Murray). But since only 50% of students use OSAP, half the student body would be unaffected. The only truly effective way to introduce incentives across the entire student body is to change the fee structure, giving students rebates for finishing early or charging penalties for finishing late. But that requires institutions to play ball. So maybe it’s less a matter of incentivizing students than of incentivizing institutions; tweak the funding formula to favour institutions that gets students out in three years, and let institutions themselves work out how best to get students to achieve it. But since most of the economic gains come from larger class sizes and increased student aid costs offset much of the purported gains – can anyone really see the premier sticking his neck out to annoy the universities that way?

The alternative is re-design. This approach has the potential at least to save money and make the system more effective – but even assuming everyone buys into it, drastic curriculum re-design isn’t quick and requires extensive pilot testing. The best analogy here is Ontario’s reducing secondary school from five years to four. This became mandatory in 2002, but was preceded by a fourteen-year period in which four-year graduation was optional. This in turn was preceded by a multi-year period of curricular adjustment; in total, it was almost twenty-five years from the time people began re-designing the curriculum for optional four-year graduation to the time it became compulsory.

I can imagine it being faster for universities; for all their alleged slowness, where curriculum is concerned they change more quickly than secondary schools. But we’re still talking decades rather than years.

Someone needs to tell the Minister.

August 23

Re-designing to Three

So, we’ve covered the ideas of cutting graduation requirements, bringing back grade 12, and degree compression as ways to get to a three-year degree. That leaves course re-design.

There are some examples out there of full-on re-design of programs from four years of seat time to three years of competencies. The best known is probably at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which was the subject of a recent book called Saving Higher Education: The Integrated, Competency-Based Three-Year Bachelor Degree Program. The basics of program re-design are relatively straightforward – working backward from a statement of graduate competencies (outcomes, basically), you work out how to introduce, reinforce and perfect those competencies in the space of 3 normal academic years. SNHU went whole-hog on this, even replacing “courses” with non-concurrent “modules,” hence ditching the idea that all academic units need to be of one term’s duration. Few, in fact, last more than six weeks (in Canada, this would probably force a re-jig of student aid policy due to the 12-week rule).

It’s pretty clear this approach can work in fields like business (which is where it was piloted at SNHU and the University of Charleston); it’s also clear that it can be implemented in a relatively short period of time provided you’re prepared to pay a load of cash for faculty release so they can do the hard slog of program and course re-design. What’s not clear is whether this model actually works in a field other than business. Even SNHU and Charleston – both of whom are fairly evangelical about the 3-year degree – have yet to really see the model break into other areas of study.

There’s no reason it can’t be done, of course. We could go the route of the European Credit Transfer System and base credits on expected hours of work, not seat time. We could re-design whole programs around outcomes, and then put a whole lot more thought into course-sequencing so that students would continue to acquire competencies in a consistent fashion across the curriculum. This is all possible. But what it would really mean – in the arts and sciences, anyway – is ditching the whole smorgasboard curriculum we’ve had since the 1960s. The outcomes-based approach only really works if you keep relatively tight control of courses taken; too much student freedom messes up the careful laddering of competencies.

There’s a case to be made that this kind of change saves money and results in better outcomes. But even if it is the “right” thing to do, it’s not clear that either students or professors are interested. Bluntly, we prefer the inefficiency of the present system. Overcoming that preference is the biggest barrier to three-year degrees.

August 22

Compressing to Three

As we noted yesterday, there are four ways to go about getting university degrees from four years to three. One, cutting grad requirements from 120 to 90 credits, isn’t serious. A second, upping the use of prior learning assessment (or, in extremis, bringing back grade 13), is barely half-serious. That leaves curriculum compression and curriculum re-design.

Curriculum compression is the significantly easier path. No need to change anything other than the speed of students’ path through the system. By getting them to take more summer courses and six courses per term rather than five, they’ll get through that much quicker, saving everyone money.

That’s the theory, anyway. What about in practice? Well, to start with, it’s really not clear that students are interested in this concept. Students can already take six credits a term and take summer credits; they simply choose not to do so. In fact, they are far more likely to extend their programs for four years to five rather than shorten them to three.

There are some pretty basic reasons for this. Students tend to prefer work over school during the summer because they need money. Summer income accounts for something like 65% of all student income, and for a substantial portion of students, it’s their only income. A large number of others prefer to take reduced course loads in order to better balance part-time work with their studies: it’s a lot easier to get four A’s working fifteen hours a week than it is to get five, so students adjust their schedules accordingly. Getting these students to go from four to five classes – let alone six – requires money, and lots of it. They would need to be compensated for lost income, much of which would need to come as grants rather than loans in order to be effective.

How would faster completion save money, then? To some degree at least, student costs align with courses taken rather than time-on-campus; if the number of courses required to get to 120 credits isn’t reduced, it’s not clear how much costs would actually be reduced, other than by increasing class sizes. Come to think of it, this is actually the only way that compression can save cash. Kicking student load up from five courses to six while keeping professor contact hours constant would increase the ratio of outputs to inputs (i.e., “productivity”) by twenty percent. Assuming, that is, that your classrooms are big enough to handle the overflow.

Ceteris paribus, that might save a few hundred million in costs – but that money would almost certainly be consumed by the required increases in student aid. Is that really what the Minister had in mind?

August 21

Four Ways to Three

The Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, Glen Murray, has a bee in his bonnet about three-year undergraduate degrees. Basically, he’s been told there’s some fiscal consolidation coming, and he thinks three-year degrees are the way that institutions can deal with the coming troubles without – allegedly – affecting quality.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with three-year degrees. All over Europe they are now standard (although in many countries, 80-90% of bachelor’s graduates go on to do a two-year Master’s degrees, so this might not be as felicitous an example as you’d think). And, of course, it’s not much more than a decade ago that three-year degrees were here in Ontario, too. It can be done.

The issue is – how?

It’s not simply a matter of rolling back time and going back to the 1990s. Back then, one of the rationales for having three year degrees was the existence of a fifth year of high-school. Ontario then – like Quebec today – was still on a continent-wide K-16 standard; the difference was just that the transition points within were slightly out of whack. What the Minister is proposing now is something different: K-15 vs. K-16. That really would put Ontario out of sync with the rest of the continent, with possibly some adverse consequences for student mobility in and out of the province.

There are basically four strategies for reducing undergraduate degrees to three years. The simplest – and most foolish – is simply to lop a year off the degree. Make 90 credits the standard instead of 120. It could be done overnight. I’m not sure what it would actually accomplish, but it could be done overnight.

The next simplest would be to punch up a lot of prior learning. Get more secondary students in Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses in high school, and you can start handing out more course exemptions and move students through undergraduate education a lot faster. At the extreme, of course, you could always bring back grade 13. If cost-per-student-per-year is really the issue, getting first-year students out of research-intensive institutions and into secondary schools is about as cost-effective as you’re going to get.

That leaves two other strategies. The first is to allow – or maybe “encourage” is a better word – students to go through the existing system faster. Get them to take a sixth course each term, or more summer courses – anything to get to 120 faster. This is what might be called a “compression” system. The other is to actually re-design degrees from the ground up, mapping desired learning outcomes and working out how to get students to display desired competencies in a three-year period. We’ll look at these over the next couple of posts.

February 24

Looking Like You Care About Undergraduates

In our annual Globe Survey, we ask students to describe, using an 11-point scale, the extent to which their school is geared towards serving graduate students or undergraduates. As you’d expect, undergraduates tend to be slightly more satisfied (y-axis) with their schools the more undergraduate they perceive it to be. It’s not a huge effect, and it’s presumably correlated to some degree with size, but it’s there.

Figure 1: Satisfaction as a Function of Perceived Grad-centricness

What’s really interesting, though, is that the degree to which students believe their institution to be “graduate centric” and the degree to which it actually is graduate-centric (as measured by the percentage of the student body that is enrolled in graduate studies) can differ substantially, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Perceptions of Grad-centricness vs. Proportion of Students Enrolled in Graduate Programs

The y-axis in Figure 2 is students’ perceptions of grad-centredness, the x-axis is the percentage of the student body enrolled in graduate programs, and the upward-sloping trend line indicates a general positive correlation of the two. Institutions below the line are institutions that are perceived as being less graduate-centric than they actually are; those above the line are perceived as being more graduate-centric than they actually are.

A few intriguing points here:

1) Students correlate size with not being concerned with undergraduates, regardless of the actual presence of graduate students. Small schools almost without exception score below the line regardless of their graduate populations. This is spectacularly so in the case of Mount St. Vincent, which does an astonishing job of disguising the fact that it is the third most graduate-intensive school in the country (I know it’s mostly M.Ed. students, but they still count).

2) Concordia is the only really large school which lands well below the line (kudos to David Graham and his team!); Laurier and Sherbrooke, though somewhat smaller, also deserve mention for being considered a long way below the line. Queen’s is the only U-15 school which makes it below the line.

3) Queen’s and Laurier apart, nearly all Ontario schools are above the line – even places like Brescia and OCAD. One wonders whether Ontario schools’ constant chasing of prestige via research isn’t actually hurting some school brands which could be better served by a more undergraduate focus.

4) The U of T suburban campuses are suffering from a serious disconnect. There’s very little graduate work being done on these campuses, yet students there are convinced that their institutions are focused on graduate students.

It is clearly possible to have lots of graduate students without alienating one’s undergraduate students. Excellence in both areas is clearly a sweet spot more institutions should try to emulate.