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UniMelb & the liberal arts model

The long-announced move by the University of Melbourne into a more graduate-oriented institution is one of the most interesting in recent Australian university history. Its endorsement by Education Minister Bishop guarantees the move will go though.

The university will offer six general education degrees (including arts, science and commerce) and follow that up with specialist professional graduate programs.

This is something like the ‘liberal arts’ approach in many US universities which is now also being pursued in Europe. Generally I think it is a sensible move for higher education in Australia and probably good for my own university.

Melbourne will cut its undergraduate intake by 10,000 over the next decade.

I am very interested in reader views on this move.

10 comments to UniMelb & the liberal arts model

  • patrick not the lefty

    I think it is an excellent idea.

    I can only see it as beneficial for the students and majorly conducive to more serious study. In particular it gets rid of the overlong combined degrees, and incorporates much greater flexibility.

    Also it can’t hurt their exchange programs with the US.

    I think it will be a shock for the current top of the cohort JD students when they are competing against the top of the LLB cohort, though.

    Also raises interesting taxation question – postgrad study being that much more likely to be tax deductible!

  • Tanya

    Hallelujah – leadership at last! While the government’s (and the opposition’s) higher ed policy stink, universities need to show more leadership. The ‘more money, me too’ strategy of Aus universities is self-defeating.

    All of the old professions (law, med, dentistry, etc) should be taught at the grad level. I would also shift nursing and teaching to the grad level. It is far more democratic and efficient. Kids who were stuck with lousy high schools get a chance to prove themselves in undergrad. Older people can more easily enter the professions. It will be quicker to change numbers within professions according to market demand. Kids won’t just do law or medicine because their families / teachers decided it was a good idea. Academics and fellow students will be in classes with people who actually have a clue about why they are there and hopefully have some real-world experience obtained from internships, etc … We’ll have less wastage of government resources funding students who will never practice as professionals. And, lord knows, we might actually produce more well-rounded professionals from more diverse backgrounds!

    It seems to me that there are two major issues that Melbourne needs to deal with: gaining support from the professional associations and gaining additional PHILANTHROPIC support. Neither are certain, but it is a good strategy to promote a clear and strong institutional plan since both the professions and donors respond to strength. Melbourne has access to resources that most other universities simply do not have – they need to bring them out now.

    Melbourne’s changes are part of a greater internal reorganization. Other universities need to look at what Melbourne is doing from a macro perspective – i.e. they should understand that differentiation is a good thing and not simply try to copy Melbourne. If not, they will fail. It’s probably only Sydney and Qld, though perhaps also Adelaide and UWA, that can copy Melbourne. That said, all professional ed should be changed to reflect the Melbourne model.

  • patrick not the lefty

    I agree with what Tanya said as well.

  • russ

    I’m in favour too, for a couple of reasons:

    1) Because a broad education is useful for approaching problems in different (and hopefully insightful) ways. Most graduates are over-specialised at the moment, particularly from more vocational courses.

    2) Because very few people have a good sense of what career they want to go into when they leave high school. The longer you keep options open the better informed the final choice will be.

  • conrad

    I think I’m favor for some other reasons also,

    1) Its unquestionably good for every other university, since it increase undergraduate demand elsewhere, and time will tell if it is good for Melbounre.

    2) Its good that someone finally puts a cat among the pidgeons, which might do something to stop the continual decay of the universities here.

    I do see problems however

    1) It doesn’t solve the problem of good undergraduate education — it may mean that Melbourne ends up accepting aweful graduates from other universities (particularily if those other universities continue to get worse), and hence has to repeat what shouldn’t need to be repeated.

    2) Some professional courses are currently structured into 6 year sequences. This is problematic if the undergraduate degrees only take 3 years and the honours year is crucial.

    3) It will take longer and cost more money for young people to get into a profession, which is certainly bad in the long term, particularily for areas already undersupplied. I believe the dentistry people have already complained about this.

  • Tanya

    Conrad: I saw the dentists’ complaints and found them to be somewhat odd. They seemed to be arguing against any shift to the grad model. Melbourne has said that it would follow the Bologna (US-derived) model of 3 + 2 for undergrad / professional and 3 + 2 + 3 for undergrad / masters / doctorate.

    I can understand if the dentists were concerned about whether dentistry can be taught in two years. However, their students would have a science degree behind them. The argument that they should make is that – like the US – a dental grad qualification should be for three years. It is silly to argue that the current five year undergrad system is automatically superior to the US degree structure. Melbourne should be prepared to shift on this one – especially since their undergrad degrees will remain at three years.

    Melbourne is going to have more problems with its degree structure. There is already the issue that Aus undergrad degrees are only three years. US high school is generally not great but at the higher end it is certainly comparable to Aus high school. And three years to do a doctorate is crazily short for almost every field. Keeping doctorates at such a short time really does lock out the chance of including course-work (something that is becoming more and more necessary and is very helpful for allowing students to switch to more suitable disciplines) and to allow for the complexities of research in new inter-disciplinary research.

    I’m not overly worried about costs for students. Melbourne has said it will be seeking serious scholarships funding and, anyway, professional degrees are a great investment. Plus, the professional degrees will also be HECS-supported since they are no longer offered at the undergrad level.

  • hc

    Generally I am in favour of the liberal arts model. Because of funding cuts individual schools in universities tend to greedily hang onto students these days and curricula have effectively narrowed. This narrowing also reflects increased – and often misplaced – vocational concerns among students.

    I am doing a bit of research on US business schools at present and suprised at the extent to which they embrace liberal arts.

    I strongly agree with Russ’s point (2). Most students want to change direction as they move through their degree – most! People don’t know what they want to do when they finish school.

  • conrad

    Personally, I wouldn’t say the professional degrees will be HECS supported — other universities may offer them as undergraduate degrees still.

    THat will be one of the interesting things to see — whether people are willing to do specific undergraduate degrees at crapola univeristy X, versus do an unspecified liberal arts degree plus pay for 2-3 years after finishing that. Melbourne might like to claim greatness, but, in terms of student ratios, teaching satisfaction and so on, it isn’t very different too all of the others.

  • Patrick

    Which, of course, is one of the biggest drivers for this – at grad class, they will have all that, because they can actually charge what it costs.

    I agree with Harry, Tanya and Russ about the importance of 3 years to basically make up your mind.

    Mind you, admissions is almost their biggest headache in law – at least ENTERs were pretty easy to rank!

  • patrick

    I think it’s a good idea for the many many reasons stated above – and I for one got a lot out of my postgraduate study in addition.

    However, as someone not too long absent from university, I gotta say, the idea of shelling out an extra, say twenty to fifty grand for my education sends a shiver down my spine.

    I think also, unless Melbourne does something to encourage otherwise (which they very well may), that you run the risk of gettting kids who have been in one form of school or another since they have been five, whit little to no “real world” experience (I think something that’s both under and over rated.

    Finally, you are effectively making a large demographic poorer for a longer time. I would hate to be studying full time again, if only for that.