After talking about it for years, its now official. Today’s Australian announced that the University of Melbourne is going to copy the American liberal-arts style university system. They intend to do away with all specialisations and have 6 broad faculties. Students can pick and mix the courses they like most. Students only fan out into specialisations after the first 3 years, which allows the Uni to scrap a lot of the specialist courses in the first 3 years. The hope is that brilliant students will get a broad understanding of the world, after which the more ambitious ones delve into a specialism. The immediate reaction from some of the other universities (UQ, UWA) was teling: interesting but they’re not going to do it. They’ll wait to see what happens.
This is the right time to make predictions. Mine is that things are not going to go well for the Uni of Melbourne and that the other universities are right not to copy its example. I predict the following train of events to occur: in these broad faculties and accross them, students of very different abilities are going to follow courses in different schools. Initially, the schools will try to maintain standards and fail a lot of these ‘side-streamers’. This will upset the hierarchy and the bureaucracy who dont want complaining and failing students. Hence they will pressure the schools to make their courses more ‘accessible’ to outside students (a process that has gone on for quite a while now accross Australia). Schools will try to resist by adding entry barriers, requirements, etc. Indeed, they’re already trying to erect those as we speak. The bureaucracy and the hierarchy will counter this because they make their money on large classes with happy students and hence will do away with having many requirements for a course. The hierarchy and the bureaucracy will win. Standards will drop and I predict they will drop by quite a bit. Just think of how much you have to dumb-down to let a marketing student pass a third year engineering or economic theory course! This in turn means the entry level of students going into honours, PhD and Masters will be a lot lower and these degrees will effectively start to contain the same courses now axed by Melbourne, with the net result a lowering of standards at that end too. The better researchers are going to avoid teaching the undergraduate courses because they dont want to see themselves as child minders, which will atrophy the curriculum. At some point, the clever students (or their parents) are going to wake up to this and go to other universites where more demanding and intensive courses with lots of pre-requisites are still in place (perhaps abroad). Melbourne will eventually see its mistake and try to re-introduce what they axed in a half-hearted way. My guess would be a two-tier system, with low quality education along the lines now introduced for the masses (including nearly all the foreign students) and top education for the bright ones at the start.
But, you may interject, arent they doing this in the States already? Well, not quite. For one, American universities have to make up for the poor quality received by American kids in many high schools. And bear in mind that in America, about 50% of the population goes to uni, compared to some 35% here. Both imply that your average student here is going to be a lot better and more broadly educated than the average American undergraduate. Giving kids some broad understanding of the world is what in Australia and Western Europe supposedly already happens at school. Hence, the standards and type of teaching at undergraduate level in America are more a function of what feeds in to them rather than something you want to emulate per se. Also, many American universities do offer specialisations. I believe that the university of Michigan for instance runs honours programs for the whole of the 4 years where they hence have the current specialisations for smaller groups of students. Hence to elevate American universities as the model to emulate is IMO a mistake. The American economy has a lot going for it, but its undergraduate education aint it.
We are here of course presuming that Melbourne’s VC actually gets his way. Despite the current announcement, I’m not sure he will get his way. The schools will almost undoubtedly try to protect their courses and hinder him in every way possible. The long length that Melbourne has given itself to implement all this leaves a lot of room and time for sabotage. I worked for a year in the school of economics at Melbourne and had a great time there and have great respect for the ability of the schools to resist silly plans from above. Its going to be a ‘battle royal’ in Melbourne for some time to come. And one shouldnt think that Melbourne can now be written off: the University of Melbourne is a very rich place with huge endowments and resources. It can afford a big mistake like this and will undoubtedly bounce back.