Is the Melbourne Mistake copied in Perth?

A long time ago in a galaxy far away (i.e. 2007), the University of Melbourne introduced ‘The Melbourne Model’ in which students were supposed to do many cross-disciplinary studies during their undergraduate degree (50 unit points, i.e. one year out of three) whilst being encouraged to further specialise in three post-graduate years. The explicit desire was to copy the broad liberal-arts type education of the American university. The economic incentive came from the higher fees that could be asked of post-graduate students, hence an increase in the post-graduate numbers due to students wanting to learn more about a discipline would boost the coffers. This model turned out to be a failure as many of the top students avoided Melbourne and the numbers going into the post-graduate degrees were disappointingly low. The Melbourne bureaucracy has recognised its mistake and the model is now being wound back, with students being asked to do only 25 unit points ‘outside of their discipline’. Face-saving requires that the misery is prolonged for a while but the first thing any smart new VC at Melbourne would do is to scrap the whole thing and revert to what it was before.

UWA in Perth has studied the Melbourne Model and is gearing up to introduce a system with some similarities, but with important bells and whistles designed to avoid the mistakes of Melbourne. Let’s dissect the main features of the Melbourne experiment and how UWA has learned from the experience:

1. By creating broad degrees, the Melbourne model lead to a mixing of students with different types of talents into the same courses. I predicted at the time that this mixing, together with the pervasive incentives not to fail anyone, would lead to a dumbing down of the disciplinary courses (a race to a bottom). This indeed happened, though not quite the way I envisaged it. What I envisaged was that the university bureaucracy would put pressure on the existing schools to dumb down their course offerings. Many schools anticipated this and tried to erect entry barriers into their courses. In turn, this lead the Melbourne university bureaucracy to create new ‘inter-disciplinary courses’ which I would say were at much lower levels than the more disciplinary courses they replaced in the student curriculum. Hence the dumbing-down was not so much due to pressure on existing courses but by a complete by-passing of existing courses, in many cases replacing them. This indirect dumbing down of the degrees did of course filter through to the higher years of the disciplines: if your 3rd year students have done a year of fluffy stuff in stead of any real learning then you will have to drop the entry-bar to honours, masters, and PhD courses, which is exactly what I understand has happened. UWA by contrast has opted not to create new courses but to reduce the number of disciplines into 4 broad disciplines (arts, science, commerce, and design) and to simply force students to follow a certain number of courses in the ‘other disciplines’. One part of the compulsory mixing is in the form of 4 compulsory ‘broadening units’, whilst another part comes from pick-and choose second majors in other discipline groups. This introduces the same forces I talked about 4 years ago: the mixing of students of different abilities, coupled with the strong incentives not to fail anyone, will lead to a significant dumbing-down of the courses in these 4 main disciplines, making them all ‘un-specialised’. Anything included in the ‘broadening units’ must be dumbed down, as well as anything that depends on it. This is not true if you let ‘broadening’ happen voluntarily (optional courses or people trying double degrees) because you then can have entry-barriers into courses and turn away students with insufficient aptitudes for particular courses. Hence the UWA model will lead to a more radical and probably more permanent change in the quality of the degree structure than the Melbourne model. Whereas Melbourne is now reversing its model and, because it has left the schools largely intact, can still draw on the expertise in those schools to unwind the clock, UWA will have no such easy turning-back option. UWA is burning its bridges and in that sense is embarking on a more ambitious program than Melbourne did.

2. The University of Melbourne saw potential problems coming with top students who wanted to focus on a discipline. One way to prevent the fall-out was to bribe more good students to keep coming to Melbourne by giving out more grants conditional on High-school grades (top students are such valued commodities that they are given money to go somewhere!). Yet, many of the best students still switched from Melbourne to Monash, much to the delight of my fellow economists there. These students were attracted by the disciplinary logo of many degrees, via which they can really get their teeth into something substantial (even though they often change their minds later on). UWA has clearly looked carefully at this and has added an important element to the mix: it is going to set up a 4-year honours degree (a Bachelor of Philosophy) that starts in the first year and that is tailored to the top 2% of high-school leavers in WA. This is a quite important and a potentially radical divergence from the Melbourne model. If UWA would run these honours degrees like some of the top state universities in the US run them, i.e. as a stand-alone institution with its own building and administrative structure wherein highly disciplinary courses are taught, then I think this is a quite exiting development for Australia. It would basically mean the resurrection of the elite-education streams that preceded the move to mass-education in the university sector. It would recognise that mass-education cannot be as high-quality as the previous elite education of the 50s to 80s because it is too expensive to offer this to the masses and too demanding on the students. It takes the logical course of action of having a double-stream inside the university system: plain vanilla for the masses and good education for the few. It is somewhat elitist but it beats plain vanilla for all.

It may thus seem as if UWA has made its changes more resistant to top-end competition than Melbourne did by offering the 4-years honours programs. At the moment though, it has designed these honours programs as a minimum-cost enterprise by double-dipping: the bachelor of honours is basically going to consist of two majors out of the existing ‘4 disciplines’ plus some fairly vague extra ‘research’ bits, meaning that the level of the courses and, indeed, the level of the co-students will be the same for these ‘top students’ as that of the masses at UWA. That entirely defeats the purpose of the bachelor of Philosophy. The American experience with these honours programs is that you need a physically and administratively separate entity to run and protect the honours program from the cost-cutting short-term managerial incentives to double-dip. From their website I understand this is not what is going to happen at UWA. By not separating the honours stream, UWA is going to have the worst of all worlds: the individual schools wont care about the higher needs of the honours students so will also give them plain vanilla, the plain vanilla will be less good for all students because of the compulsory mixing of talents leading to a race to the bottom, and the actual content these supposed top students will get will be less disciplinary since it is made up of fairly generic ‘majors’.

The local competitors, Edith Cowan and Curtin, should be able to make in-roads into the market for top-students in Perth if they can jump into the ‘pure discipline’ gap that UWA will leave. I can just see the marketing slogans: “study something real, come to us”. There should be plenty of disgruntled staff at UWA who can be poached at a premium to set up and teach the competing education streams. Some speculate that UWA is counting on Curtin and Cowan to be too far behind UWA to provide effective competition. We will see.

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conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“The explicit desire was to copy the broad liberal-arts type education of the American university. ”

I think you are confusing explicit with stated desires. The model is nothing like good liberal-arts universities in the US where you can take innumerable different subjects — I believe the MM led to a decline in the number of subjects taught, which was presumably one of the real objectives (i.e., you save money by getting rid of subjects with few enrollments).

“It may thus seem as if UWA has made its changes more resistant to top-end competition than Melbourne did by offering the 4-years honours programs”

I haven’t seen the details of this, but many universities offer this title and the only difference between that and the normal stream is that they guarantee you a place in 4th years unless you fail to achieve a certain standard (making it almost identical to the normal programs). It works really well — you can push scores up by at least 5 or 6 points with no changes to anything. Two university I have worked at have done this. I believe a few universities also add in an additional sweetner, such as a “research program” (which may be worthwhile for top performers) that those students can opt into that others can’t.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Sorry, that should be explicit with real desires.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I still think that every other University in Australia with serious aspirations to make money (i.e. all) will copy Melbourne within the next ten years.

Funny kind of mistake to make.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

Patrick, I don’t think that will happen unless Melbourne can somehow show that employers like their graduates more than other universities. At least from some medical people I know (who are probably somewhat biased), it is not the case that graduates from the postgraduate medical courses taught essentially the same stuff as undergraduate courses are preferred — indeed, from what I hear, it’s the reverse in medicine (and that’s important when you want to specialize). I don’t know how other areas are fairing, and I guess we’ll also have to wait and see how much employers will like their students that don’t do postgraduate stuff, whom I assume will be the majority of their students despite them almost never being mentioned. My feeling is basically the same as point (1) of Paul’s post, which is that teaching people fluffy happy stuff for 3 years and telling them how smart they are isn’t going to make them more employable than now. If I’m wrong, then I imagine almost all universities will have to convert over, and instead of people spending 3 to 4 years at university, everyone will be spending 5 to 6.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Conrad,

I agree with your remarks on the comparison with US-style education. The stated desires do not tally with the actions.

From what I read on their website, the 4-year honours program is a different beast to what is done at other unis, but see for yourself: it is not a guaranteed 4th year in an existing discipline (like what they have in Sydney), but rather a weird mix between unarticulated research activities and 2 majors from 4 broad groups.

Patrick,

universities are not there to make money: they exist by acts of parliament to serve education and research purposes. From that point of view I certainly argue the Melbourne Model is a mistake.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

More money –> more research –> ..?

But I certainly see your point. I just don’t think that’s how very many people in very many Uni adminstrations see it.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

Paul;

Based on the way the Chancellery at UWA behaves, you’d think that the purpose of a university is to commission white elephants and then pay for them by sacking academic staff.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Jacques,

do you have any particular examples in mind?

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
10 years ago

This is a massive issue, Steven Schwartz has a piece about keeping the humanities alive on campus, reviewing a stack of books on the topic, it was in the Aust Lit Review yesterday but it is not one of the pieces on line.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/the-australian-literary-review-may-2011/story-e6frg8nf-1226047000616

The piece by Shergold on the incentives that impede policy oriented research on campus is good.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/seen-but-not-heard/story-e6frg8nf-1226047007515

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion(@rafe-champion)
10 years ago
Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

Paul;

At UWA the Powers That Be approved an incredibly expensive new business building, an ugly monstrosity riddled with poor design decisions that actually make it an inconvenient place to study. This cost so much money that the PTBs have raided other faculties for money.

Most notably, ECM — Engineering, Computing and Mathematics. ECM runs a surplus on paper, but their contribution to the central funding pool has been dramatically increased and they’ve been forced to sack academics across the board. 1 in 5 in my school, for example (CSSE).

Supposing Business had been left in its perfectly adequate but not as hip-and-funky previous digs, this probably wouldn’t have been necessary.

My observation of university life at UWA, USyd and CDU has given me the view that many VCs see their legacy as some shiny new building. The idea of a University as a body of scholars and students seems to have been long since been replaced by property development with some teaching thrown in.

conrad
conrad
10 years ago

“At UWA the Powers That Be approved an incredibly expensive new business building, an ugly monstrosity riddled with poor design decisions that actually make it an inconvenient place to study. This cost so much money that the PTBs have raided other faculties for money.”

The same happened where I work (we don’t even have proper lighting) — I think the idea is to save power since if no-one turns up, they won’t use electricity. More seriously, your guys will be praised for what they have done (my VC got to go to ANU for it, which is too bad for Paul :) ), since they have spent lots of money, and in a system where outputs are measured as inputs, that’s a good not a bad thing. Indeed someone will have “built $100 million building” proudly displayed on their resume.

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[…] studies into the system without driving out narrowly focussed top students. Paul Frijters has a fascinating piece on Troppo describing the challenge from the Uni of WA to improve on the Melbourne Uni effort at general […]

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

yes, I would support a serious investigation on the relation between property developers, some university chancelleries, and perhaps particular politicians too. I have no evidence of any kind but find the relations too cosy for comfort.

derrida derider
derrida derider
10 years ago

The 4 year PhB degree with very high entry barriers, aimed at the top school leavers, is an idea pinched from the ANU which has had some success with it.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

If I was looking to emulate other universities, I’d have a close look at Olin College, Neumont University and St John’s College. They’re the most interesting alternatives I’ve seen come out of the US melting pot.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
10 years ago

There are three core ideas with the Melbourne model, which no-one seems to separate. The first is to force students into a general degree, for the purpose of broadening. The second is to increase the length of a vocational degree from 3 to 5 years, and charge very high fees for the last two years. The third, which is related to but distinct from the first, is to prevent high school students locking in a place in Law or Medicine (with some exceptions for truly outstanding students).

The broadening idea has been corrupted. Many of the breadth subjects are fluff – necessarily so, if you want arts students in a science subject. It would be better to have kept the courses largely the same, while still forcing students to do 25% of their studies in other faculties. Math students would do econometrics in the economics department, psychology students would do statistics in the math department, architecture students could do softer IT subjects etc. This means students are actually taught ancillary skills by experts (have you ever tried statistics in a psychology department!). But the main point is to allow students to move 45 degrees from what they already know they like – not 180 degrees.

The second reason for the model is economic. The charge for vocational masters is pretty outrageous. For the prestige degrees like law, you pay k$100. Monash charge the same for graduate entries. At Melbourne, 100 students get a commonwealth supported place and pay almost nothing. The decision is based on the LSAT. Making the cut on this test is the biggest win you will ever have in your life. Yet the parents of the guy who just missed out still pay taxes.

The third idea – of preventing students from locking in a place in Law or medicine from high school – was, and is, ethically inspiring. Under the old model, most of these students came from incredibly advantaged educational backgrounds. This does huge damage to our society and also to the economy. It is perceived as unequal, is incredibly expensive for private school parents and is uneconomic because it is not merit based. Much better to make students compete on the level playing field of the university to gain entry. All G8 universities should follow Melbourne’s lead in this. If they do not, Canberra should enforce it. They should simply remove commonwealth support for any of these degrees at first year level.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
10 years ago

Or, you know, people could choose to go to other law schools outside the Go8. I’m pretty sure Ken Parish reckons that’s a viable choice.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Hi Chris,

I fully agree with your first two points. They tally nicely with the post.

Your final point about automatic entry into elitist lucrative closed-shops (law/medicine) is interesting and worth pursuing a bit more. How did it work previously at Melbourne, i.e. what exactly was the inequitable bit about the prior system that somehow selected only the privileged and not the deserving as students into particular streams?
My prior stylised understanding on that issue was that there exit many forms of side-entry at universities into these law/medicine degrees that made the initial entry less important than it seems. Rather, the big entry-barrier comes later from preferential access of the insiders to the compulsory and relevant ‘training’ at existing practises. Simply put, the son of a specialist will have a guaranteed training spot in the practise of his mum whilst the daughter of a laborer does not. That entry-barrier is not something universities are addressing as far as I can see (though they could, but that needs direct government involvement given its own legislation about recognition of certification).

Anthony
Anthony
10 years ago

Paul, my impression from people who taught at the Melbourne Law School prior to the new regime was that the student cohort was overwhelmingly made up of people entering from Year 12. Thus, entrance was largely based on ENTER scores which are largely correlated with school status etc. In the mid- or late-1980s Adelaide Law School realised that its student cohort was drawn overwhelmingly from a few of the local elite private schools. For equity reasons it ceased Year 12 entry and only accepted students who had completed (I think) one or more years of university studies. Thus entrance was largely based on performance in undergraduate university studies which doesn’t correlate so neatly with ENTER and hence with schooling. The result, I understand, was a more diverse student cohort in terms of feeder schools.

Outside of the Go8, many law schools rely much less on Year 12 entry without any move to a Melbourne Model. At La Trobe, only about a quarter of first year law students would have come straight from Year 12.

Chris Lloyd
Chris Lloyd
10 years ago

My understanding is that a law degree from a G8 university is worth vastly more in the employment market than other law degrees. The lawyers on this blog will know better than me whether this is in fact true. The point though is that the market thinks it is true, and that there is a huge demand for Melbourne law. Amd selection at Melbourne is now more based on ablity (under-graduate resutls plus LSAT) than it was under the old model.

I am also not an authority on how easy it is to enter medicine through the “side door”. I was aware that there were mature entry places, though this usually involves starting again at first year. However, leaving the side-door ajar is not good enough. Regardless of whether some managed to overcome the private school bias of the the old system, the fact remains that the old system was biased and accounted for the bulk of entries.

Paul – I was not aware of the barriers to the specialties you mentioned, though knowing the medical profession it does not surprise me. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned government involvement. I cannot believe Canberra is so hands-off when they are footing much of the bill. It seems to me that there should, in principle at least, be no limit at all on the numbers of medical and law places across the nation. The new system would be deemed a success when the ENTER score required fell to something similar to science of maths.

john walker
john walker
10 years ago

A question about “elitist lucrative closed-shops ”
Is there a law/legal test for the difference between professional qualification/regulation so as to maintain standards and a cartel/restriction of trade ?

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

Chris,

I guess defenders of the old system would argue LSAT was measuring merit, but I do think you are right that the LSAT scores are not great predictors of university performance.

John,
no, there is no recognised test for that distinction that I know of, though there is a large literature on it. The closest you can get to a test is to see whether the wages are inflated if you compare the practitioners to comparable people with the same level of training in something else. The reason why that is not a perect test is that there an be good reasons for wages to much higher without a rent explaining it (for instance, oil rig workers get paid a whole lot more than comparable individuals because of the health risks and hard working conditions, not because only a few people are allowed to do oil rigging). It becomes a matter of judgment. I just learned last week that your average medical specialist claims about 500,000 AUS for medical services per year. Hard to believe that that is indicative of their superman abilities rather than the closed-shop nature of entry into their profession.

Anthony
Anthony
10 years ago

Paul, John asked for a legal test and you’ve just given him an economic test.

Patrick
Patrick
10 years ago

I can give you the legal one: my classmate’s ‘profession’: maintaining standards; the unqualified man’s trade (i.e. cardboard boxing)/something done by foreigners whose school doesn’t play against mine when they come on tour: a cartel.

Law is, as recent reforms to the practice in the UK highlight, an egregious and utterly unjustified cartel. In my job I train both law grads and non-law grads, and although good law grads really are good, frankly, it is only the very best who are any different after a few years. Analytical ability is pretty much all that counts for 95-97% of our work.

john walker
john walker
10 years ago

Curious what is the ‘trade practices law ‘ on this area?- I can see the point of qualification systems for surgeons and airline pilots (and maybe for law) . But there are so many qualification systems these days that seem to be little more than make-work schemes for trainers and or restrictions of trade.