Curriculum reform at Sydney uni - separating the glitz from the grit

The big news here is the changes to culture and curriculum, not degree length. Dylan's World/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The University of Sydney has announced an overhaul of its undergraduate teaching. A discussion paper proposes reducing the number of degrees, increasing the length of degrees, and a host of other curriculum and cultural reforms. If achieved, some of these reforms could be revolutionary, but much of the media attention has focused on the less important aspects.

That there’s a domestic and international marketing element to this is without question — Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has talked about “restoring” the university’s “historic” position as “indisputably the best university in the nation”. He referred to Sydney as one of the two best universities in the country. Coming from the University of Melbourne, I naturally assume he is referring to Melbourne as the other, but I’m not sure how Australia’s other universities, notably the other Group of Eight members, would feel about that assessment.

Is this symptomatic of a university seeking to differentiate itself within a sector under pressure? Well, yes, and from one point of view, that’s not a bad thing. But is this an interesting new riff from an established performer, or just an upbeat cover of an old song?

Fewer, longer degrees?

The headline act, so far as much of the media coverage is concerned, is the reduction in the number of degrees. This was the main aspect of reports by the ABC, Daily Mail and Fairfax media.

Reducing the number of degrees offered may offer efficiences from the administrative and marketing points of view, but the impact on students of this change at least is likely to be minimal. At best, the new system will be less confusing (perhaps if only from the outside) and maybe more flexible if you change your mind about your study interests part-way through your degree. Otherwise, this proposal will likely have little impact on the student experience.

The change in degree length will lead to “more expensive” degrees, according to the ABC, and “better employment outcomes”, according to the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Education), Pip Pattison.

Sydney Vice Chancellor Michael Spence says the uni needs to reclaim its place as the best in the country. Paul Miller/AAP

The discussion paper presents some data that shows a four-year degree probably doesn’t have a negative effect on international enrolments.

A student has more opportunities for meaningful educative interactions with a university in four years than three. However, given the high numbers of students who previously went on to Honours study, and that an Honours equivalent will be more or less embedded within the four years, this won’t change much for a lot of students.

What does potentially change the cost burden for students is an increased focus on vertical degree structures - having generalist undergraduate degrees, followed by professional postgraduate degrees. Increasing the number of postgraduate degrees financially supported by the government would be necessary to avoid an increased financial burden for aspiring professionals whose accrediting degrees have been shifted from undergraduate to postgraduate.

Curriculum change

For the sector, though, this might be one of those nights out where the supporting acts are more interesting than the headline.

What is worth watching in all this are the more fundamental changes the university is proposing for its classroom experience and culture. An elite program for high-achieving students would be almost unique in Australian higher education. It could be a good drawcard for prospective gifted students here and internationally.

The university also proposes offering professional skill-building and industry-based experience in the final year in some courses. This would also be valuable considering graduate employability is never far from people’s thoughts.

Perhaps even more importantly, Dr Spence calls the university a “white bread institution” with “old, white and male” leadership. The discussion paper suggests that staff believe not enough is done to attract and support promising students from a diverse range of social and cultural backgrounds.

Confronting and changing the relative lack of diversity and issues (or at least perceptions) of privilege and background that still afflict a lot of the universities, particularly the Group of Eight, would be a remarkable achievement, if it were achieved.

The discussion paper also proposes some changes to the university graduate qualities. Graduate qualities are (often vague) statements about the attributes students should possess upon graduating, like “depth of disciplinary expertise”, “critical thinking and problem-solving skills” and “cultural competence”.

The new graduate qualities are actually quite similar to the current set. What would be revolutionary is if the university uses these proposed changes as an opportunity to embed these attributes in a meaningful, assessable and quantifiable way.

Until now, universities have been more or less left to their own devices in training graduates to an appropriate standard. Some industry groups have input into course content via accreditation, but the public has had to take on trust that graduates have their supposed qualities.

If graduate attribute statements are ever to be more than just aspirations, or more than just marketing nonsense - and they should be, as a key part of the contract institutions make with students and society - universities need better processes to evaluate and ensure the standards of their graduates.

Unfortunately, the sector’s ability to do that is still in its infancy. If the University of Sydney can develop clear and concrete measures of graduate qualities, one would think that there would be significant commercial advantage for them in producing that evidence and marketing it to prospective students. That would be a show worth seeing.