In defence of the Melbourne Model

Figures can mislead when it comes to the Melbourne model. flickr/Geoff Penaluna

The world changes, but our categories fail to keep pace. We try to understand the new through the familiar, and become puzzled when things no longer make sense.

Criticisms last week of the Melbourne Model are cases in point. It was suggested that students look elsewhere for an education, because the Melbourne Model does not provide what students want.

The first claim fails to understand what is being counted. The second goes to a fundamental question about the aim of a university education. The University of Melbourne has shifted professional degrees from undergraduate entry - and therefore from standard Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre (VTAC) data.

The new model should be judged on quality, not quantity. We seek to attract and educate the best and brightest. And so it has proved.

Individual degree entry scores remain strong, despite taking many more students into fewer programs. With a median Australian Tertiary Admission Rank of around 93, Melbourne is the institution of choice for Australia’s most able students. Of equal importance, overall demand remains strong.

Last week The Age reported, accurately, that undergraduate applications to Melbourne over the past six years fell by around 25 per cent. Because the world has changed, such figures mislead.

A significant proportion of Melbourne students now enter the University as graduates, keen to study professional programs such as dentistry, education, international relations, law, medicine and veterinary science.

Some 3,000 graduate coursework students joined Melbourne this year, but they no longer show up in VTAC numbers. Combine the undergraduate and graduate application rounds, and the overall numbers applying to Melbourne in 2011 approach the best years in the University’s history.

Student load remains high, as does the flow of outstanding interstate students who choose Melbourne over their local options. Of course, such numbers are not the test. What matters is the quality of the education we offer students who chose Melbourne.

Again, the data are encouraging. The most recent available data show retention rates, always strong at Melbourne, are among the highest on record.

Surveyed student satisfaction rates for 2010, likewise, improve significantly on results from the years immediately before the Melbourne Model. So on measures of student applications, quality, and satisfaction with courses, early news about the Melbourne Model is heartening. Yet the ambition is to go further.

Our aim is nothing less than raising the bar of tertiary education, and in particular professional qualifications, to a quality not previously available in this nation. A series of recent reports suggest excellent progress. The new curriculum has been evaluated, and praised, in a series of external reports.

These include the Australian Universities Quality Agency audit of the new programs in the sciences, the Australian Council for Education Research evaluation of the Masters of Teaching, the Australian Medical Council report on the Medical Doctor program, and similar reports from accrediting bodies on the Masters of Engineering and the Masters of Architecture.

The New Generation degrees have found an enthusiastic audience. Against national trends, the logic of Melbourne’s offerings encourages students toward study in Arts and Science. University breadth studies have enabled hundreds of students from different faculties to share courses on ecological history, human rights and global health.

More Melbourne undergraduates are studying languages (Mandarin, Spanish and French remain popular, but so too Latin and ancient Greek), volunteering for co-curricular activities, and taking study abroad opportunities. Advice from employers about New Generation interns and graduates welcomes their greater breadth of knowledge and experience alongside strong disciplinary skills.

We know more generally that employers value the capacity to solve problems by working across disciplines - a point made in the recent Business Council of Australia report on higher education.From 2011, Melbourne’s undergraduate offers are matched by the full suite of professional graduate programs.

Some have required more than two years to redesign from first principles, with exemplary processes of consultation and international benchmarking. Graduate entry standards are rigorous, reflecting the intellectual demands made on those who enrol.

Some 60 percent of the first Melbourne Model cohort applied for further study at Melbourne, many choosing fields they discovered as undergraduates. This is the model at work, providing experience for an informed decision.

It will produce graduates who make mature choices about their future, and will likely stay with their chosen profession. The new professional programs should prove as successful as the existing Masters of Teaching and Juris Doctor.

They complete a menu of undergraduate and professional programs of global standard. What we are doing works - for students, the professions, employers and the wider community.

Melbourne is on track to achieve something rare - a better way to educate the next generation. Any major change takes years to be understood, and even longer to become comfortable.

This is supposed to be hard. We have challenged students - and ourselves. No Australian university has attempted curriculum reform with the scale and ambition embraced at Melbourne. Such is the mark of a university that aspires to greatness.