Undergraduate education and the Melbourne Model

The University of Western Australia is about to adopt the Melbourne Model. Mark Leo/Flickr

As a Dean at Monash University, I love the Melbourne model of undergraduate education. It is one of the best things to ever happen to Monash University!

The University of Melbourne, Monash’s closest competitor at the undergraduate level, took their highly successful product and radically altered it in a way that the customers (i.e. the students) didn’t like, leaving Monash as the first choice for a large number of students who previously chose the University of Melbourne.

The University of Western Australia (UWA) is about to also adopt the Melbourne model. And Peter van Onselen, a Professor at UWA argues in The Australian that the model is better for students and other Go8 Universities should also adopt the model. Below I argue why he is wrong on both counts.

The Melbourne model is based on students studying a ‘generalist degree’ followed by a specialist Masters degree. As Peter notes: “It provides students with more time at the tender age of 17 to decide their career futures while simultaneously broadening their minds”.

Yes – but it provides them with little if any insight into the career options available to them and prevents them from experimenting with different choices. So you get a group of 20/21 year olds graduating from university with little if any idea of what they want to do rather than a group of 17/18 years olds graduating from high school with little idea of what they want to do.

The Melbourne model simply delays a decision rather than helping the students to make that decision. In my opinion, this is one of the major reasons why a significant number of students have shifted their preference to Monash.

The traditional Australian approach to undergraduate education allows the student to experiment with a range of alternative areas of specialisation at the undergraduate level. It does this in an ad hoc and probably inefficient way. But it allows the students top try different ‘careers’ in a way that is removed by the Melbourne model.

One way that students do this is through a double degree. Students enrol in a double degree not only to get a ‘broadening of the mind’ that is impossible in the Melbourne model. They do it in order to try different things.

For example, a student might enrol in a Commerce/Law degree then work out which one (or which bits of one) really excite them and then specialise. Many of the best economics graduates from when I taught at the University of Melbourne followed this path – only discovering economics ‘by accident’ as part of their Commerce degree. Students might choose more exotic mixes.

Pharmacy/Engineering and Performing Arts/Law are two combinations being tried by friends of the younger King daughter.

These double degrees allow students to ‘test the waters’, to follow what they think is their passion with an insurance policy in case it doesn’t work out.

The second way students experiment with career options is by changing programs and majors. This is possible in a traditional undergraduate program with a wide range of options, but is more restricted in the Melbourne model.

For example, I started out in Forestry at ANU. After a year and a half I shifted to Botany, then across to Economics. I took Economics as an option in my first-year at ANU – and over the course of the next few years, recognised this as my area of passion. And it still is.

The ‘experimenting’ cost me a year (it took me four years to finish a three year degree) but the time was well worth it and far more ‘broadening’ than a structured ‘model’.

As another example, the older King daughter has been through hospitality and tourism, human movement, social work and now psychology. She will finish her three year degree in four years as well – and now knows her passion and will follow it through further study. In the Melbourne model she would have been ‘stuck’ and probably wasted three years.

Is this experimentation efficient? Probably not. But it is highly beneficial to the students to be able to ‘try’ a range of real career studies before they specialise. Want to know if you like Accounting? Go and do an accounting class. What about engineering? Try that. Or as in my case, try Forestry, then Botany then Economics.

The Melbourne model does not solve the problem of career choice for students. Indeed it makes it worse. ‘Breadth subjects’ at an undergraduate level do not give students a real feel for different career choices. It simply delays the choice until, laden with a HECs debt, the students opt for expensive Master’s level studies in an area they know little about.

So Peter is right. The Melbourne model does ‘provide more time’ for students to decide their career futures. But it is ‘trial and error’, not information-free time, that the students need. The current undergraduate model – for good or bad – provides both time and information.

Peter also argues that: “One of the key benefits of a university education is learning how to think”.

I agree entirely. However, he follows up by noting that: Instead of embracing this development process, universities push thousands of students through highly specialised programs.

This is a false dichotomy. The idea that doing a specialist degree does not involve students learning how to think is an odd notion for an academic. Undergraduate students should be challenged, taken out of their comfort zone, and introduced to new ideas and challenges in every subject they take.

If not, the lecturer taking the course is failing the students. Put simply, every unit of every degree course at University should help students to learn how to ‘think’.

The idea that ‘thinking’ is only part of an unfocussed undergraduate degree program is absurd.

Now, before the comments start, let me emphasise that I am not saying that our current undergraduate programs are perfect.

The type of ad hoc experimentation that our undergraduate programs allow works surprisingly well for the students, but it would be nice to see if there is a better way to design our undergraduate programs to allow this experimentation and to help students discover their passion. I do not believe the Melbourne model does this.

But eventually the ‘market’ will tell us who is right and wrong as students vote with their feet.

However, even if Peter were right, and the Melbourne model were a better way to go for many undergraduate students, this will still not justify his desire that all Go8 Universities follow this model.

I can only hope that other Group of Eight universities will follow.

Why would we want the same product offered by all our elite Universities? Isn’t it better that students have choice? Victorian students are almost certainly better off because Monash University has not followed the Melbourne model – because they have different undergraduate options that allow them to choose the course of studies that best suits them.

Why would we want to force all Go8 Universities to have the same sort of program and deny students this choice?

To paraphrase Henry Ford, under Peter’s approach, students could have any type of undergraduate program they like, as long as it is the Melbourne model!

This first appeared on Core Economics, where Stephen is a regular blogger.