Undergraduate education and the M model


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!



11 Responses to "Undergraduate education and the M model"
  1. I started my undergraduate studies before the introduction of the Melbourne Model and was still studying ex post. I can only speak for the Commerce degree but ex ante students had the option of taking the same number of points of ‘breadth subjects’ as they are now under the Melbourne Model except back then it wasn’t called ‘breadth’. If anything the Melbourne Model has restricted the choices Commerce students have since it’s now compulsory to take 100 points of ‘breadth’ while it was optional before. Though I do think it has improved ‘experimenting with different specialisations’ because of ‘nudging’ (students are bounded rationally just like anyone else).

    With respect to experimenting with different careers I have to disagree that the traditional approach is better because of bounded rationality. From experience unless you are really unhappy with the degree you’re taking (and even then) students tend to follow their original track even though they may feel it’s suboptimal. No evidence to back it up but I feel the behavioural costs of switching are high. With a ‘breadth’ approach not only is switching easier (as it’s a matter of changing major tracks rather than a whole degree) it’s encouraged as it is under the Melbourne Model (prior to MM the option was there but I’m guessing the proportion of students taking it up was minuscule).

    The problem I have with the Melbourne Model is that I don’t think it went far enough. If anything they should just have two (or one) ‘generalist’ degree and have every career track open for all students to choose from with of course guidance in terms of ‘major/career’ tracks to follow. At the moment most students have at most 100 points to play with outside their degree subjects and they have to divide that between 1st, 2nd, and third year subjects. With professions with a lot of specialised knowledge, e.g. law, health sciences, veterinary, engineering, architecture etc., it’s probably not practical to open them up to all students but there is no reason why the first year subjects for each of those disciplines can’t be open to all.

    What I find bemusing with the traditional approach is the need for extraneous differentiation of degrees, e.g., under the ‘Commerce’ umbrella, some universities offer separate degrees for Economics, Accounting, Banking&Finance, Marketing, Management, Business etc. of of course Commerce as well. It’s baffling to me why some universities feel it necessary to provide so many specialised choices and still offer a generalist business degree where you can in fact specialise in those aforementioned specialties anyway. (It’s not really baffling, it’s probably due to product differentiation, some degrees are more ‘prestigious’ than others, but it is extraneous).

    Having said all that I’m not sure if it really matters all that much. I don’t think the model is going to make significant different in the composition of the quality of graduates universities produce.

  2. Stephen,
    UWA know all this, and they will also have seen how Melbourne is backtracking from the Melbourne model. Why are they still going ahead is the question?

  3. An anonymous but senior person at UWA suggested to me that they could succeed where UniMelb has failed. There is no ‘Monash equivalent’ in Perth. The ‘competition’ from UWA’s perspective is Murdoch then Curtin. Both of these are well off Go8 or, say, UTS level. So UWA may believe it will keep the good students both as undergraduates then as graduate students. And if they succeed, they get the benefit of high graduate fees to replace low undergraduate fees. The undergraduate fees are capped, but not graduate fees, so if they can move undergraduates into graduate courses it is a big financial win.

  4. There are also some real questions as to whether the Melbourne Model undergraduate offerings are really any different or better than what was replaced.  It did give the opportunity to the university to streamline undergraduate offerings which it had wanted to do for some time.  More marketing than substance, perhaps?  Also the BComm at Melbourne remains largely unchanged.

    There are also comparisons made with the US in this debate.  Interestingly, engineering remains largely an undergraduate offering.  And Med, is pre-med plus MD post grad.  In reality, Med in Australia offered to undergraduates is two or three years of pre-med/pre-clinical followed by three years clinical.  In effect, the US model. Oh, but without the crippling debt associated with the post grad route.

    And judging by my daughter and her friends in Medicine, they always knew what they wanted to do.  And her view was that if Med had not been offerred as an undergraduate offering at Melbourne, she would have gone to Monash.  Your point, precisely, Stephen.

  5. One key point to consider is how the decision on courses get made.  I would argue that a large number of students get pushed into very vocational courses by parents (med, law, optom, dental).  Do you really consider 17-18 year olds to be interdependent minded consumers?

    Most kids have no idea what they are signing up for.

    How does the MM drop-out rate compare to others or to the previous first year attrition?

  6. I was first a student at UWA studying Law / Arts (English), having done very well at literature at school. In 2 months I’ll be heading of to NYU to commence a PhD in Economics. 

    It was a long and winding road that took me from literature to pure mathematics and an honours in Economics (2010) from Melbourne U where I now research and teach. 

    I couldn’t be a stronger advocate of the ‘old’ UWA system. I would have left school intent on becoming a lawyer, studied three years of English and Politics, reached the end of the first year of law (now 4years in) and had a meltdown.

    I think the M-model can be *more* harmful in this case. Where a student instead of not knowing what they want to do, *thinks* they know what they want to do. So I take intro-law classes in my B.Comm to study Law, more health science in my B.Sc to study Med, or environment units to study Architecture. But I never know what its like to study Law itself.

    Giving students a *real* taste of the discipline they are intent on studying can avoid wasting three years of everyone’s time.

    A further concern…especially having worked within the Economics department at both universities. Is that UWA does not have the critical mass of faculty to pull it off.

    As you noted, the assumption underpinning the whole thing is that a comprehensive, intense, Masters course is available. That is the only thing that brings it all remotely closed to the US system which this is based on.

    Yet the arguments in the press and in conversation revolve around what is best for an undergraduate student. The bottom line is if a top-class Masters course cannot be provided then the idea is kaput.

    This is clearly not such a concern in Law, Medicine, Architecture. But History, Literature, Economics… . In the US Masters (if they exist) would be two years of hard-slog, taking challenging courses. At UWA where honours cohorts are in the low-teens (Econ was around 8-10), I can’t see this happening in the slightest.

  7. Oh I just saw this….”An anonymous but senior person at UWA suggested to me that they could succeed where UniMelb has failed. There is no ‘Monash equivalent’ in Perth. The ‘competition’ from UWA’s perspective is Murdoch then Curtin. Both of these are well off Go8 or, say, UTS level.”…

    … it is a common topic of conversation amongst bright students at UWA that the education falls below a level comparable to other Go8 universities *precisely because* there is no competition in Perth.

    …and I fear they will make another bad decision on that  basis. In fact, the entire debate is almost incomprehensible unless we take into account the fact that if you are a student in Western Australia taking TEE you rank 4 universities, and if your course is on offer at them all, you rank them very easily 1 to 4. The lack of choice re: higher education in Perth is terrifying. Many of us felt like UWA held us ransom to this very fact.

  8. May says you got her course wrong. It’s pharmaceutical sciences/ engineering. But she thanks you for the mention. 🙂

  9. So in the Melbourne model does economics/commerce get a huge boost in minors [people doing first year micro say] who want to do “something relevant”?

  10. As a retired professor, with a doctorate in philosophy of education, I have to applaud any effort to add real education, a liberal arts education, to the  recent emphasis on vocational education.  Traditionally education has been about widening a person scope as a citizen and a human being. More recently it has moved to vocational education. It seems to me that we  need both  if we are to be truly human, good citizens, and productive people in a highly technological world. The most interesting thing I have seen on this is in the recent e-book, book 9 titled  “A Libertarian Paradise” at http://andgulliverreturns.info.
    American  universities have long been either liberal arts colleges or vocational institutions which required some basic liberal arts courses. Living in Norway I find that their  university education is almost entirely vocational. However it seems that their television and reading helps to make up some lacks in  a formal liberal arts education.
    From what I see of the Melbourne model, i applaud it.

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