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.