Is the Melbourne Mistake copied in Perth?

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.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

11 thoughts on “Is the Melbourne Mistake copied in Perth?”

  1. Congratulations on your mention in the Age this morning regarding the Melbourne Model. What did you think of the article?


  2. BFA,

    didnt see me mentioned in the article, but I didnt see anything new in it. His own numbers are quite clear about the failure of the Melbourne model: less first preferences and lower entry standards since 2007, and a clear back peddling on the model.


  3. Paul, I hear everything you and Stephen are saying, but in the end, I just don’t think you are right. I have no doubt there has been negative fallout for the undergraduate programs, but I think focusing on that misses the point a bit. Converting various professional/disciplinary qualifications to postgraduate level will, I think, act to increase the quality of education/training in those areas. And before you hit back that all the good students have already got their training elsewhere, I would point out that high school rank scores are very imperfect measures of ability, especially in the context of our enormous private school system. Undergraduate performance should be a much better quality signal.


  4. Roger,

    I know the ‘jam tomorrow’ argument in the sense that if you stick around long enough in education you will be well-educated. It is undoubtedly true that if you do 3 more years you will be better educated than if you dont, but my concern is though with the quality of the undergrad education. No one ever plans beforehand to deliver poor quality, but that is nevertheless the result of initiatives like the Melbourne Model. Do you agree that this has happened? And poor undergrad education means a missed opportunity and a poor starting point in post-grad.


  5. Paul, Fair point – I guess a trade-off was made that you don’t think was necessary.


  6. Paul,
    What is your take on a three year versus a four year degree versus a five year joint degree (eg BCommBA)? Lots of students do either a three year degree or a five year joint degree. Four year u/g degrees seem closer to the international norm. Is this a case of university decision making being distorted by less than fully considered government funding formulae?

    Your views on “dumming down” of Melbourne degree do not coincide with my commercial experience over the past 20 years or so. For example, very very few students who study economics need to ever know about say the Rybczynski theorem, yet that theorem and numerous other much more complex diagramatic arguments are taught to students in disciplinary courses every year. Ditto maximum likelihood estimation, tests for serial correlation, etc. For what it is worth (maybe little), my view is that students are over-trained in the “hard” disciplinary material.While there are some jobs for the children who grasp this “hard” material (or at least in the process of being educated learn how to cope with complex problems) most will still require graduate training before they are actually productive. For those who end up in more generalist occupations, which is maybe 95% of an undergraduate class, the “hard” material is a dead weight loss, whereas they may well reap future reward from a broader “dummer” u/g training.

    Maybe I’m getting old and soft-hearted?



  7. John,
    I am less concerned with the number of years than with the quality of those years. A good 3+3 model is preferable to a bad 4+1 model.
    The point of disciplinary learning is only partially whether you will directly use that knowledge. After all, do you really use the knowledge of names of plants taught in primary school? The point is mainly to train the mind to think more deeply and a study of theorems definitely does that. the second is to learn the jargon, examples, and perspectives of a whole group so that you can talk to others everywhere in the world. That is certainly valuable in economics in that you simply wont be taken seriously in the rest of the world without a large degree of common training.
    I think the value of training the mind by challenging students and taking them out of their comfort zone is easily overlooked in a system set up to please students. They by design do not yet know the value of learning to think more deeply than they do at present and by and large will not thank you for it initially. But employers certainly know that value: disciplinary trained economists make far more money than your average business student who has been given some watered-down econ. The same goes across the spectrum: the medical specialists make about 3 times more than the general practitioners in health, the honours students make far more than the others, etc. Dumbing down courses makes them accessible to more individuals and as such means you can call more people university students, but it means all the non-marginal students are no longer challenged to the degree that is good for them and that employers value.


  8. I suggest something like this at UQ five or six years ago, but nothing came of it.


  9. Paul,
    You comment that:
    “disciplinary trained economists make far more money than your average business student who has been given some watered-down econ.”
    I expect that your statement is correct.

    However, can I suggest a different question for which I do not know the answer. How much value is added to an undergraduate student’s future income by hard disciplinary versus generalist education? To answer that question, it is necessary to remove the confounding effects of (a) smarter students doing more difficult subject material, and (b) the marginal value-add of difficult material is greater for a smarter student (who “gets it”) than it is for a more ordinary student (who never “gets it”).

    You and I may well have different starting priors as to the correct answer to my question. However, it would be wonderful if someone had some good data.



  10. John,

    you are right, I dont know the answer to that one. There is quite a bit of work that has tried to differentiate between the returns to various skills, like maths and English skills (eg. ) but I have not seen anything that codes up the different activities in actual university curricula into generic/specific and relates that to later-life incomes whilst controlling convincingly for the selection effect. That would be a very hard thing to research.


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