Musings on the Melbourne Model

Musings on the Melbourne Model

The pro's and con's of generalised undergraduate degrees, and playing in the sandbox before entering the big leagues.

Choosing a university degree is a scary process, no matter how old you are. When applying to most Australian universities, you’re selecting a narrow pathway that you will be bound to follow for four years, without much capacity to change your mind. Considering that most eighteen-year-olds aren’t even capable of choosing their accommodation for Schoolies, this seems wild. Teenagers need to make a crucial decision about their future career, straight out of school, with little to no idea of how the adult world works.

Enter, the ‘Melbourne Model’.

Launched in 2008 by previous Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, Glyn Davis, the Melbourne Model was designed as an internationally competitive alternative to the ‘traditional’ university experience offered at institutions such as Curtin, Monash and USyd. The previous 96 different undergraduate courses offered at Melbourne were synthesised into six generalist, ‘new generation’ degrees, from which students could pick from a variety of majors and minors. If you wanted to study a Bachelor of Arts – double major in Gender Studies and Anthropology- it would take you 144 credit points, or roughly three years of full time study. Some of these units have to be ‘broadening’- taken from completely different disciplines than your chosen major. And specialist degrees – medicine, law, dentistry – were moved out from underneath bachelors’ degrees, eventually developed into postgraduate programs or doctorates. These could only be accessed after graduating with a bachelors’, and would take another three years of study to complete.

Teenagers need to make a crucial decision about their future career, straight out of school, with little to no idea of how the adult world works.

If this sounds similar to higher education systems in the United States and Europe, you’re correct. The model was initially developed in line with the ‘Bologna Process’ – a set of agreements between European countries, ensuring that all tertiary education within the European Higher Education are compatible and of the same major/minor template. This process was itself based off the American pattern of tertiary study, where undergraduate colleges beget graduate schools.

Remember, Elle Woods graduated as a fashion merchandising major way before beginning her law degree at Harvard.

Of course, international competitiveness is just one of the student-side benefits of this model. Broadening units allow students to explore other areas of interest that aren’t directly related to their main pathway, theoretically keeping burnout rates low and creating more ‘well-rounded’ university students. Keeping specialist degrees separate from undergraduates allows for students to develop and mature a little before tackling heavier topics often taught in medicine or law school. And most importantly – students have much more choice and flexibility than ever before. If, like most school leavers, you have no set idea of what to study, you’re able to try out a variety of units within your generalist degree. This could open doorways to new areas you never thought you’d study, allowing you to change the direction of your degree completely. 

But as always – with choice, comes uncertainty.

I started studying at the University of Western Australia straight from high school. I chose to study a Bachelor of Commerce and stuck it out for three years, with an honours year on top. I had fun with my broadening units (Archaeology! Criminology! Astronomy!) but remained committed to finishing the damn thing, so that I could start studying postgraduate law.

When students lack direction, they often take longer to finish their degrees than the standard three years.

 Nowadays, this appears to be the experience of a dwindling group, with the growing majority rapidly losing direction midway through their degrees. From my experience, some feel anxious at the amount of options offered and becoming disheartened that, even after trying multiple different units and pathways, none have seemed appealing. Some are international students, paying full university fees and having to return home because they can’t settle on a major they’d be willing to pay fully for (without HECS compensation). Some just meander through, only running the gauntlet of undergraduate studies so to reach the main event of a professional postgraduate degree. It seems as if most people change degrees three, four times, before deciding on one to begrudgingly graduate with.

When students lack direction, they often take longer to finish their degrees than the standard three years. In essence, they are given way too big of a sandbox to play in, filled with different buckets and shovels and pickup trucks to play with. Compare this with the league of more ‘traditionalist’ universities, who still promote four year bachelor degrees as standard. This length is dependent on whether you undertake a double degree or not, and can stretch out to five or six years. The sandbox is considerably smaller, which has its advantages – your degree is more streamlined and focused, and will most likely cost less in the long run. But, you are only allowed to use the toys given to you; no sharing from other areas. Once you’re in your box, you may only change direction by getting out and starting anew in another. Either model seems to have a drawback.

It’s fair to say that the ‘Melbourne Model’ has changed the face of Australian tertiary education. By taking direction from the teaching standards of the Northern Hemisphere, universities such as UWA and UniMelb have impacted the directions students themselves can take. We’ve essentially moved from having too strict a tertiary direction, to almost none at all; a move which benefits some, and disadvantages others overall. Maybe the ideal path is to combine elements of both university systems to create something that offers students flexibility, whilst also aiding them along a path if they so require it. For now though, the path is set – we can only wait and see what direction Australia’s tertiary education system takes in the future.

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