University Curriculum Change & Renewal: Avoiding Extinction

In a BBC article discussing the future of banking, Matthew Wall poses the question: “Is old tech putting banks under threat of extinction?”  Traditional banking systems typically run on mainframe computers. These computers are reliable and can handle huge volumes of transactions, but they are slow. The advent of mobile and online technology has changed the dynamics of banking. Clients now expect transactions to take place anytime, anywhere, and in real time. This calls for fast, agile and flexible computer processing. And the old mainframe technology cannot cope.

Banks have tried to solve this problem by building new layers of modern software technology around the legacy mainframe systems. But the results have been far from satisfactory. The old cannot work with the new, and the results are the computer glitches and inexplicable system breakdowns that are now routine in the banking industry. Naturally, non-traditional competitors have seen an opportunity to make a quick buck, and the large traditional banks are now facing stiff competition from start-ups who are now offering mobile and online banking services running on nimble technology which is free of the legacy mainframe systems.

The old banks are now feeling the heat from competition brought about by a new technological era. And some are likely to go down, to become extinct, like the old dinosaurs. And this has left me wondering about our current university system. So far we have managed to keep the competition at bay. We have managed to incorporate modern technologies into our systems, but in most cases, only as far as augmenting the same teacher-centred educational approach we so much love. Our degree programmes have remained largely the same, and changes have largely been cosmetic –   at most a few changes in teaching approaches in a few modules, but with the core remaining largely untouched. In the few cases where wholesale change has been proposed, this has been quickly snuffed out.

But how long will this status quo last, and if nimble, determined, well-funded, politically connected competitors appear on the horizon, will the old university system cope?  Like the traditional banks, we can choose to wait. After all, universities, like banks, are essentially conservative organisations. However, such a strategy may well spell the end of the university as we know it. An alternative is to do the unthinkable – anticipate the new requirements for university education in the modern day, and implement and take control of change. To my knowledge, only one university has been bold enough, or foolish enough, to anticipate change and take it by the horns, so to speak. This is the University of Melbourne, in Australia, with their now famous, or infamous curriculum, the Melbourne Model. The question I want to address is: If the unthinkable becomes the only alternative, what does it take? Richard James and Peter McPhee (2012) have shared their experiences in implementing a whole-institution curriculum change at the University of Melbourne, and in this blog I will share their insights with you.

In 2007 the University of Melbourne replaced all the 96 undergraduate programmes it had with a new structure comprising six generalist three year undergraduate degrees followed by professional graduate courses. These six undergraduate courses are arts, biomedicine, commerce, environment, music and science. The model was informed by the American undergraduate liberal education system, and by the European Bologna Process. The Melbourne Model seeks to produce graduates with both depth and breadth in knowledge. Breadth is achieved by ensuring that undergraduate students undertake at least 20-25% of their studies in an area outside their core discipline. Depth is achieved primarily through disciplinary specialisation at the graduate level.

Needless to say, this was a highly contentious change process that fundamentally changed the university’s education system, and substantially impacted the entire Australian public university system. Richard James and Peter McPhee suggest that the following actions by the university helped to ensure that the curriculum change process was a success:

  1. The University of Melbourne implemented its curriculum change from a position of strength. It is a highly ranked prestigious university that is highly regarded in both research and teaching.
  2. The process was led by a highly motivated and effective leadership team who advocated publicly and privately for the adoption of the new curriculum.
  3. The university had substantial financial resources which it used to ensure that research activities would not be affected by the curriculum changes.
  4. External stakeholders, including the government, government agencies, and professional associations were engaged throughout the whole process. For instance, government had to be persuaded to support the curriculum change with an appropriate student fee funding structure. Similarly, the university also worked closely with professional bodies in Engineering, Medicine, Dentistry, Law and Architecture to ensure that the new curriculum met with their professional requirements.
  5. Within the university, efforts were made to ensure that the curriculum change process was underpinned by a shared ethos of educational values and beliefs. Time and resources were invested into building consensus on a shared set of educational beliefs across all disciplines.
  6. The university also took into account the values and expectations of students and their families. This also included the views of international students, who made up 25% of the university student body, and who contributed significantly towards student fee income.
  7. The university also considered the implications of the changes on the income flows and business models of the various schools and faculties and made appropriate compromises.
  8. The university also paid attention to the external political implications of the curriculum changes at the university, and took appropriate mitigation steps when necessary.
  9. Careful attention was paid to the logistics associated with the change. Staff, space and time issues were all carefully addressed to ensure that these would not negatively impact the curriculum change process.

Now the dust is settling down. The term “Melbourne Model” has found its way into the higher education lexicon, and the University of Melbourne brand now stands out very distinctly in the Australian higher education landscape and beyond. And this is all because a dedicated, far-sighted  and bold university leadership chose to throw caution to the wind and implement change according to its own belief systems without the constraints brought about by external pressure.

References

James, R., & McPhee, P. (2012). The whole-of-institution curriculum renewal undertaken by the University of Melbourne, 2005–201l. Strategic curriculum change: Global trends in universities, 145-159.

Wall, M. (2016, March 26). Is old tech putting banks under threat of extinction? BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35880429.

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