University of Melbourne Magazine

Degrees of difference

  • In 2008, the University underwent the biggest transformation in its history when it introduced a groundbreaking new curriculum. By Anders Furze.

    Alumna Sarah Last at the Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship at Ormond College.

    Alumna Sarah Last at the Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship at Ormond College. Picture: Madeline Ellerm/Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship

    When Sarah Last enrolled in a Bachelor of Science at the University of Melbourne, she thought she wanted to become a vet. Less than a year after graduating, she is the co-founder of a start-up changing the world of agriculture. When Shaan R Ali enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts, he felt he was simply delaying the law degree that he was really set upon doing. Then he took a class looking at how drugs shape society.

    “The old days where you chose a career at the age of 18, and that was that, are gone,” says Professor Peter McPhee AM, former Provost of the University of Melbourne. The world of work is changing rapidly, and our universities are changing with it.

    Last (BSc 2015, MEntr 2016) and Ali (BA 2010, JD 2016) enrolled at the University after the biggest shake-up in its venerable history. What became known as the ‘Melbourne Model’ replaced 100 undergraduate courses with just a handful, while vocational training in professions like engineering, medicine, teaching and law shifted to the postgraduate level. Undergraduates were required to take a set number of subjects from outside their main field of study.

    At the time, the move was controversial. Working out the detail was an “extraordinarily intense” undertaking, says McPhee, who chaired the Curriculum Commission that designed the Melbourne Model, and then oversaw its implementation. “If you set about a root and branch reform of your curriculum structure, you could get it horribly wrong.”

    A decade on, the model is firmly entrenched, with the University turning out workplace-ready graduates who are actively meeting the evolving needs of our economy and society.

    Indeed, the rise in demand for postgraduate qualifications – both from employers challenged by fast-changing business models, and from students who need to be prepared for an unknown future – reflects a global trend, as cited by the University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Glyn Davis AC.

    “The future needs of the workforce are requiring universities to provide undergraduates with skills that cross discipline boundaries. As undergraduate degrees broaden in scope, the depth of professional expertise must come at a postgraduate level.”

    The success of the model is reflected in a range of statistics: the University has the highest retention rate in Australia, at 95%; it ranks first in Australia and eleventh globally for graduate employability; the post-grad employment rate four months after graduation stands at 93%, with median salary $70,000.

    So, why has it worked so well? And why does it matter? Says McPhee: “We wanted students to have a broader undergraduate education that gave them more time to think through the options, and by shifting our professional degrees to graduate level it would mean they would make a very considered choice about what to do in graduate school.”

    Associate Professor Michelle Livett, Program Director for the Bachelor of Science, agrees. “Seventeen or 18-year-olds might know exactly what they want to do. But giving them the opportunity to explore options is absolutely one of the model’s premises.”

    At the same time, the courses are flexible enough to accommodate students who know exactly what they want to do.

    McPhee (BA(Hons) 1969, MA 1973, PhD 1977, LLD 2009, Trinity College) notes that Australian graduate coursework degrees have historically been a “poor relation” of other courses, awkwardly caught between an undergraduate degree and a PhD. Melbourne wanted to “develop the North American idea of graduate schools as being an elite part of university education”.

    Peter McPhee

    Peter McPhee, key architect of the Melbourne Model: an “extraordinarily intense” undertaking.

    As well as the concept of combining a generalist undergraduate degree with a professional postgraduate one, the model also encourages an interdisciplinary approach.

    There’s a simple reason why: both the workforce and the world of research are moving in that direction.

    “There are no big research questions where all you need to know is one discipline,” says McPhee. The walls that once divided disciplines – and even professions – are crumbling. Hence, the rise of ‘breadth’ subjects that are taught by academics from a variety of faculties.

    First-year students can now take classes like ‘Introduction to Climate Change’, which tackles everything from the science of the greenhouse effect to public policy strategies and the impact of climate change on food, water and health.

    Livett (GDipEd 1981) says that her students gain new perspectives from taking breadth subjects. “There is a science, technology and engineering way of thinking, which is really important. But not everything is well addressed by that approach alone. It’s really good for our students to be aware of the fact that people might have different views about things.”

    It took a while for the model to be fully embedded in the University, and it was not without its teething problems. Photojournalist and lawyer Shaan R Ali, who studied a Bachelor of Arts in the first year of the model, says that, initially, he felt annoyed at the prospect of having to defer the law degree that he had been set on since starting high school.

    There were moments when that first BA cohort felt “like quintessential guinea pigs,” he says, but “this was not all we felt. [We] also reflected on the fact that we were pioneers, paving the way for future students and co-creating a new degree with our tutors and lecturers.”

    He identifies the breadth subject ‘Drugs that shape society’ as a highlight, run by legendary professor Ian Malkin (he used “drama, theatre and performance as teaching tools instead of PowerPoints and handouts,” Ali notes). The class, which still runs, approaches drugs from a variety of unique perspectives: scientific, social, historical and legal.

    These interdisciplinary approaches to subjects are having a very physical impact on the Parkville campus itself. So-called flexible learning spaces have taken off as an alternative to the traditional lecture hall – smaller rooms with break-out spaces for group work.

    Alumna Sarah Last has firsthand experience of these changes, spending a year living and studying at the newly-constructed Wade Institute of Entrepreneurship at Ormond College.

    She grew up on the Mornington Peninsula, spending a lot of time on a nearby farm. “I had a strong love for animals,” says Last. After starting a Bachelor of Science, she was accepted into the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine’s accelerated pathway, meaning she started her postgraduate degree in the third year of her Bachelor of Science. Then she received a scholarship to take a year out of her course to study the brand new Master of Entrepreneurship.

    She had come up with business ideas before, but they had never really gone anywhere. At the very least, Last thought, the Master of Entrepreneurship would give her the business skills she’d need if she decided to run her own veterinary clinic.

    Eighteen months later, and she is the co-founder and chief technology officer of agriculture start-up Mimictec. Both Last and fellow student Eleanor Toulmin (BCom 2012, MEntr 2016) started the company in the second semester of their Master of Entrepreneurship.

    “For someone who had a science background, I didn’t know the first thing about business. It was very much a trial by fire,” Last says. But it paid off: the degree ended with a night where students pitched their start-up ideas to real investors.

    Mimictec’s core intellectual property basically says that maternal care is very important in rearing chickens, and if maternal care can be incorporated into production then it can improve both the business bottom line and animal welfare. Because you can’t actually put mother hens in with chickens on a commercial scale, Mimictec identifies the key features of maternal care, and then replicates them using technology.

    Life as an entrepreneur is a rollercoaster of highs and lows for Last, but she loves what she does. “I’m pretty blessed to be able to wake up every morning and do what I do.”