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Why the Melbourne Model is failing students

  • 12 December 2008

Anyone walking under the arch of the gateway John Medley Building at the University of Melbourne is met by a large blue sign with white letters exhorting the reader to 'Dream large'. This slogan for the new 'Melbourne Model' evokes broad horizons, new pursuits, diverse opportunities and a dynamic university experience — everything, one imagines, that a university should offer.

But tertiary education in Australia has of late been plagued by a raft of difficulties, most of which are well known and many of which stem from poor funding. The University of Melbourne's well publicised adventure seems to encapsulate some of those difficulties.

The Melbourne Model emerged in the context of a sector under pressure and is an attempt to reposition the University of Melbourne according to an American pattern which emphasises life experience and high quality postgraduate education.

Its vision is attractive: a tertiary model where students gain a wide ranging undergraduate education to be followed by more specialised postgraduate studies. Indeed the Melbourne Model envisages the ultimate transformation of the whole Australian tertiary sector.

However, that exhortation to 'dream large' has in practice come to convey irony, to both staff and students. While the Melbourne Model rhetorically espouses flexibility, so far it has often been experienced as inflexible. Some students have begun to think of it as a strategy to disguise retrenchment and diminution.

Consider, for example, one particular facet of the Melbourne Model degree and how it has operated. Each undergraduate student must take one 'breadth' subject — a subject outside their chosen faculty — every semester. This element of the degree is designed to broaden academic horizons.

It would be no bad thing to encourage students to broaden their educational frame of reference. But stroll around the Parkville campus and ask a few questions, and a common theme emerges: among first year students there is a sense of being academically channelled, constrained to take subjects that do not engage them and that in reality impede.

Conversations among my fellow students often revolve around the trials of timetable clashes, poor academic advice and limited options. One friend described feeling as if they'd been thrust into a corner with no room to move.

Students' negative experience of breadth requirements and the new model in general stem chiefly from a lack of subject options and limited staffing. In the context of the Faculty of Arts the changes have been dramatic.