Speech by Professor Don Markwell,
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), The University of Western Australia,
at The Australian Financial Review Higher Education conference,
Friday 14 March 2008
As this morning's token non-Victorian - and one of very few speakers at this conference from outside the Sydney-Canberra-Brisbane-Melbourne quadrilateral - I hope I can be forgiven some subversive remarks. This session is billed as being about 'initiatives to create diversity and differentiation', and I have been asked to speak about UWA's Review of Course Structures. But the UWA Review is not specifically 'an initiative to create diversity and differentiation', and, although it is possible, such an outcome cannot be taken for granted. The Review aims instead to deal with a different question: how can UWA structure its degrees to offer its students the best education it can to equip them for lives and careers in the 21st century?
We speakers are also billed as reflecting 'on the reasons for the major changes [our] institutions have embarked upon'. But, although we are doing many things in our continual quest to 'achieve international excellence', UWA has not yet embarked on major course changes, and might not do so. Instead, we are two-thirds of the way through a 20 month or longer careful consultative review process, which is likely to report in August this year with recommendations that are far from determined.
Despite these limitations, I hope that some description of and reflection on our Review will be of interest and perhaps stimulus to you in casting some light on process if not on outcomes. This is, if you like, a progress report on an unfinished process within one university - a process that has attracted considerable interest nationally and also internationally. I will discuss it under five headings.
First: why are we undertaking the Review, and what do we hope to achieve?
The decision to undertake a Review had various drivers. One was administrative - the sense that the courses of the University were so many, complex, and untidy that there needed to be a significant spring clean. Secondly, at a time of workload pressures, a desire for efficiency - to find a way to enhance the educational offering of the University but with considerable reduction of what some believe to be over-teaching - for example, through the elimination of excess units - and the freeing up of academics' time for research, and of administrative time for other pressing demands.
But the most profound and important driver is the desire to press the refresh button on courses so as to maximise the chances of their equipping our students for the needs of an era of rapid change, of global forces, of growth of knowledge, of new and often unexpected linkages between previously distinct bodies of knowledge, and so on. Universities and colleges - for example, liberal arts colleges - in many countries have been reviewing their curriculum and their course structures because of a sense that the needs of the 21st century might not be met by the courses of the 20th century.
This is, of course, in a context where there has been a growing focus in many countries, including Australia, in recent years on how to improve teaching, learning, and the overall student learning experience - on which, by the way, I especially encourage you to look on the University of Manchester website at their current review of these things.
It has been a world also in which efforts to facilitate mobility of students and of graduates, for study and later for the work, have seen - as you know - renewed attention to how Australian degrees compare with degrees in Europe under the Bologna process, in the US with its top-end model of four-year liberal arts degrees preceding professional postgraduate education, and in various Asian countries, many of whose universities are actively learning from what they see as the world's best, especially in the US and UK.
We too have high international aspirations for our university, within the context of high aspirations for Australian higher education generally, and are keen to learn from the experience of universities nationally and internationally.
What we hope to get out of our Review is a set of structure for our degrees that offers students the kind of education they need, remembering that we at UWA attract one of Australia's youngest undergraduate cohorts, with the highest proportion straight from school, and of very high prior academic attainment. We also aim at courses to provide the communities we serve with well-educated graduates, and, of course, to enhance UWA's strategic position - locally, nationally, and internationally.
Though we welcome greater diversity among higher education institutions, and our Review may help to differentiate us, we are not seeking diversity or differentiation for their own sake. We must also be careful not to differentiate ourselves in a way that makes us less attractive to prospective students.
My second question is: what is our review process?
Our consultative process has involved:
- we held some 30 consultation meetings between October and December - in every faculty, for all students, for all staff, for Academic Board, University Senate, and so on;
- written responses to the paper were encouraged by the end of January this year, and we received around 90 submissions;
- consideration is now underway on these by the Steering Group, which has commenced preparation of an analysis of the implications of each option; and
- preparation for market research, and so on, prior to the making of recommendations in about August this year, which will go to our Academic Board and Senate for deliberation and decision.
It goes without saying that the attitude of our Vice-Chancellor and Executive will be enormously influential. Any change will be implemented in a realistic timeframe, with ample advance notice and preparation time - perhaps not until, say, 2011 if the change is major.
The third question is: what are the key ideas and options we are considering?
With time being short, and our paper being readily available at www.coursestructuresreview.uwa.edu.au, I will summarise these very briefly.
The paper discusses some key issues or principles:
The seven options we set out and are considering are - in extremely brief description -
There is much more detail and argument in our paper, but that gives you a quick overview.
Almost simultaneously with this central issues and options paper, our Review has also issued a discussion paper on the need to expand postgraduate coursework within the University, and some ideas for a coherent University-wide framework for such degrees. The 30-odd recommendations of this working party have now been accepted by our Academic Council, and this may prove to be a significant, if unsung, achievement of the Review.
Meanwhile, there has been much discussion across the University about the seven options for more fundamental reform.
So my fourth question is: how to evaluate these seven options?
In considering the 90 submissions and roughly 30 consultation meetings, our Steering Group is also preparing for detailed modelling of some options, market research, discussion in key overseas markets, and further consultations. We are also undertaking a kind of SWOT analysis for each option - considering each option in the light of strengths in the University which we wish to preserve, problems we hope to solve, opportunities we want to pursue, and risks that we need to mitigate.
The strengths to preserve include:
The problems to solve include:
Opportunities to pursue include expansion of exemplary existing UWA practices - such as a strong research focus throughout some courses, including from first year; inter-disciplinary project work in some courses; discipline-focussed communication skill development in some courses; and some programs which are particularly good at stretching outstanding students. Other opportunities include, of course, selective adaptation of quality-enhancing structures from elsewhere.
The risks we need to mitigate include, for example:
We will be evaluating each of our options in the light of these and other considerations, and making recommendations in about August.
So, finally, what reflections arise from this that may be of interest?
Our process has been ambitious, consultative, and with no predetermined outcome. We are exploring the implications of options before deciding what to do. This consultative process has many pros, and some cons.
On the positive side, it creates the possibility of buy-in, a sense of ownership, around the campus community and beyond, including in the alumni, business, professional, governmental, and other areas we consult. It means the University takes into account the wisdom and expertise of such people before deciding what to do, and how to do whatever it decides to do. Some of this buy-in, for example from business leaders, raises the possibility of philanthropic and other support in implementing whatever we do.
It has been gratifying to have public and private statements endorsing the process even from people with very different hopes and fears about its outcomes. The goodwill of Deans has been important to gain, and much appreciated.
On the other hand, such an open process can create amongst some colleagues a sense of threat - the fear of change, as we all know, can be a powerful force. An open process can enable the forces against change to mobilize, strategise, resist, and lie in wait. This may create some real bias to the status quo.
However, it can also raise expectations beyond what can ever realistically be in prospect of achievement. I have been in too many meetings where it has been said or implied that 'the Review of Course Structures' will solve this or that problem which, in reality, it has little prospect of solving. It has also been necessary to say that good ideas for course development should not be held up because of the Review - life must go on while the Review takes place, and if need be, matters can be revisited when the Review is completed.
The Review has encouraged discussion around the University about the courses we offer, the way we teach, and how we enrich the student learning experience generally. Such discussion is, in my view, highly desirable, and creates the possibility of other positive change.
Some people find the discussion of big educational ideas, and drawing from the experience of leading universities around the world, stimulating, even liberating. Others find it difficult to handle, even threatening. To set our focus firmly on educational reform that positions the University for our goal of being genuinely one of the top 50 universities in the world within a few decades is not easy - but is important, and exciting for many.
With mixed but generally good results, we deliberately encouraged responses to the seven options in our paper to be based on their educational merits - urging focus on what will enable us to offer the best education we can, rather than the first conversation-stopping response being to focus on resource constraints or logistical difficulties.
The discussion of the equity and access aspects of some of our options has, I think, helped to encourage focus on UWA's equity, diversity and access initiatives generally, and on our desire to develop the next wave of initiatives in this area. This is very positive.
In a highly successful university with proud traditions, it is natural that some people will think that things aren't broken, and so don't need to be fixed. It is interesting how conservative some radicals can be. Others, however, will focus on how we can make a very good university into a great one, and how we can make good courses into the best that we can offer. This is the ambitious spirit of our Review.
The responses to the Review overwhelmingly welcome it as a timely and appropriate process, and I have no doubt that this is right. Whether the UWA Review of Course Structures leads to radical change or to little change, it will have given our University community a real chance to debate what the purposes of a university education are and how best these purposes are met in the 21st century. I believe that in the process we will also have contributed something to discussion of these matters in other universities, both nationally and internationally. I very much hope that this is so.
The Review of Course Structures at the University of Western Australia - Professor Don Markwell.