There has been recent discussion in the MSM and blogosphere about the relative merits of the Melbourne model compared to more traditional alternatives. There has been a provocative article by Steven King saying thanks very much Melbourne for sending us so many of your best and brightest. There was a rebuttal by Glyn Davis saying that what Melbourne lose in under-graduate enrolments they more than make up for in specialist masters students, and that this was always the intention. There is a placatory article by Monash VC Ed Byrne. I added a comment to his article which got blown up into an Australian article so I guess I won’t apply for a job at Monash any time soon**.
There are a couple of nice discussion of the issues (including comments) by Professor Paul Fritjers (here and here) which you might like to look at. I thought it might be worth while putting my thoughts down here, in a more complete manner than is possible within a blog comment.
There are three core ideas with the Melbourne model, which often get bundled into one. The first is to force students into a general degree, for the purpose of broadening their education and making them better citizens and more rounded employees. The second is to increase the number of students who extend their degree to 5 years and, let’s be frank, to charge very high fees for the last two years. The third, which is related to but distinct from the first, is to prevent high school students locking in a place in elite courses that lead to closed shop elite careers.
The broadening idea is good in principle. High school students are unlikely to have full information on how well a vocation may suit them and have limited exposure to fields outside their VCE study. So it makes sense to restrict their ability to specialize too early. However, it can and has been argued (for instance by Fritjers) that the idea has been taken too far. Some of the breadth subjects are less rigorous and demanding than would be dlivered to a fully engaged specialist student – necessarily so, if you want arts students to take a science subject. An alternative and less ambitious model would have been to have retained the rigour of existing courses, while still forcing students to do say 25% of their studies in other faculties. So for instance, Math students would do econometrics in the economics department, psychology students would do statistics in the math department, architecture students would do engineering etc. This would lessen the incentive to dilute the content of courses for a non-specialist audience. While it would admittedly mean less broadening, maximal broadening is not necessarily optimal. A revised system would allow students to move 45 degrees from the subjects that they already have an aptitude for, and are interest in – rather than 180 degrees as is the result of the current Melbourne model.
The second reason for the model is economic. Under the current model, a student finishes with a general arts degree (but with some forced low level broadening subjects) and is not very employable. Their generalist degree is likely to be worth less in the job market than the previous 3-year vocational degrees. So students have a strong reason to move to the two year vocational masters subjects that follow. The charge for these courses can be very high, and they are not limited in number or fee structures the same way that under-graduate places are. As one example, the Melbourne Law School charges around k$100 for the law degree (called the JD). Roughly half the students (all local) have to pay this full fee. Students need not pay up front, but will carry a large debt into their first job.
The third reason for the Melbourne model is to prevent high school students choosing their vocation at the age of 17, especially to prevent them locking in a place in an elite program like Law or medicine. They do allow students with extremely high ENTER scores to lock in a place, subject to reasonable performance standards in their under-graduate degree, but they still have to do the general under-graduate degree. There are educational arguments for this which have already been explained above. There is an even stronger ethical and economic argument.
Under the old model, most students in elite degrees came from incredibly advantaged educational backgrounds. This does huge damage to our society and also to the economy. It is rightly perceived as unequal; it is incredibly expensive for private school parents who hand over about k$100 for their child to essentially jump the queue; it is uneconomic because it is not merit based. Under the Melbourne model, students compete on the level playing field of the university, to gain entry to medicine/law. I cannot understand why the government does not enforce such a system on every G8 university. It should be illegal to allocate governmetn supported law/medicine places to kids who got their good results because of an elite education. The Melbourne model can only lead to fairer and more merit based outcomes.
It has been argued that, under the old Melbourne model and competing systems, there were other non-VCE pathways into medicine and law. That may be true, but the fact that the back door was left ajar does not change the fact that the bouncers on the front door were mainly admitting people in private school uniforms.
** I did in fact apply for a job at Monash in 2011. I was not successful. According to my sources on the ground there, the reason was the Australian article and the rejection of my application came from the highest level.