University of Wollongong: a distinctive university?

Dear colleagues,

Is it possible for the University of Wollongong to become one of the world's great universities? Not if we are competing in conventional terms such as research quality and productivity. Many of the current "great" research universities have enormous advantages, such as endowments of hundreds of millions of dollars and very low staff-student ratios (Harvard is about 4 to 1, for example). Even to become outstanding compared to other Australian universities would be enormously difficult, given the nature of funding and competition for it.

What is more possible, though, is for the University of Wollongong to become recognised on the world scene as a distinctive and attractive university. It can become attractive and respected (at least by some) by doing well what few others do. But what can the University do that is distinctive? Here are a few possibilities, not necessarily as recommendations, but as ideas of the sort of thing that could make a university distinctive. These are not original by me, but are ideas I've heard over the years. Some are implemented at some institutions.

* Undergraduate research projects. Every student, before graduating, is required to complete a research project that has relevance to the broader community (including industry, government, citizen groups), and make the results generally available. Such a requirement would make education more practically oriented and of greater interest to the community. Graduates would have a piece of work to show for their studies.

* Peer teaching. Many classes would be designed so that students teach each other, both within classes and between classes (e.g. third years helping first years). Peer teaching is in many circumstances more effective than teaching by academics; the peer teachers in particular learn a lot. Time could be freed up for research.

* Interaction with the community. Academics and students would make initiatives and design projects that link with the community, including debates, study groups, media stories, artistic displays, service activities, etc. For example, every faculty could produce a monthly newspaper that discussed the latest ideas and questioned established wisdom. Rather than the relationship being primarily money for degrees, a wide range of relationships would be fostered. This would make both the university and the city places where people want to be because they are exciting intellectually.

* Childcare on site. Each major building on campus would provide childcare facilities. This would be attractive to many parents, attracting talented scholars and bringing more of them regularly on campus.

* Research on learning. Half or more of teachers would partake in ongoing research into the effectiveness of different teaching/learning techniques, also involving students in participatory research on learning. This would create an atmosphere of continual self-reflection that would be stimulating for both students and staff.

* Experiments in governance. The university, as a large organisation, would experiment with different styles and methods of governance in different units. This might include line management, election of heads, autonomous work groups, consensus and random selection. By continually evaluating the quality of decisions and policies and the impact of decision-making methods on participants, this would create a dynamic atmosphere.

* Student self-direction. After a few introductory subjects, students would be expected to work out their own programmes of individual and group study. Programmes would be negotiated with teachers who would act in the role of mentors. Students seeking a conventional education could choose from standard learning packages (texts, recorded lectures, etc.), whereas those with other interests could develop their own unique programmes of study.

* Research by non-academics. Research projects would be developed that involved students, general staff and members of the community as researchers as well as subjects. This would create a new style of research (different from the professional academic model) and a new constituency.

In my view, any of these is possible. But to go even a little way towards any one of them, the biggest challenge is to develop a collective commitment to move away from traditional approaches and to try something different, together. The academic system primarily rewards those who seek individual advancement on the basis of traditional scholarly achievements. To make the University of Wollongong a distinctive university would require many staff making a commitment to a different model of success.

Brian Martin
3 December 1996

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