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Is university education in Australia still fit for purpose?

Victoria University’s new Block Model of education – whereby students study one subject intensively over four weeks, instead of four over 11 or 12 weeks – is having a marked effect on student retention and performance, prompting experts, policymakers and academics to reconsider traditional models of university education.

According to a VU statement, the Block Model has increased the average pass rate from 76 per cent per subject to 84 per cent. This improvement has been largely attributed to not only the concept of the Block Model, but a standardised and technological platform “so students can learn anytime, anywhere”, the statement said.

The use of D2L’s Brightspace Learning Management System throughout the university has produced “profound” gains among some of the most disadvantaged university students, with completion rates for students from non-English speaking backgrounds and Indigenous Australians up 14 and 19 per cent respectively.

Mark Yaxley, director of the ANZ region of D2L, said the Australian university sector (and universities in some other parts of the world) are still clinging on to a conventional model that is a disservice to many students, particularly ones from disadvantaged backgrounds and others who have competing demands such as family and work commitments.

“Certainly, within the university sector, the predominant method of teaching is still stand in front of the class, in front of a large number of students, lecture to them, and have them read and write essays,” Yaxley said.

Yaxley acknowledged that there is probably a level of anxiety in shifting to newer, block-style models, with some academics fearing it might dilute the educational quality of degrees awarded in particularly rigorous disciplines, including law and medicine. He also argued that the traditional model is highly economical and may discourage some higher education providers to significantly change their learning delivery styles.

Another important point Yaxley highlighted is the potential obsolescence of some degrees where industry practices and technology are moving quickly.

What he sees, instead, is a “a growing movement towards specific skills and competencies in the workplace”, not vague or theoretical courses that do not explicitly tell an employer what a prospective employee can do.

“And you’re seeing companies like LinkedIn Learning picking up those and starting to create their own digital exchange economy around the concept of ‘I’ve proved I have these skills, these competencies, and they’re visible to the employer’,” he said.

Yaxley added that possessing certain skills will be more valuable because employers are increasingly interested in what you can do, rather than the grades you’ve achieved or the qualifications you’ve obtained.

Yaxley also believes in the importance of educating “marginalised students”, those who did not complete high school, VET or university. He said that leaving them out of the economy is a waste of human talent, a drain on the economy, and that skills-based programs and block models could be ways to equip them with certifiable skills for real and sustainable jobs.

If we do not embrace flexible models of higher education, “we’re taking away their chance for a future in many instances, and we’re not breaking that cycle of poverty that comes from a lack of education,” he said.

“I think the successful universities are going to be the ones that can really add value to the individual beyond getting a degree … and actually translate it into enhanced life opportunities.”

On a final note, Yaxley said universities must continue to forge strong industry links with multinationals such as BHP to keep their skills relevant and in demand.

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