The place of foundational knowledge in the Australian undergraduate curriculum

The place of foundational knowledge in the Australian undergraduate curriculum

Higher Education Policy 15 (2002) 33 – 43 The place of foundational knowledge in the Australian undergraduate curri...

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Higher Education Policy 15 (2002) 33 – 43

The place of foundational knowledge in the Australian undergraduate curriculum Craig McInnis ∗ Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne, Melbourne 3010, Australia

1. Introduction Australia does not have a strong tradition of analysing or debating the nature and purposes of the undergraduate curriculum. An OECD review of the ,rst years of tertiary education noted that it was ‘unable to detect a mainstream of curriculum analysis’, in Australia, and asked ‘why have there been so few attempts to develop institutional programs that ensure an e0ective combination of general or liberal studies and more directly vocational ones?’ (OECD, 1997, p. 21). The focus of most national research and discussion has been on teaching practice and course delivery, for which Australians are internationally recognised: the curriculum, on the other hand, has been regarded essentially as a given. This is partly explained by a national preference for vocational courses entered directly from school (Rosenman, 1996, p. v). Only a minority of ,rst year students in Australia would prefer to take a general undergraduate degree prior to embarking on a specialist vocational education, and there is no sign of this changing without a major policy shift (McInnis, James, & Hartley, 2000). Equally important, however, is the absence of any explicit belief by universities, government or academics that the role of the university is to foster the personal, moral and civic growth of undergraduates. Australian universities have, for the most part, been vocationally focused and students essentially pragmatic in their expectations, although there is a widely agreed notion that graduates should exhibit qualities associated with independent and lifelong learning. 2. New focus This paper raises the possibility that policy dynamics are emerging in Australian higher education that may have the e0ect of encouraging a new focus on the status ∗

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and function of the foundational aspects of the undergraduate degree. It is possible that along with this may come a growth of interest in aspects of a general liberal education for all students, although it is unlikely to be a signi,cant shift in practice. Foundational knowledge can be taken in a narrow sense as the basic building blocks needed for the sequential and cumulative development of understandings and skills in a speci,c discipline. This is certainly a priority, given the knowledge explosion and increasingly di0use nature of cross-disciplinary studies. For higher education, however, it should refer to the learning required for lifelong learning in particular ,elds—from general liberal arts to specialist professions—including the learning of broader values and perspectives, both speci,c to the ,eld of study or discipline, and beyond. This dimension moves the student experience towards what is frequently referred to as the knowledge and understanding that transcends the speci,cs of the ,eld of study, hence it connotes some universal quality central to the notion of ‘graduateness’. The combination of a decline in student engagement, a major national focus on the employment-related generic skills outcomes of the curriculum, and, the incremental loss of coherence in the undergraduate degree—as modularised course structures are increasingly driven by student choice and market opportunities—all point to a need for reconsidering the extent to which universities have a responsibility to provide the foundational or core knowledge needed by students. Moreover, they suggest a need to reconsider the nature of that foundational knowledge. Revisiting the fundamental goals of undergraduate education in terms of cultivating qualities of independent learning, and notions of ‘graduateness’ is of particular signi,cance in this context.

3. Curriculum structures Each university in Australia determines the content and structure of the curriculum and there is considerable diversity in the institutional processes of course approval and accreditation. Some degree programs are inGuenced quite speci,cally by professional associations, others are more broadly shaped by peak bodies such as business-higher education groups, while generalist degrees, such as science and arts, are the product of more diverse constituencies with di0use and somewhat ambiguous agendas. The undergraduate degree for most students is a three to ,ve year program divided into semester-length subjects, increasingly with a vast array of options. As might be expected, vocational courses have a strong component of the curriculum directed at the acquisition of technical knowledge and skills. The balance of theory and practice varies considerably across the universities and ,elds of study, as does the extent to which students can specialise within the ,eld. There are important di0erences between the vocationalism of the university sector and that found in the system of Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges. The latter is more explicitly bound by government and industry requirements for the certi,cation of the competence levels of students, whereas there remains a greater level of autonomy for the universities to determine the course requirements.

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4. Combined degrees A relatively recent, and still poorly analysed development, is the emergence of the combined degree, following the precedent set some years ago by Arts=Law degrees as the preferred high status generalist degree (McInnis and Marginson, 1994). Science=Engineering, Arts=Commerce, and Science=Law are just some of the possible curriculum combinations that students construct to provide them with a form of ‘product di0erentiation’ in the eyes of employers, as well as giving them the opportunity to keep their options open. This program is particularly popular for high achieving undergraduates in the selective research-intensive universities, and e0ectively provides the mix of liberal and vocational curriculum suggested by the OECD review, but in most cases requires ,ve years of undergraduate study: needless to say, the level of knowledge integration and curriculum coherence is problematic. The concern is that students may take these options simply because they can, and the outcomes are the product of accident rather than design on the part of universities. E0orts to grab a share of the student market can have unintended consequences, including the shaping of the curriculum. In an analysis of these developments, Gallagher (2001) points to the more deliberate e0orts of one institution by way of example, the University of Canberra, to encourage students to take double degrees combining a specialist with a general degree, ‘so that professional capabilities are complemented by a structured general education.’ (2001, p. 29)

5. Foundational knowledge in a cultivating climate The articulation of the purposes of the undergraduate curriculum can be found in responses to government-initiated enquiries. The stimulus for reGection on the undergraduate curriculum in Australia has been largely re-active, articulating purposes when required by external reviews. In a submission to the Australian Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy (West Report) (1998) (the West Committee), the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) included in its statement of the purpose, distinctive nature, and value of universities, amongst other things that universities should: develop intellectual independence in their graduates, together with a set of cognitive and social capacities which support active participation of graduates in society (AVCC Response to Discussion Paper. No. 93, 1997). Taking the many changes in higher education into account, the West Committee Report itself concluded that the purpose of the modern university must be: to open the mind, to strengthen and discipline the cognitive powers and sensibilities of the mind, to re,ne the mind, and to create eLcient and e0ective independent learners and knowledge builders (1998, p. 46).


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From there, the Report identi,ed speci,c attributes that every ,rst degree graduate should ideally have acquired, such as ‘the capacity for critical, conceptual and reGective thinking’, and ‘high ethical standards in personal and professional life, underpinned by a capacity for self-directed activity’. Despite criticisms of its impact at the time, these core outcomes articulated by the Report reGect broadly the shared sentiments of academics and policy-makers with respect to the purposes of the undergraduate degree. The diversity of ways in which they are developed through academic programs is another matter. ‘Self-directed’ is taken to mean making choices about what to do, not merely how to do it. The terms ‘independence’ and ‘autonomy’ tend to be used interchangeably in these sorts of discussions, and although freedom is a synonym for both, they can be distinguished in some important respects. Independence means not being dependent on others. With respect to learning, it has come to mean the possession of a set of skills and attitudes that enable the learner to operate without the close direction of a teacher. Autonomy then comes about when students are self-conscious of the way in which their thoughts and actions are connected. It comes when they are able to operate with the understanding that knowledge is changing. It is not something that can be picked up in skills workshops, a self-guided series of exercises, or in the instructions to a multimedia package. Autonomy in learning is something that has to be cultivated in a relationship between university teachers and learners sustained over time (McInnis, 1998). The purpose of providing foundational knowledge cannot be separated from the generally agreed goal of fostering independence through the undergraduate degree. A structured general education suggests the acquisition of knowledge in an ordered sequence. As indicated earlier, there has been little interest in the explicit development of moral and civic ideals as such in Australian universities, but there is a deeply held view that graduates should have a capacity to reGect on the world and demonstrate personal autonomy. An Australian study ‘Faces on the Campus’ from the 1970s (Little, 1975) has been a widely used framework for thinking about the changing context in the student experience and the undergraduate curriculum. It provides some valuable points of reference concerning autonomy and independence in relation to lifelong learning and the place of foundational knowledge. Little explored the notion of university learning climates, using the idea of family climates, and student styles. The four learning climates he identi,ed are the product of two dimensions—support and orientation. Support refers essentially to the level of reassurance and recognition provided to students, and orientation has to do with the guidance given by the university, and, particularly relevant, the demands made on students to perform. From his investigation, Little identi,ed four distinct student styles associated with each learning climate: ‘Autonomous’, ‘Dependent’, ‘Dutiful’ and ‘Withdrawn’. A neglecting climate in undergraduate courses is one where demands are low and support is low. It can create the illusion of developing autonomy but is more likely to lead to minimal achievement and withdrawal from learning. The neglecting climate is at the opposite end of the spectrum to the cultivating climate. This is not the same thing as the ultimately positive ‘benign neglect’ where students are left alone to learn in an atmosphere of high expectations. An indulging climate is one where performance is barely stressed, demands are low but reassurance and recognition of the person is

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strong and ‘relating’ and ‘identity aLrmation’ become ends in themselves. The outcome for the individual student is dependence. In a training climate the guidance and demands are high, but the importance attached to student self-knowledge is low. Performance and results matter most. Little characterised the student style produced by this environment as ‘dutiful’. The term ‘compliant’ is possibly more apt, suggesting a ritualising of the process of education where students go by the rules, and education means certi,cation. The most desirable climate for undergraduate learning is one that is cultivating— producing or reinforcing an autonomous student style, that is, where personal potential and preferences are balanced against real world challenges. The demands for work are balanced against the importance of support and recognition of the self. To know oneself is important if rational choices are to be made. Both cooperation and individualism are important in the cultivating climate. In sum, the product of a cultivating climate is an undergraduate who is productive in work, participates in the life of the university, and emerges as a self-knowing individual. If this was problematic in the 1970s when Little ,rst proposed the conceptual framework, it is now a tall order to even consider the possibility that the undergraduate experience in Australia could achieve these outcomes. Declining resources (meaning larger classes and fewer teachers), major changes in the outlooks and expectations of students, and the fragmentation of the curriculum are just some of the limiting factors.

6. Declining student engagement On the basis of trend studies of the student experience in Australia, it is clear that there has been a major shift in the nature and extent of student engagement in the undergraduate experience (McInnis, 2001). This has given some urgency to a reconsideration of the place of foundational studies in the undergraduate degree. A national trend study of ,rst year students found that even on conservative measures, the number of students working part-time while enrolled full-time has increased signi,cantly in the last ,ve years or so (McInnis, James, & Hartley, 2000). More students now rely on part-time work as their only or main source of income, and those who are working are spending considerably more hours in paid work. A clear outcome, exacerbated by the availability and poor application of new technologies, has been a marked decline in the number of days students spend in campus. This has been accompanied by increasingly strong demands on universities to ,nd ways of accommodating the subject choices and special timetable needs of students. Individual academics are under similar pressure to yield to student requirements for special consideration to meet part-time work obligations. Similar patterns have been observed in the United States (Kuh, 2001; Astin, 1998). Universities in Australia are experiencing a pattern of negotiated engagement from students—an environment where frameworks and models of the student experience require reconceptualising. Perhaps the more important point to make here is that students who are negotiating their forms of engagement are actually far more autonomous than


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their predecessors in some senses, and it is they, not the institutions or the academics, who are making their worlds complex and ambiguous. There has been a great deal of evidence to guide the development and delivery of e0ective undergraduate programs as we have known them over the last 20 or so years. In that large body of research, much of it from the United States, the quality and intensity of student engagement with the institutional experience stands out as a factor contributing to student outcomes. Chickering and Ehrmann (1997) reconsidered the implementation of the well-known ‘Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education’, for an era when new communication and information technologies have become major resources for teaching and learning. These principles, distilled from research evidence, have been widely recognised and used in planning and evaluation in universities throughout the United States and Canada. They emphasise the importance of social interaction in undergraduate learning: contacts between students and sta0; reciprocity between students and sta0; active learning techniques; giving prompt feedback; student time on task; communicating high expectations; and respecting diverse talents and ways of learning. The authors argue that there is nothing in these principles which is incompatible with greater use of the new technologies, if properly handled. In fact, technology o0ers new ways of realising these goals, and can augment face-to-face teaching in valuable ways. They point, for instance, to ‘one of the earliest surprises about computers’: the extent to which they encourage spontaneous student collaboration (Chickering & Ehrmann 1997, p. 2). But they insist that both sta0 and students need to be assertive and tough-minded in assessing whether individual courses of study are in fact following these principles in their use of technology. However, what they did not account for in their re-assessment of the principles is the shift in the nature of student engagement, and the growth in opportunities for choice. This perspective does not support the view of those who see the pressure of governments on universities for performativity and functionality as leading to the alienation and disengagement of students. For example, Mann (2001, p. 9) argues that ‘a greater focus on eLciency and e0ectiveness’ comes ‘at the expense of complexity and ambiguity’ and that student life courses are now driven by institutions to the point that students follow prescribed paths. This ignores the dominance of normative models of the student experience for the last 20 years or more in the United States that have assumed that the role of colleges and universities was to take responsibility for the shape of student outcomes. Indeed, this has been central to the most widely accepted explanations of student dropout. Such a critique also ignores the opening up of curriculum choice and Gexibility. 7. Curriculum fragmentation The policy signi,cance of universities asserting their role in curriculum design is critical to the development of foundational knowledge. In an address to the Business Higher Education Round Table, the First Assistant Secretary of Higher Education,

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Michael Gallagher (2001), made the point that the production function of higher education is being transformed and that, amongst other things, the consequences of the modularisation of curricula and the growth of virtual delivery are potentially far-reaching. He observed of modules that ‘unless they are particularly well-designed, they may threaten educational coherence and limit opportunities for learning to learn, hence eroding foundations’ and raises the question ‘to what extent has the substance of higher education changed away from professional preparation and laying the foundation of knowledge...?’ The role of the undergraduate degree in laying such a foundation will be inGuenced to a signi,cant extent by the capacity of universities to manage the nature and extent of student engagement with the university. The curriculum is the glue that holds knowledge and the broader student experience together and enables the knowledge to be used e0ectively by the student. Students in Australia are increasingly likely to move away from coherent course structures wherever it is possible to gain a competitive advantage in the labour market: unless they can be convinced that the quality of the integrated experience is worthwhile. The e0ects of a demand-driven ‘smorgasbord’ approach on foundational and sequential learning is diLcult to assess. Some disciplines have changed in 30 years from programs in which most elements were compulsory to an almost completely open bill of fare from which students can choose whatever they wish. It is not uncommon for majors to have only one compulsory unit and, in some Arts faculties, the distinction between second and third year subjects has virtually disappeared. Of course, these developments are not nearly as pronounced in some other ,elds of study, particularly professional ,elds like Medicine and Engineering, which still maintain a largely compulsory program, at least within sub-,elds. Other ,elds, such as Law, have developed programs which attempt to strike a balance, with a core of essential subjects and a diverse range of electives (Baldwin & McInnis, 2001). To address this curriculum fragmentation and loss of knowledge ‘anchors’, universities need to reassert and maintain the importance of coherence and integrity in curriculum design. Coherence is not the same as consistency and order. Coherence advances learning and promotes independence and autonomy for the learner. Consistency, on the other hand, aims to remove ambiguity and confusion for the students by making things more ordered, but inevitably fosters dependence (Ratcli0, 1996). In the Gexible delivery, learner-centred, user-pays environment, coherence is at risk when universities create a multitude of subject options from a maze of providers and then react by becoming more prescriptive when students make poor choices, fail or even fail to complete, and complain. Students are now more generally exposed to making inappropriate choices, and they are not necessarily suLciently informed to make the kinds of subject and assessment choices that will most bene,t their development. Putting subjects into order and devising systems to manage them is a super,cial response. The danger is that universities may react inappropriately to their insecurity in the face of a fragmented curriculum by over-systematising, controlling and monitoring options and choices. In a word, training. Worse, this training exacerbates the process of student disengagement from the university where the learning experience becomes tied up in an ‘iron-clad contract, with no allowance for adaptation or detour.’ (Marchese, 1998, p. 4)


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Clearly, the pace of change has been such that research is following in the wake of innovations and policy. A recent proposal to create a virtual university in the United States has been promoted as an opportunity for students to create their own curriculums, and the role of the university is in this instance is to act as a broker (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2000). While this development is far from new in countries like Australia which has been o0ering this experience through distance education and Open Learning Australia, it does make a particular virtue of the personalised curriculum. It might be noted that despite a substantial body of US research on these matters, the changes in recent times have been such that the Educational Resources Information Centre (ERIC) is currently calling for proposals for monographs on ‘The impact of technology on students’, ‘Assessing the quality of the undergraduate experience’, and ‘Core curriculum’. The latter study has been prompted by the calls of external stakeholders on institutions to defend what they are teaching and identify their core curriculum. Many stakeholders in the US feel, as another ERIC proposal puts it, that academic leaders have failed in their responsibility to exert a strong, systematic vision of what an institution’s curriculum should be. As elsewhere, Australian universities have been under pressure from a complex web of stakeholders, and in trying to satisfy everyone, the curriculum in many cases has become overloaded, fragmented, and far from cohesive. 8. Foundational knowledge and the demand for generic skills In the last few years, the importance of revisiting the foundational knowledge issue has been heightened by the Government requirement that universities must specify the attributes their graduates should demonstrate as a result of their undergraduate experience. Indeed, universities have recently been asked to apply for additional funded student places on the basis of innovative approaches to teaching and learning, designed to meet the needs of industry and to provide students with useable skills upon graduation. The Department of Education, Training and Youth A0airs (DETYA) account of this development points to the shift in policy from input and process measures to outcomes (Gallagher, 2001, p. 27). In responding to this, most universities have emphasised generic attributes that relate to skills and qualities identi,ed as important by employers. The preference in higher education is for broader attributes rather than the speci,c key skills competencies of vocational training providers. Moving beyond rhetoric, most universities are now: working towards embedding their lists of graduate attributes into the curricula and then developing strategies and systems for assessing and recording outcomes. (Gallagher, 2001, p. 27) Associated with this is the emergence of the notion of ‘graduateness’ in the context of pressure on the universities to demonstrate that they add value to the experience of students beyond the acquisition of skills and subject knowledge. It also

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represents a reaction to the narrow vocationalism of training environments. A national government-sponsored survey instrument, the course experience questionnaire (CEQ), measures the performance of universities on a range of items and is distributed each year to all graduates from Australian universities alongside a survey of employment. It includes graduate evaluations of the quality of teaching and their satisfaction with the extent to which the university they attended, provided them with generic skills related to employment. This has had the clear e0ect of sharpening the focus of universities on generic skills related to employability but not necessarily of the broader qualities derived from a cultivating learning environment where foundational knowledge is developed alongside the growth of student self-knowledge. A new set of scales was recently developed for the CEQ in a project commissioned and reported by DETYA (McInnis, GriLn, James, & Coates, 2001). The scales attempt to measure the student experience beyond the classroom and include a series of items identifying ‘graduateness’. The items in this scale are focussed on qualities typically associated with university outcomes, especially attitudes and perspectives related to the relevance of the course for lifelong learning. The items taken together give a sense of the personal attributes that a graduate should have, as derived, partly at least, from a review of university statements about what they believed they did for students. The items refer to the extent to which the undergraduate experience: stimulated enthusiasm for further learning; gave a broad overview of the ,eld of knowledge; encouraged students to value perspectives other than their own; gave them the capacity to apply principles from the course to new situations; and developed their con,dence to investigate new ideas. It is diLcult to imagine that these qualities could be developed without an appropriate mix of demands and support, and it most certainly requires a learning environment where self-knowledge is cultivated in the context of skills and knowledge acquisition. 9. Conclusion De,ning the curriculum as an organising device is a key to universities shaping the future of the e0ective undergraduate experience more generally, including the management of negotiated student engagement with a coherent knowledge base. Since the serendipity of student–student and sta0–student interaction for campus-based learning can no longer be assumed, and the possibility of the personalised curriculum is occurring as much by default as design, more sophisticated curriculum development and management is needed. In the face of competition from other providers, universities will have to convince students and society that they o0er a distinctive experience and that the graduate attributes they aim to cultivate in the curriculum are ,rst rate. Universities can bring together the total student experience through creative design of the structure and organisation of the curriculum but the importance of foundational knowledge, beyond basic knowledge building blocks, has to be argued rather than asserted. This may mean, however, making some hard decisions about the point at which student choice and Gexibility in delivery of the curriculum becomes self-defeating, and asserting on


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the basis of clear indicators that the cohesiveness of the content and the process adds value that only universities as generators of knowledge can add. It also means that universities and individual academics need to get from students a clear commitment to taking responsibility in the process, even if this has to be formalised as part of the course requirements and assessment process. Although many of the issues may sound familiar, the context has changed and, therefore, perennial problems have taken on new dimensions. Current developments in higher education generally run counter to what has in the past been assumed to be the e0ective undergraduate experience. The call of the OECD review (1997, p. 24) to ,nd ‘ways in which the undergraduate curriculum might be reconceptualised and restructured to enable students to face the demands and challenges of contemporary life’ has been answered by the universities, but with some notable exceptions these have been largely incremental and local reactions to government policy and the perceived demands of employers, and students. The challenge underlying discussions about the future of the undergraduate degree in Australia is the need to develop meaningful norms and reference points in relation to the character and role of foundational studies in a cultivating climate. These must, however, be relevant to the new contexts in which undergraduate education is now provided. References Astin, A. W. (1998). The changing American college student: Thirty year trends 1966 –1996. Review of Higher Education, 21(2), 151–165. Australian Vice Chancellor’s Association (1997). Discussion Paper No. 93, Canberra. Baldwin, G., & McInnis, C. (2001). The organisation of the academic year: trends and issues. Paper prepared for the Department of Education Training and Youth A0airs. CSHE: University of Melbourne. Chickering, A., & Ehrmann, S. (1997). Implementing the seven principles: Technology as lever. Chronicle of Higher Education, (2000). New virtual university in Virginia would let students create their own curriculums, August 24. Gallagher, M. (2001). Lifelong learning: Demand and supply issues—some questions for research. Business=higher education roundtable conference on Lifelong Learning, Sydney, July 24. Kuh, G. (2001). Assessing what really matters of student learning, Change (May=June). Little, G. (1975). Faces on the campus: A psycho-social study. Parkville: MUP. Mann, S. (2001). Alternative perspectives on the student experience: alienation and engagement. Studies in Higher Education, 26(1), 7–19. Marchese, T. (1998). Disengaged students. Change. March=April. McInnis, C. (1998). Cultivating independent learning in the ,rst year—changing contexts. Third paci3c rim 3rst year conference, Auckland: NZ. McInnis, C. (2001). Signs of disengagement? Responding to the changing work and study patterns of full-time undergraduates in Australian universities. Paper presented at the annual conference of the consortium of higher education researchers, Dijon, September. McInnis, C., GriLn, P. James, R., & Coates, H. (2001). Development of the course experience questionnaire. EIP, DETYA Higher Education Division, Canberra. McInnis, C., James, R., & Hartley, R. (2000). Trends in the 3rst year experience. DETYA Higher Education Division, Canberra. McInnis, C., & Marginson, S. (1994). Australian law schools after the 1987 Pearce report. Canberra: AGPS. OECD (1997). Thematic review of the ,rst years of tertiary education Australia, DETYA, Canberra.

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Ratcli0, J. (1996). Building e0ective curricula to improve undergraduate education. In R. James, & C. McInnis (Eds.), Transition to active learning: Proceedings of the second paci3c rim conference on the 3rst year in higher education. CSHE: University of Melbourne. Review of Higher Education Financing and Policy (West Report), (1998). Learning for life. Canberra: DETYA. Rosenman, L. (1996). The broadening of university education: An analysis of entry restructuring and curriculum change options. Canberra: Australian Government Publisher.