Sunday, November 11, 2007

University of New England's new academic structure

As part of its strategic planning process, UNE outlined a vision to achieve regional and global impact. This was followed by an academic restructuring and now UNE has advertised for no less than ten professorial heads of schools.

I will comment on the new structure in a moment. But first, a plea to the University. Please don't do what Sydney University did.

A year or so ago when Sydney moved to a new structure, the effect was to reduce student choice because it became harder for students to mix and match courses to do what they really wanted to do. Students were locked in to much more narrowly defined paths.

Sydney can get away with this. UNE cannot. Students have always had a centrality at UNE that has not existed in many other places. Academic structures exist to enhance student experience and choice, not to limit it.

So what does the new structure look like? To begin with, we now have two faculties, Arts and Science and the Faculty of the Professions.

The Faculty of the Professions is a fascinating concept. In writings on one of my professional blogs discussing the idea of a discipline of practice, I argued in part that the professions could learn from each other. The UNE structure might in fact facilitate this.

The new faculty has five schools: Education; Business, Economics and Public Policy; Law, Health; and Rural Medicine.

Education covers early childhood, primary, secondary and adult education. These are all areas where UNE has a long tradition and great strength. The inclusion of education as one of the professions is a great move.

The next school, business, economics and public policy, covers business, economics and administrative leadership. This one strikes me as a lot messier simply because I do not know at this point how things fit in. This is also an area where students need access to subjects in the other faculty, Arts and Sciences. A case in point.

Eldest was doing business studies at UTS. At the end of first year that the course was too narrow, so she decided to look elsewhere focused on Arts/Economics combinations.

She went first to Sydney because she was attracted by the extra curricular aspect of the place including SUDS, the drama society. She quickly backed off because the rigid academic structures precluded her doing the subject combinations she wanted. So now she is enrolled at UNSW in Arts/Economics.

The third school in the Faculty of the Professions is law, covering law and agricultural law. This one is pretty clear cut.

Then we have two health school, health itself (nursing, counselling, health management) and rural medicine, a course offered in conjunction with the University of Newcastle. Always good to see New England's universities cooperating. This is a potentially powerful combination of areas with significant international outreach potential.

The new Faculty of Arts and Sciences is somewhat messier. Again, the capacity for students to study across schools will be important in attracting them.

The school of arts includes english, communication studies, theatre, languages and music. Then we have behavioural, cognitive and social studies - geography, planning, linguistics, psychology and sociology. And humanities - archaeology and paleoanthropology, classics and ancient history, history, philosophy, politics and international studies, indigenous studies, peace studies.

To my mind, the interlinks between these schools will be critical to the effectiveness of the new system in practice. Students have to be allowed to mix and match across schools.

Then we have two science schools.

The first is environment and rural science - agronomy and soil science, animal science, genetics, earth science, environmental engineering, botany, ecosystems management, marine science, zoology. Not a bad combination that combines UNE's traditional interests with the new.

The second is science and technology - human biology, molecular and cellular biology, chemistry, physics and electronics, maths, stats and compute science.

This one strikes me as being rather more mixed. But I am not a scientist.

In all, I will be interested to see how it works out over time.

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