A different perspective

Volume 7 Number 2 February 14 - March 13 2011

The students and staff of the University of Melbourne come from diverse cultural backgrounds, its graduates are active global citizens and the University is deeply engaged in research partnerships with highly ranked international universities. Shane Cahill explores how the University is working to further expand its position as a truly international university in research, learning and teaching and engagement.

They’d already designed a room for the back of an Australian suburban house and toured the Mornington Peninsula in anticipation of the next challenge of a salesroom for a winery.

The nine architecture students from Belas Artes University in Sao Paolo in Brazil were immersed in the “Australian Space, Environment and Identity Program” run by the Australia Centre and faculties of Arts and Architecture, Building and Planning where they mix architectural practice with lectures, site visits and cultural activities to give them a unique perspective on Australia.

And on a sunny Friday afternoon tram trip to St Kilda beach – they will also design a change room for a Surf Coast beach – there was no doubt in their minds that international study is an eye-opening and life-changing experience.

“My eyes are just so wide open, everything is so different,” says third year student Rafael Faro.

For Thania Soares, a journalist whose urban affairs and arts reporting led her to take up studies in architecture and urbanism, her time in Melbourne has offered opportunities as diverse as time to reflect on human nature and wonder at the city’s resilient tram system.

“You get to understand better the human condition and human nature because you get to see how other people configure their cities and how they cope with their local problems and how creativity emerges from it,” says Ms Soares who is in the fourth year of her course.

“Here in your public transport system you have managed to keep your trams. It is a very cheap way to travel, it’s very nice and it’s fast and it keeps the traffic organised. In Sao Paolo in the past we had trams but for many reasons they stopped running and now the traffic is terrible and we have this massive public transport problem and here in Melbourne the city has a more organised way of thinking about transportation.”

Liz Agostino, Manager of International Programs at the Australia Centre, says the most rewarding part of customising these academic and cultural programs for international students is engaging and challenging them on an intellectual level and exposing them to uniquely Melbourne experiences.

“As the programs progress we get to see how this impacts their perspective of Australia, as well as their home country,” Ms Agostino says.

A number of these international participants are already exploring returning to Melbourne to undertake a Masters.

At the undergraduate level students from across the globe are already making Melbourne their University of choice for architecture, building and planning, demonstrating the acceptance of the importance of the broadening of one’s perspectives.

Professor Tom Kvan, Dean of Architecture, Building and Planning, makes no attempt to disguise his satisfaction with the news just in that the Bachelor of Environments, or what he refers fondly to “our outrageously unknown degree” when introduced as a core degree of the Melbourne Model in 2008, is now the second most popular in Victoria among international students and seventh most popular overall.

“It was completely new and different,” Professor Kvan says. “It was and is manifestly multidisciplinary from its name, governance and multi-faculty approach. Initially we had an expectation of an enrolment of only thirty students and we thought the numbers would be skewed along traditional lines,” he says.

First preferences for 2011 were 634, up 21 per cent from the previous year. International first preferences for 2011 were 163, up 26 per cent.

“But from the start we were pleased to find that students were coming in open-minded and as they gained knowledge then made up their minds on what they wanted to do. Otherwise we would have lost them.

“They say to us ‘I’ve found a new world’.”

So just what is it that has made this adventurous new offering so popular with high-achieving students from across Australia and a particular attraction to students from around the globe?

First, it speaks directly to the concerns and aspirations of contemporary students.

“Among our younger student generation issues and interest of the environment are paramount,” Professor Kvan says.

“They are very aware of their futures in the world which they will inherit.

“The international students come from many parts of the world that are rapidly developing and in which key decisions are currently being made which will have profound long-term impacts on their environments. Within such rapidly developing contexts there is an awareness that appropriate decisions should be made now so that we don’t suffer consequences later.

“The other aspect is that many of these areas are under developmental pressure in their environments because certain aspects of their economies have moved faster than their infrastructures to deal with them so the problems of the environment are likely to be more manifest.”

Secondly, emerging as it did from the curriculum review that preceded the introduction of the Melbourne Model, Environments offers students a fully developed course of study at undergraduate level leading to a wide range of postgraduate options.

“We are the only entity that is presenting an engagement or discussion about environmental issues in a coherent and co-ordinated manner,” Professor Kvan says.

“You cannot solve environmental problems if you do not consider distributions of employment, modes of transportation, choices of housing if you are looking to improve quality of life.

“The international students are seeing much of that and that we are the only people with a coherent message and therefore are interested in taking up the opportunity to explore the many facets that we present in the Bachelor of Environments.”

The first cohort of the new degree has also experienced hands-on travelling studio experience in remote Northern Territory communities, the slums of Mumbai and earthquake-devastated Chile as part of their preparation for graduate studies.

“The students are making far more considered choices now, such as in their professional commitments,” Professor Kvan says.

“The (Melbourne) model is giving them the flexibility so that their understanding of a professional commitment is developed over a period of time as they learn more and then they can make the appropriate professional commitment.

“That has meant that students who have come in with their declared intent to go into one major have moved to a different one in subsequent years.”

For international students, the new degree will have profound effects on their careers and in many cases their home countries.

“For international students, Environments often gives them opportunities that cannot be realised at home. The degree provides them with both continuity and a new body of knowledge they can take back home.

Success stories such as that of Environments form part of Melbourne’s extensive international programs, experiences and capacity built up over many years.

For Professor Sue Elliott, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Engagement) this international engagement permeates all aspects of life at the University, from its exchange programs, culturally diverse classrooms with students from nearly 100 countries and curricula and research that focus on the major global issues.

“We seek to ensure that our graduates are informed of the major global issues, that they are alert to the issues that face the planet and the human race and that they have come from a university which is characterised by free debate. Thus they’re equipped with the knowledge and skills and an attitude of free enquiry and debate to be able to participate in the big issues of our time,” she says.

Professor Elliott points to the Global Mobility scheme – the largest in Australia – providing approximately 900 scholarships annually for Melbourne undergraduates, including those with disabilities, to study abroad as tangible evidence of international focus of the curriculum. So too the deliberate mixing of students in classes from a range of backgrounds to produce diverse perspectives in teaching and learning along with the doubling of language studies since the introduction of the Melbourne Model.

“Melbourne far more than other universities wants to equip its students with a very high level of English competency independent of their background and increasingly equip them with a competence in a second language that can be achieved through breadth subjects,” she says.

Melbourne’s International Plan to 2014 will expand the University’s already national leading Global Student Mobility program allowing study overseas and define the future strategic roles for the University’s other international activities including Asialink, the Confucius Institute and the Australia-India Institute to support new forms of international engagement.

But it is expanding existing and developing new multidisciplinary and mutually-beneficial research partnerships with highly-ranked international universities that will drive Melbourne towards its target of cementing its place as a truly international university in research, learning and teaching and engagement.

“Partnerships are the key,” Professor Elliott says. “We currently have more than 200 Memorandums of Understanding with other universities and now we are seeking to elevate a smaller number that are much more meaningful and have a deeper perspective.”

Melbourne also is a founding member of Universitas 21 and a member of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities.

“We are wanting to co-author more with international researchers and compete for the big international research funds such as the National Institute of Health funds in the US or European Union funds,” Professor Elliott says.

Vanderbilt University is already a close partner and Professor Elliott says new partnerships are being formed on a “ground up” basis between Melbourne researchers and laboratories and partners at international universities.

Incoming Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), Professor Jim McCluskey, adds there are several examples where international collaboration has clearly been pivotal to the University’s ability to assemble high performance research teams and then attract the external funding needed to support them.  

“One of our strengths in harnessing research partnerships is that the University is a big comprehensive university. We virtually do everything from arts to engineering, medicine to literature,” Professor McCluskey says.

“We are very visible in all areas where we engage. That breadth is a powerful attribute. We just have to continue to build on that and that is the ongoing challenge into the future.

“The recent success of Professor Geoff Taylor in securing $25million to investigate the origins of the universe at the largest pure research facility on the planet, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva, was possible because Professor Taylor and his team have brokered a host of international partnerships over many years that have positioned this group as a global leader in the field of particle physics.”

International research and collaboration are critical to the University of Melbourne achieving its 2020 vision of being a globally engaged, comprehensive and responsive research-intensive university. Just as the University has benefited from the international mobility of students in recent years, the University’s research culture and output also benefits from the international movement of its researchers.

The Melbourne Research Office has always provided a high level of support for researchers seeking to develop their international networks by facilitating access to Australian and international programs that provide support for international travel, research and collaboration.  

Dr David Cookson, Executive Director, Research says this support had been recently enhanced in the past six months. “In mid-2010, Dr Adrian Collins joined the Research Office in a newly established role as International Research Co-ordinator to provide additional support for researchers seeking international funding to support their international networks and alliances,” he says.

“We recognize that this is no simple task though and our researchers must have support to navigate the many unfamiliar and often complex international funding mechanisms that exist.”

Dr Cookson also notes that difficulties often also extend to national funding mechanisms intended to support international research and collaboration, particularly where they involve partners in developing countries.

 “The University has many dedicated staff whose work has real impact on the quality of life, health and well being of many people in our region, but we can always do more”, he says.

“This undertaking needs more direct support to ensure that large, research-intensive and public-spirited universities such as Melbourne can better translate their collective knowledge into positive outcomes in poor and developing countries in our region.”

Dr Cookson says the Melbourne Research Office is well positioned to assist the University enhance its success in securing support for its international research and collaborations.

“In 2011, I know we will see increased attention on both domestic and overseas programs that support international research and research collaborations across the University. I look forward to researchers from all faculties making the most of the resources of this office to ensure their international efforts meet with the best chance of success.”

Across the University in areas as diverse as maximising international students’ Melbourne experience, ensuring the curriculum enhances interaction between domestic and international students and giving domestic students as many opportunities as possible to complete part of their studies overseas, the international dimension is ever-present.

Provost Professor John Dewar sees the University’s location adjacent to the heart of what has evolved into a truly cosmopolitan city as providing the ideal environment for learning across cultures. And the decision to stage graduations in December for the first time in 2010 now allows domestic and international students who had studied and socialised together to graduate in one group.

For Dr Sophia Arkoudis of the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, languages and bilingualism are critical to Melbourne’s international focus and the high take-up of languages either by overwhelmingly monolingual Australians or those students already with some proficiency in another language is a most positive development.

“What we need are true bilinguals, although we can’t get away from the fact that English is the language of higher education,” she says.

“And it’s increasingly the commodity that’s sold for international education around the world and part of the success of Australia as a destination for international students has been our English language.

“That’s inevitable but what we need to be doing is encouraging this approach to being proficient in English and also being proficient and communicating in another language.

“I think that gets us part of the way to being even more of a global university than we have been because it’s through language that we actually get to understand different cultures and perspectives.”

We began with international students having their eyes opened by their experiences here. Melbourne students too have many opportunities to broaden their horizons in programs like Engineers Without Borders.

Engineering students have played important hands-on roles in water projects vital to the well being of populations in Vietnam and Timor Leste for which they receive course credits in addition to the life skills inherent in the projects.

“It’s humanitarian engineering where engineering is put in the context of a society and the people that it actually serves,” says Dean of the Melbourne School of Engineering, Professor Iven Mareels.

“In principle that is what engineering is all about – bringing technology to bear on a problem at the level that society needs it.”