Monday, February 9, 2015

Some positive changes for Australian undergraduates

Recently I was asked about how universities around the world are changing. I found my answer a bit depressing, as I see most of the changes as negative. However, the other day I reflected on some positive changes that have occurred at Australian universities since I was an undergraduate at the Australian National University (ANU), 35 years ago.
[There are also some significant negative changes, but I just want to acknowledge some positives].
I think some of these positives are particularly well done by my department, and by UQ, but I think they are also present at other universities.

Outreach to high school students.
A host of different programs bring students on campus for a range of activities. Faculty or "outreach officers" visit high schools. Although, ANU did run a friday afternoon math club for high school nerds in Canberra [where I grew up], I never had the opportunity to participate in a program such as the Queensland Junior Physics Olympiad.

International exchange programs.
No such program existed when I was an undergrad at ANU. I believe such a program only began at ANU about ten years later, when David Sholl was the first to make use of it. Now at UQ, students can study overseas for one or two semesters, at a diverse set of universities, some of which are better than UQ.

Summer research scholarships.
These programs were just beginning when I was an undergrad, and I never got to do one. In contrast, many UQ undergrads have done several such projects by the time they graduate.

Removal of terrible teachers.
At ANU I was privileged to have some outstanding and inspiring teachers including Hans Buchdahl, Hans Hornung, Neil Trudinger, and John Hutchinson. However, there were several lecturers who were absolutely shocking. They were "research inactive", waiting for retirement, and completely incomprehensible. There was no point in going to their lectures or taking any course they were responsible for. This is why I never did Solid State Physics or advanced Physical Chemistry as an undergraduate. I could be wrong, but I think that at most Australian universities such people have now been removed [or died] or are simply kept away from undergrads. They are too much of a liability, given concerns about keeping students happy. Mind you, I have to acknowledge by own department did allow such an individual to teach most of an undergrad course until ten years ago.

I found it refreshing to reflect on these positives.

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