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Transforming university education

Lismore campus architecture


25 May 2023

Fifty years ago, university was a vastly different place. 11 of our current 37 public institutions did not exist. The proportion of female students at university was half what it is today, while numbers of Indigenous students have increased from a mere handful in the 1970s to around 20,000 in today’s student cohort.

2 students at a desk at the Gold Coast campus

Transforming university education

Universities are arguably more equitable, more accessible and more accountable than ever before. But the challenges as we move into the next fifty years are significant. Students must usually combine study with work; most are time-poor and not coming to university straight from school. Those students must balance competing commitments that might also include family. They are also part of an uber-connected, hyper-alert world where tweets can make the stock market tremble and a Facebook video gone viral can cause a deadly riot.

This was very apparent to Professor Thomas Roche as the Dean of SCU College, a role he has held since 2019. “SCU College specialises in pathway courses and preparatory courses for a diverse range of students and particularly those entering university through non-traditional avenues.

“It was clear that competing time pressures, rather than ability or commitment, were leading many of our students to discontinue their studies,” he said. “There was also the issue of engagement, where the modes of delivery available had changed so significantly. Think of the multi-channel ways people consume information today. The super-connected, on-demand and real-time world we live in. Compare that to the traditional university lecture, an expert who is talking at you for an hour or more at a fixed time of day that might not fit into your schedule. We all thought, we need to get in front of this.”

“How can we support students to be more successful at university and beyond? Enter the Southern Cross Model, a better way to learn that’s creating a transformative university experience for students.”

In addition to his role as Dean of SCU College, Professor Roche is also the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic Quality) at Southern Cross University and one of the architects of a revolutionary new academic model introduced in 2021 to improve student success rates at university.

“We needed to come up with a better way of delivering our courses, a method that was both true to the subject matter and to the promise of a university education but one that also puts the student and their learning at the middle and asks, how can we increase their chance of success in their studies and beyond?”

The Southern Cross Model was born and, from 2023, every course at the University will be delivered in this way. Short, sharp and relevant, the academic calendar is broken into six terms instead of the traditional three semesters.

Instead of studying four units at a time, full-time students study a maximum of two. The rationale behind this is the result of years of research. “When you are concentrating on one or two subjects at a time, your thinking is focused, it’s just the way the human brain works. You’re immersed in those subjects and when you are completing your assessments, you only have at the most two assessments due at the same time. So it’s easier to fit in your other commitments, whether that be work hours, soccer practice or just being with your family and friends,” says Professor Roche.

It doesn’t end there. The multi-faceted model also disrupts traditional delivery of content. Professor Erica Wilson, co-architect of the model and Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic Innovation) explains, “We’ve invested in bringing digital and educational designers to help our academics rewrite every single unit, hundreds of subjects, so they are now interactive and using real-world examples. They test your knowledge, provide you feedback as you go and really consolidate your learning.

“The concept of active learning has been around for a while now but the Southern Cross Model is really pushing the boundaries of what we consider to be an active university education. If a student is actively seeking and constructing knowledge, rather than being ‘fed’ the knowledge, there is a totally different exchange taking place. The value of knowledge that is ‘earned’ is powerful.

“As the world slowly recovers from COVID and charts a post-pandemic course, the Southern Cross Model is ensuring that what we are giving students is not only a greater chance of success today but into tomorrow and beyond,” she said.

The numbers speak for themselves. Several pathway and undergraduate courses pioneered the Model in 2021 – the Bachelor of Business and Enterprise, Preparing for Success Program and SCU College Diplomas – with higher pass rates across the board. Success rates for students in undergraduate units increased from 73.8% in 2020 to 82.5% in 2021, and pathway unit success rates rose even further from 56.5% to 73.3%. Students likewise reported higher satisfaction with their studies, a trend that looks set to continue as the first promising results of Term 1, 2022 emerge.