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The Centrality of Small-Group Discovery

Recapturing an Ideal

The union of teaching and research, combined in a search for impartial truth, was fundamental to the modern research university ideal. A small group of students, meeting to work at the discovery of new knowledge under expert guidance, was the centerpiece of the university experience.

Yet in Australian and UK universities from the 1980s, with the massive growth of university enrolments and the addition of many applied disciplines, research became increasingly detached from teaching, and a division was created that has widened ever since. Today despite oppressive research pressures on staff, research is almost wholly absent from Australian undergraduate teaching.

There is thus an opportunity for at least one Australian university to become a model of the teaching/research union, to show how universities can recapture what was once the defining characteristic of the research university. This does not mean merely inviting students to study an individual topic in depth, with initiative and creativity. In a true research university, the study of existing knowledge is secondary to the making of new knowledge. Moving away from knowledge delivery, now increasingly eroded by the universal availability of free online content, a university should focus on the essence of what research offers: the rigour of the scientific method, the search for empirical evidence, the beauty of logic and of patterns, the value of innovation, the creativity of problem solving and the intrinsic worth of knowledge. The University of Adelaide will return research to undergraduate teaching, so that every student in every program comes to experience the scholarship of discovery as the highlight of their learning experience.

For many undergraduate students, this will take the form of an individual research project in their final year, for which the preparatory research skills and experience necessary will be built through smaller exercises in the earlier years of their course. For those students who demonstrate readiness for independent work at admission, there will be an Advanced Bachelor program in every faculty in which research projects are introduced from the first year.

As a key format for delivering undergraduate research, the university will commit to increasing the centrality of small-group learning, in which students address the scholarship of discovery with other students and a staff mentor. While content will increasingly be delivered in other formats, every student in every program should experience such small-group discovery as a key part of their learning experience.

Committing to small-group discovery has implications for our course offering. Some subjects that flourish effectively without a research basis may increasingly be left to other institutions with different missions. Some specialised research interests of individual staff will thrive through individual research projects in the revised undergraduate core courses rather than through free-standing electives where few students enrol.

The origins of small-group discovery are in the Humboldt research university model of 19th century Germany, when such education was expensive and restricted to the socially privileged. A challenge for Adelaide will be to find ways to avoid being drawn into spiralling costs or social restriction: finding imaginative ways to make smallgroup discovery more available in a large university of limited resources, and finding more scholarships for students in need will be key to the process.

Crucial also to the research university idea are academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The University of Adelaide’s voice will need to be heard more often in public debate when government policy or external priorities threaten to intrude into an agenda that should be driven by curiosity, originality and the development of disciplines.

Operational Objectives and Targets

To revive small-group discovery in this way has farreaching consequences. It means setting operational objectives and targets which will refocus some academic programs, redeploy some institutional teaching resources and recalibrate enterprise systems to measure new outcomes for staff, students and our external stakeholders. Beginning in 2013 the University will produce triennial Operational Plans, updated annually, setting out the objectives and short-term targets needed to realise the goals of the Strategic Plan over the decade.

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