Mariella Herberstein, Chair of Senate and Co-Lead on the Curriculum Architecture Project kindly sat down with me to talk through how the project came about, what feedback the principles have received so far and what comes next.

How did the project come about?

A lot of people have been thinking about the architecture for some time. Sean (Brawley), when he started as Interim Pro-Vice Chancellor Programs and Pathways, had already started to look at inconsistencies in the way we set up different programs. I became involved mostly because in my role as Chair of Senate, I often have to ‘save’ students from our rules.

Sometimes we have students who are very close to graduation, thinking they have fulfilled all of our requirements, but then realise they’ve missed out on 3 credit points at a 300 level or they did the wrong People and Planet unit – for them it is a disaster.

So it struck me what is it about our curriculum structure and our current rules that students can’t understand?”. The last piece of the puzzle was enrolment numbers for this year, which speaks to a different aspect of our curriculum, that seems to be less attractive. So different things came together and then we just jumped and said now is the time to do something.

It’s like waiting to go to the dentist until you have 3 fillings. With the timing, I have to admit, it is not ideal and it would have been much better if at the end of last year we said, let’s do it slowly, but that didn’t happen, and this is how it is.

But it is really a multivariate problem, it’s not just a single thing we could fix with one change. There’s the business aspect to it, there’s the attractiveness of our courses, and the fact that our students and staff have problems with our systems. There are structural issues, there are People and Planet issues, and there are inconsistencies across programs. And all this together requires a holistic approach. So that’s how I got into it, but there were many people thinking about it.

The People and Planet problem was something we tried to address 3 years ago, in the Learning and Teaching strategy. There was a suggestion to replace People and Planets with “Big Ideas” units and we weren’t ready then.

The idea behind People and Planet units was a good one, we wanted students to have breadth, but also choice, they could choose a People and Planet unit across the whole campus. But the way we executed it was incredibly complex.

What we’re proposing is to maintain the idea of giving students the breadth, but without making it so restricted.

One of the proposals of the architecture is that students have a flexible zone, and in that flexible zone they are encouraged to do anything, do Maths, do Philosophy, pick up a language, really explore the world of the university.

How did you, Sean and Kevin, and the project team start to design the principles?

There were 2 parallel processes; one to design the process (who do we need to talk to in the process, what are the milestones, who gets to have input in the process and give feedback), and the other one was “how do we have a conversation about curriculum architecture?”. We didn’t have the time to put people in a room and say, “what do you think?” – we had to present them with something.

Even though Sean, Kevin and I had been thinking about it a lot, we can’t assume that everyone else is already there. So, we very deliberately planned the first set of workshops, just to articulate the problem. At Macquarie we tend to immediately jump at the solution without allowing people to articulate the problem first. This is why people get frustrated with change. Someone has thought about it a lot, in some office somewhere, understands the problem, designs the solution, but everyone else only hears about the solution – “here’s how we’re going to do this differently” and then rightfully, people respond with, “why, what’s going on, why are we changing?”. So, I thought the most important step was to spend the time to articulate the problem and open up the floor to see whether there were other problems that we hadn’t thought about.

First there were 5 workshops, with a group of about 300 staff – members of the Senate, the Senate Learning and Teaching Committee, the Academic Standards  Quality and Standards committee, all Heads of Departments, Program Convenors, Professional Staff in curriculum, learning and teaching, student administration, and student completions. We came together and all we did was look at what the problem is, no solutions at that stage. For me, what I strongly got was a sense of a resentment towards how the curriculum was restructured the last time. It really was perceived as a top-down exercise and there was fatigue around change.

When we were satisfied that we had spent time articulating the problem, we needed to come to the solution stage. We didn’t want to pre-empt the outcome, but we needed something to have a conversation about. So, we gathered a much smaller”working party” of 12 people, from all faculties, from completions and curriculum and Senate, and we worked through a set of really high level principles that addressed the problems we had identified.

Before we went back to ‘the 300’, we thought we’d better test that the proposed principles were robust.

So, we had what we call a “Red Hat” team, who had to try and knock over the principles, to tell us “that’s not going to work”, because of this, that or the other. We also consulted with a student focus group.

Of course, we invited  to all the workshops the student reps on all the governance bodies, that’s Faculty Boards and Senate and Senate committees. But, students being busy, weren’t always available, so we’re planning another student consultation. But a more casual, evening event on July 2nd.

Now we had a set of principles, we tested their validity, we went back to the original people we invited to articulate the problem, and went through those principles, to just get a feeling in the room.

If you’re floating a principle like the structure of a major and you see people in the room shaking their heads, you already go “right, ok, I lost them somehow”. In these next workshops, we each had different role; Sean and I were at the front explaining it, but Kevin was on the side looking around at the reactions. When he saw overall nodding, he took note of that, and when people were looking at each other saying “what are they talking about?”, he also took note of that.

What did it feel like being up there (in the workshops)?

I’m pretty robust with these sorts of things, I didn’t really mind at all. And I think our colleagues have a right to say what they think and to say it straight to the people leading the change. There were some people who were unhappy, particularly at the first set of workshops, and they unambiguously expressed their unhappiness. None of this is personal, it’s not about me – they were unhappy about the processes and so on. And I think they should have a right to say that, and to say it to the person who is in charge of that particular piece for work, it shouldn’t be lost in between.

That’s why we’re planning the Town Hall (more on this below), so we can tell everyone about the feedback, and how we are dealing with the feedback, so that we’re accountable all the way through. We started it, we came up with solutions, we received feedback, and we’re sharing it with everyone.

When we floated the principles, what I saw was a realisation that we’re not proposing something crazy. What we’re proposing is about explaining, often what we’re already doing, in a much more explicit way. For example, we already have degrees that are Generalist degrees and we have degrees that are Specialist degrees, yet we never talk about it like that.

What we said was “let’s make this really explicit for students”, so they know they’re getting different experiences.

In a Generalist degree they’re getting more freedom, they have more choice and they have a broader base. In a Specialist degree they have less freedom, less choice in order to become more specialised in their area. Each degree type has a value. And students should know about this so they can match their expectations. [Geraldine: “So they can do a double degree with one Generalist and one Specialist?”]. Under the new principles we want to set it up in a way that a student can pick any double degree combination that interests them. MQ students already like double degrees. The number of our students doing doubles is already twice the national average.

Can you share the first insights about the feedback?

Generally, there was a lot of agreement with most principles.

If people agreed with a principle, they also then wrote a lot of the comments, and the comments expressed the frustration with our current systems, our current structure and so on and comments also asked for more details of how we will do this.

Where we posed specific questions on principles with two options, we asked colleagues to provide nominate a choice. Good reasons were given for both options and in some cases opinion was evenly divided. We then had to think about the consequences  — the “knock-on” effects — of our decisions. We convened another meeting of the Working Party and then sense checked with the Executive Group. The Vice Chancellor and the Executive Group were strongly of the opinion that our principles must be consistent with the sector, practical and navigable. If a decision between two options had to be made the final determinator was how the principle would impact on students and their learning experience at MQ.  

The feedback that was very clear was our terminology of the red zone, purple zone – this is a no go. So we’re throwing that out!

What we’re proposing is for the Red Zone to be called the “Core Zone”, the Purple Zone to be the “Flexible Zone” (for both UG and PG) and in the postgraduate space the Magenta Zone to be the “Foundation Zone”.

That’s also better because it is more explicit. Similarly, terminology like sub-major was stretching our colleague’s patience, so we’re dropping that for a simpler – Majors and Minors. We’re still proposing different terminology between Generalist and Specialist degrees to keep them obviously separate.

Can you tell us more about the Town Hall and what it will cover?

The Curriculum Architecture Town Hall will take place on

17 July 2018, 12:00- 1:00 pm in Macquarie Theatre. Register here >

We’re inviting all staff, not just ‘the 300’. This means we have to briefly explain the process and what we’ve done so far. Then I think we will step through fairly quickly all the principles that had very strong support, and say “all these principles, everyone was fairly happy, so we’re going to move forward with them”. We should then spend most of the time on principles that were not supported and what we did with that. And with the options, we’ll explain which options we’re going to go with and why. At the end we will explain the next steps, which is the implementation.

When we asked for feedback it was genuine, and at the Town Hall you will see that we are making changes based on the feedback.

What will the implementation involve?

What’s really driving this timeline is the ability to deliver what we think is a better student experience by 2020. And this is the reason why we’re trying to settle on the structure so quickly, to put forward the principles to Senate for approval on 24 July, to give the faculties time to modify their course into the new structure. It’s because the UAC deadline for 2020 new courses is December 2018. So even though 2020 seems a long way off, we need to make these changes by December. My guess is, because we’re not suggesting incredible changes, just clarity around what we’re already doing, most courses and majors will fit into the new structure, perhaps with some minor changes.

It will still require staff, program convenors, departments and colleagues, to look at what the structure is now and what will need to change.

For example, if the major size in the old course is different to the principles we’re proposing in the new structure, we’d have to think what should be in the major and what should be outside the major.

Departments will need to make conscious decisions on whether degrees will be Generalist or Specialist, particularly for degrees that are currently sitting on the edge of either. It will come down to whether this course’s learning outcomes really reflect either a Generalist or Specialist degree.

I’ll give an extended example  – There is a Human Biology major with 36 credit points. The proposal suggests, for a Generalist degree, a 24 credit point major. So Biology has to think about what it wants to do with this Human Biology major. Is it a major in the Bachelor of Science, a Generalist degree? In which case we have to reduce the major. Or do we decide, no it really is a Specialist degree. I’m not saying we will, but this is an example of something that is currently a hybrid, it sits in the Generalist degree Bachelor of Science, but has a very large major, locking down the students for a lot of units in this degree, which is the hallmark of a Specialist degree.

In terms of accreditation- what we had difficulties in the past about fitting external requirements into our curriculum structure.

So now by being more deliberate about Specialist degrees, we’re working in flexibility in the Specialist courses so they can fill up their whole course with required units, as per the external requirements.

We used to have a rule where a major could only be 36 credit points, but an external requirement said it needed to be 42 credit points, how do we reconcile that? This new structure can fit Specialisations around accreditation requirements.

Related to our curriculum is the need to renew unit coding system – 4 alpha numeric (e.g., MATH1002). Strictly speaking it is not part of the curriculum architecture, but it is something we have to do to give us more flexibility.

As all of these decisions will have to be approved through Senate before the December deadline. We’re working with ASQC on a different way of dealing with course approval, we’ll take a panel approach, where smaller panels will work with Faculties to speed up the process and we’re planning to add an extra Senate meeting in December so we can process everything.

This template, will hopefully make the process quicker.Zoe Williams (Head Of Governance Services and Assistant Registrar) and I have been talking about how we can support staff in the transition, and Zoe is working on a spreadsheet template, that would cover “this is what you have now, this is what you have to fit it into”.

Now that the feedback period has closed, if staff still have concerns or questions, where should they direct them?

They can email me directly at

The Town Hall is 17 July. The Senate ruling is on 24 July. If in the Town Hall meeting, someone puts up their hand and says “You’ve forgotten this”, there is still time to make adjustments. I don’t anticipate that there will be anything, as we’ve tried really hard to break this, but there is an opportunity.

What are the main things you’ve learned through this process?

I’ve learned a lot about the value of the process. I’m very impressed with my colleagues for being so tolerant with us in this timeline and that we were able to put something forward so quickly. I really have to highlight Sean Brawley’s work in this, it is really his work that we’re discussing, and the openness of all staff, despite the dislike and fatigue with change, in the end, everyone did engage and that was great.

What I’d say to my colleagues is that you could have two responses to the new curriculum architecture:

One is “I’ll do the bare minimum to my course, to fit into the new structure”.

Or you could think “I’ll use this as an opportunity to fix the things that we know weren’t working and maybe do a little more and enhance the course”.

There may of course be an increase in workload for this short period, but I’m always the sort of person who thinks “let’s take the opportunity”. I would love to see colleagues not just do the bare minimum and rather look to see what they can do to enhance their courses. Because ultimately, it’s about enhancing the student experience.

Posted by Curriculum Transformation Project Team

One Comment

  1. Great post – Thanks Mariella and Geraldine


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