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New Provost’s Model view

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 5, No. 6  14 September - 11 October 2009 ]

Christina Buckridge reports.

Melbourne’s second Provost brings a commitment to curriculum reform, a love of teaching and research with leadership experience in academia and legal practice.

An academic who saw the need for curriculum reform at Oxford 15 years ago is now leading the continuing implementation of the University of Melbourne’s Melbourne Model.

Professor John Dewar – Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Global Relations) at Melbourne, a family law expert, teacher and researcher – is the University’s newly appointed Provost.

As a young don at Oxford, Professor Dewar was part of a group trying to reform the first-year Law curriculum.

That belief that curriculum reform was always possible stayed with him and in 1995 he left the conservatism of Oxford to take up a professorship in the new Law School at Griffith University in Brisbane.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he also called Scotland, Sheffield, Boston and London home as his father, a hospital doctor, moved the family around the world. His school experience was varied until arriving at The Dragon School in North Oxford which, he says, showed him just how important a good school is to a good education.

From an early age John Dewar decided to follow a grandfather into the legal profession. At Oxford, he found only two enjoyable opportunities to escape from the ‘black letter’ law of the Oxford Law degree – first through the study of legal philosophy and later in exploring social theory and social policy through the lens of family law.

“I didn’t have the choices open to our students in the Melbourne Model,” he says. “If I had, I’d probably have studied English literature in an Arts degree before going on to Law.”

John Dewar’s intention was to be a barrister but while he was qualifying he took a teaching job at the University of Lancaster to earn some money. He discovered a love of teaching and the freedom to develop his own research.

But after seven years he left academia to join one of the top four London legal firms for two years. He absolutely loved it but an opportunity to return to Oxford as a Fellow and Tutor in Law at Hertford College combined with consulting for a small legal firm drew him back again to academia – this time to stay.

His move across the world to Griffith University brought the opportunity to provide leadership in a young Law School. Four years later, he was its Dean and then – as he was planning to go back and pick up his research – he was offered the role of Pro Vice-Chancellor responsible for both the Law and Business schools – and the opportunity to work with Griffith’s then Vice-Chancellor, Glyn Davis.

He found he enjoyed academic administration and went on to become Griffith’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) – a similar role to that of Provost at Melbourne. “They share some core responsibilities in teaching and learning, the student experience, and planning the academic profile of the university. “

As Provost, Professor Dewar will move into the Gatehouse – now synonymous with the Provost – at the main gate of the University. “It’s important for the Provost to be visible to students and staff, to integrate into the University community,” he explains.

A priority on his agenda is the successful implementation of the Melbourne Model by sustaining the University community’s strong collective commitment to the Model and supporting the work of the deans and the faculties.

John Dewar is passionate about the quality of the student experience. “The Provost must be its advocate, ensuring it does not get lost in budgets, etc.” He is also a great supporter of student-run associations, and regrets their role is not well understood in political circles. “They add a diversity and enthusiasm to campus and can do things for students at little cost that the university itself cannot achieve.”

Professor Dewar believes the Melbourne Model is tracking extremely well. “We have just had an extremely successful Open Day, demand for New Generation degrees is stronger than ever, and the median ENTER at around 93 has held up despite no intake into Law or Medicine.

“Some critics of the Melbourne Model mistakenly think it is a blueprint that has to be slavishly followed,” he says. “That is not so. It’s an educational philosophy combining rigour and depth in a chosen discipline while allowing students to explore more widely.”

He dismisses claims that that students have to take irrelevant subjects in breadth. “Students can assemble their breadth component from a wide range of choices to ensure they can find an area which enhances their core discipline. In fact, a quarter of our students grasp the opportunity to take a language as breadth.”

Professor Dewar doesn’t believe many other Australian universities would be able to adopt the Melbourne Model. “The University of Western Australia seems to be going down the Melbourne Model path. But it is not for everyone. To make large-scale change of this kind, you have to be a leader, to have a strong reputation and pulling power.

“There is however a lot of interest in shifting vocational programs to graduate level, partly for funding reasons and partly because employers are looking for students with more than just technical skills. In this respect, the Melbourne Model is in the lead.”

Professor Dewar believes the Melbourne Model highlights that curriculum can be a point of difference for a university. “Curriculum has not been a strong selling point for universities but they are now looking carefully to what they can do with their curriculum to differentiate themselves.”

Professor John Dewar [ Click to enlarge ]

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