Conceptions and Construction of Contemporary Australian Bachelor of Arts Programs

Author: Deanne Gannaway

Gannaway, Deanne, 2015 Conceptions and Construction of Contemporary Australian Bachelor of Arts Programs, Flinders University, School of Education

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The Bachelor of Arts (BA) is the oldest and largest undergraduate degree program in Australia, graduating thousands of students since 1856. Yet contemporary Australian BA programs are under pressure. Deans of Humanities, Arts and Social Science faculties report challenges in articulating the contribution that BA programs make to the preparation of a workforce suited for a knowledge economy. They describe declining enrolments in the BA and increasing attrition rates. They also note a systemic absence of reliable data required to judge the capacity of Arts programs to support and respond to national strategic ambitions.

This study maps and deconstructs planned curricula of BA programs offered in Australian universities between 2007 and 2011. The study draws on comparative historical analyses techniques supplemented with data collected and analysed using focused ethnography methods. This approach enabled a sector-wide scan and analysis of Arts programs at all 39 Australian universities, supplemented by a detailed, focused study of curriculum and processes at three institutions. Publicity materials, official curriculum documentation and personal perspectives were collected and analysed in an iterative manner across five stages of analysis using a framework of common curricula elements: purpose, content and sequencing.

As a result of the changing context, programs are increasingly pressured to meet the needs of a knowledge economy. This pressure results in explicit responses to marketization, managerialism and performativity imperatives requiring curriculum to be viewed from a whole-of-program perspective. Sustained system-wide curricula changes indicate a tendency among Australian Arts programs to embrace the discourse of preparing work-ready graduates, together with a narrowing of discipline offerings and increasingly more prescriptive curriculum structures. A further impact of the changing context is that curricula in generalist Arts programs are becoming increasingly operationalised and constructed at the level of program, rather than at the level of discipline or major.

However, changes made in response to the external and internal pressures did not follow a common trend. Instead, differences in the ways that institutions chose to respond to these pressures resulted in Australian Arts programs taking different forms and purposes across the sector. Despite having similar titles, four distinct models of Arts programs were identified through this research. These different models were also found to be in operation within single institutions. Individuals with different levels of responsibility for curriculum within the same institution were found to hold different views of the program. Despite these differences, those interviewed assumed a consensus of opinion within their institution and across the sector about the purpose and construction of Arts degrees.

This thesis contributes to curriculum practices in higher education by providing a sector-wide view of the contemporary Arts curriculum landscape. It addresses the need for empirical evidence and provides definitions to support the development of a verifiable evidence-base that can be used to inform future decision-making. It also offers models that can be used as heuristics to facilitate informed planning of Arts curricula. The study contributes to higher education curriculum theory by generating an understanding of the impact of the neoliberal milieu on curriculum planning in Australian Arts programs, tracing the decision-making paths in curriculum planning in generalist programs. Finally, it offers a research methodology that combines comparative historical analysis with focused ethnography as a useful approach to researching higher education curriculum.

Keywords: curriculum design, Bachelor of Arts, comparative historical analysis, focused ethnography, higher education, generalist programs,

Subject: Education thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2015
School: School of Education
Supervisor: Professor Janice Orrell