Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and the Changing Tertiary Education Landscape in Australia


  • Susan L. Rowland

    Corresponding author
    1. School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
    • School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
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It gives me great pleasure to introduce this special edition on innovative laboratory teaching programs, which features three articles from Australia. As many of our readers may not be familiar with the Australian tertiary education system, I felt it would be helpful to provide some information about the Australian education landscape first, before I discuss the articles.

For such a large country, the Australian university network is small, with only 39 Australian universities in operation (Table I). This is far smaller than the system in the USA, although the two are similar in geographical area. Australian universities have two primary mandates (i) their faculty conduct scholarship and research across a range of fields, and (ii) the students who complete their training are generally awarded a bachelors degree as their first qualification (after which they can continue with additional postgraduate study) [1, 2]. Most Australian universities do not operate in the Vocational Education and Training sphere; this market is served by the Technical and Further Education colleges. Five universities, however, are dual sector, with both substantial programs in both vocational training and research [3]. This is particularly common for universities that have evolved recently via amalgamations of several smaller colleges. These universities are designated “DS” in Table I.

Table I. The Australian Universities, their locations, sizes, funding mechanisms, affiliations, and BMB majors offerings.
Official (and abbreviated) nameState location and founding yearAdmin. status + world rank (WR)BMB major and affiliations1Full time student load
  1. 1In this column, Universities that offer a major called “Biochemistry and Molecular Biology” (BMB) are designated “Yes”. Those that do not offer a program with heavy concentration in BMB are designated “No”. For those that offer programs heavy in BMB (with alternative names for the major), the alternative name is shown.

Australian Catholic University (ACU National)QLD, NSW, VIC, ACT (1991)Pub.No14,722
Australian National University (ANU)ACT (1946)Pub. (WR = 70)No, GO813,524
Bond University (Bond)QLD (1987)Pri.No6,483
Central Queensland University (CQU)QLD (1992)Pub.No12,763
Charles Darwin University (CDU)NT (2004)Pub.No, IRU, DS4,267
Charles Sturt University (CSU)NSW, VIC, ACT (1989)Pub.No21,325
Curtin University (Curtin)WA (1986)Pub.Molecular genetics and biotech, ATN33,166
Deakin University (Deakin)VIC (1974)Pub.Cell and molecular biology27,556
Edith Cowan University (ECU)WA (1991)Pub.No18,208
Flinders University (Flinders)SA (1966)Pub.Yes, IRU12,866
Griffith University (Griffith)QLD (1971)Pub.Yes, IRU31,902
James Cook University (JCU)QLD (1970)Pub.Yes, IRU13,745
La Trobe University (La Trobe)VIC (1964)Pub.Yes, IRU25,135
Macquarie University (Maquarie)NSW (1964)Pub.Biomolecular sciences26,661
Monash University (Monash)VIC (1958)Pub.Yes, GO848,553
Murdoch University (Murdoch)WA (1973)Pub.Yes, IRU12,671
Queensland University of Technology (QUT)QLD (1990)Pub.Yes, ATN31,172
RMIT University (RMIT)VIC (1992)Pub.No, ATN, DS38,985
Southern Cross University (SCU)NSW, QLD (1994)Pub.No9,950
Swinburne University of Technology (Swinburne)VIC (1992)Pub.Yes, DS17,079
The University of Adelaide (Adelaide)SA (1874)Pub.Yes, GO818,882
University of Ballarat (UB)VIC (1994)Pub.Yes, DS8,618
University of Canberra (UC)ACT (1990)Pub.No.9,855
The University of Melbourne (Melbourne)VIC (1953)Pub. WR = 60Yes, GO836,639
University of New England (UNE)NSW (1954)Pub.Yes9,326
The University of New South Wales (UNSW)NSW (1949)Pub.Yes, GO836,665
The University of Newcastle (UoN)NSW (1965)Pub.Biotech., IRUA23,417
The University of Notre Dame Australia (UNDA)WA, NSW (1989)Pri.No7,063
The University of Queensland (UQ)QLD (1909)Pub. WR = 86Yes, GO834,932
University of South Australia (UniSA)SA (1991)Pub.No, ATN25,108
University of Southern Queensland (USQ)QLD (1992)Pub.No13,250
The University of Sydney (Sydney)NSW (1850)Pub. WR = 96Yes, GO839,795
University of Tasmania (UTAS)TAS (1890)Pub.Yes16,216
University of Technology Sydney (UTS)NSW (1981)Pub.Biotech., ATN24,511
University of the Sunshine Coast (USC)QLD (1998)Pub.No6,004
The University of Western Australia (UWA)WA (1911)Pub.Yes, GO818,857
University of Western Sydney (UWS)NSW (1989)Pub.No28,394
University of Wollongong (UOW)NSW (1975)Pub.No20,737
Victoria University (VU)VIC (1916)Pub.Biotech., DS18,044

Because there have been multiple recent institutional mergers and renamings, the Australian University system, is heavily populated with Universities of less than 25 years official standing (Fig. 1). The system is self-organized into three major groups. The groups have developed according to the history, age of inception, funding status, research interests, and traditional educational strengths of the institutions. These groups are shown in Table I.

Figure 1.

Creation dates of the Australian universities. The past 25 years have seen massive expansion of the university network. [Color figure can be viewed in the online issue, which is available at]

The Group of Eight (GO8) is a coalition of the most research-intensive universities in Australia [4]. These institutions employ the highest proportion of PhD-qualified academic staff in Australia, and offer comprehensive general-, professional-, and research-based training. They are the oldest universities in Australia, they gain 70% of the available research funding, and they produce a large proportion of Australia's high-impact research output, particularly in the basic sciences. Their claim to being Australia's “leading universities” is supported by national metrics data related to research funding, scholarly output, research higher degree enrolments, and alumni achievements. Each member university is well regarded in a number of different areas; in coalition the eight form an influential bloc. They enroll about 33% of the university students in Australia.

Although the GO8 members are currently the most powerful universities in Australia, this position is not unassailable. The education market in Australia is highly competitive, and students are attracted by factors other than research capability. Probably foremost on this list of other attractions is employability on graduation. Many students (and employers) value job-focused training over a more holistic (but perhaps less immediately useful) educational experience. Non-GO8 universities in Australia have been quick to recognize this important opportunity.

The Australian Technology Network (ATN) is a coalition of five Australian universities that share a common interest in the practical application of tertiary studies and research [5]. The network members aim to build partnerships with government and industry, with a goal of conducting focused, applied research (as opposed to more basic or “pure” research that is in the GO8 domain). These universities were Institutes of Technology before they developed into universities, and this heritage influences their course offerings, with emphasis on applied programs in Business, Computing, the Built Environment, Engineering and Nursing. They enroll about 20% of all university students in Australia.

The Innovative Research Universities, Australia (IRU, Australia) is a group of seven universities that were all established during the 1960s and 1970s, often by the amalgamation of a number of smaller institutions [6]. This time period saw rapid changes in the Australian tertiary education sector (Fig. 1) as well as major innovations in educational design and delivery. IRU universities aim to reflect this pioneering spirit in their education and research efforts. These universities are also characterized by their multilocation campuses, many of which serve developing regional areas of Australia [7].

Like the ATN network members, the IRU universities focus on developing specialized areas of applied research excellence. Together then enroll about 17% of Australia's university students.

The groupings tend to mirror the world rankings of the universities [8, 9]. GO8 universities are top 100–200 tertiary institutions worldwide, while most ATN and IRU universities fall into the top 200–500 range. These rankings will likely change as the ATN and IRUA universities grow and develop with age. Four Australian universities (all GO8) are in the world top 100. These are indicated in Table I with the designation “WR” (for world ranking) and their status.

Education is a hugely important industrial and social commodity in Australia [10]. It is Australia's third biggest export sector, generating 18.6 billion AU export dollars in 2009. Many foreign students remain in Australia after graduation, contributing to the labor force and immigration intake in areas of need. In 2010, more than 335,000 international students were studying at Australian universities (>28% of the enrolments in the Australian higher education system), with >90% of these students enrolled at a public university [11]. Australian universities are actively recruiting international students through outreach workshops, twinning programs, and the establishment of offshore campuses. Higher education international student numbers have grown by 76% in Australia since 2002. These students provide both a valuable diversification of the student body, and an important source of revenue for Australian universities, which operate in the same type of challenging economic climate that will be familiar to US and European academics.

The primary international student intakes are from rapidly developing nations—China and India, with other significant intakes from South East Asian countries [12]. Both the cost of a foreign education and competition from other educational markets influence international student enrolments in Australia. There is concern that as our primary market countries develop their educational systems and economies further, the demand for foreign education will wane, and the international student enrolments will decline for Australia [10]. This fear of the economic impact of an international student deficit is also looming large in the American educational psyche [13].

The Australian university student cohort is very diverse [14]. Apart from the large numbers of international students, the ˜857,000 domestic students also come from many different backgrounds. Australian-born domestic students account for nearly 80% of the domestic cohort, but nearly 10% are Asian-born, over 5% were born in Europe, and 3.5% were born in Africa and the Middle East. About 85% of domestic students speak English at home; the other major languages spoken are Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Korean (in descending order of frequency).

The Australian government does not collect and publish the kind of minority-aware enrolment data available in the US. It does, however, publish the woefully low enrolment numbers for indigenous Australians. Only 7,370 indigenous Australians were enrolled in higher education programs in 2010; this is 0.9% of the student population. The numbers of indigenous enrolments are increasing, but it is a slow upward trend [15]. The indigenous peoples of Australia are often from low socioeconomic status communities (low SES). In response to a recent review of higher education in Australia [16], the national government has announced programs to increase university enrolments of low SES students. It has also signaled an ambitious goal for tertiary education participation, in which 40% of 25–34 year olds will have at least a bachelor-level qualification by 2025 [17].

These increased enrolment numbers and changes to the “traditional” student cohort place the onus on the Australian university system to provide an education that acknowledges and supports diversity while maintaining academic rigor. Consequently, many Australian universities are now offering bridging courses, foundation year programs, English language courses, mid-year enrolments, and special enrichment for gifted students. Another part of the response to this pressure has been the development of a series of national threshold learning outcomes (TLOs) for various disciplines via the Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project (LTAS). The academic standards for science [18] have just been released and endorsed by the Australian Council of Deans of Science as “ a generic, high-level statement of Bachelor of Science TLOs which are “a platform on which specific subdiscipline standards may be built and articulated.” Five government-funded working parties are now progressing toward TLOs and curriculum suggestions for programs in biology, biomedical science, mathematical sciences, and pharmacy. The process for chemistry is already complete. Biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) will not be specifically addressed by these committees, but it is likely to be peripheral to the interests of each. The GO8 have questioned the value of the TLO project [19], and have implemented their own Quality Verification System [20]. This involves cross-institutional grading of sample papers, and review of marks given by each institution.

Although the TLOs may be useful for benchmarking of graduates' achievements, they do not prescribe a curriculum for a subject or define the conceptual basis for the teaching of a subject. We have begun to approach the second part of this problem in previous work [21], the ASBMB (American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) has published a recommended BMB curriculum [22], and other US researchers have also made curriculum and program suggestions for BMB education [23–26]. Currently in Australia, however, the BMB curriculum remains individualized at the University level.

Sixteen Australian universities offer a dedicated BMB major, with six more offering programs with a heavy applied biochemistry bent (Table I). These programs share some similarities; chemistry subjects are recommended (but not always required) as part of the program. Most programs offer multiple biochemistries (e.g., metabolic, systems, protein) with the opportunity to also complete courses on DNA technology and genetics. Some universities also require a mathematics or statistics course. Otherwise, the differences are significant, with most programs offering a wide choice of elective courses that can be incorporated into a BMB major. Most of these courses are science-based (e.g., cell biology, bioinformatics, research programs, industrial placements). Dual degrees are also common (e.g., Science/Law), as are industry-specialized programs (e.g., Bachelor of Biotechnology with a biochemistry focus).

There is no national standard examination or competency test for BMB graduates and, as yet, there is no national push to standardize the BMB curriculum or program structure. There are, however, a series of available generic benchmarking tools used in the Australian academic system [27, 28], and a new Government-run education quality assurance agency known as TEQSA (said “tek-sa”) [29]. The new education assurance policies announced by the Australian government have caused some disquiet in our university system. The GO8 have voiced their concerns that the government's “approach to higher education involves a degree of central regulation and intrusion which is beyond that found in other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries and which is unprecedented in Australia” with the further warning that “that this approach will be counterproductive because it will stifle diversity, erode quality, and reduce the flexibility necessary to respond to unexpected needs and challenges” [20].

The three articles presented in this special issue reflect just this type of flexibility in the face of challenge. Each presents a novel laboratory teaching mechanism that has evolved to successfully addresses, a perceived weakness or problem in the laboratory program. It should be noted that each problem is slightly different, as is each solution.

The article by Di Trapani and Clarke, “Biotechniques Laboratory: An enabling course in the biological sciences” describes a common, core, enabling laboratory class for first-year students in the biological sciences. It is used to standardize students' skills, and guarantee (by competency testing and documentation) that they have developed an acceptable level of laboratory ability over a 1-year period. This approach is an elegant way to deal with a diverse cohort, and it demonstrates a remarkable willingness on the parts of all the different teaching groups at Griffith University to collaborate on a single enabling course to feed the higher-level classes. This long course operates for a full year. This is unusual; most courses in Australian universities operate during a single 12–14-week semester). It takes commitments on many sides to accommodate and run an endeavor like this; perhaps in a university with weaker collegiality, this kind of unified “one size fits all” laboratory training course would not be viable. This program places a strong emphasis on students repeating experiments until they have attained competency, and on active learning, which is allowed once students have demonstrated a skill successfully.

The practice of having students learn a skill, then repeat it in a new inquiry-based context, is also used in a novel manner by Wang and coworkers. Their study is reported in “Immersing undergraduate students in the research experience: a practical laboratory module on molecular cloning of microbial genes.” In this laboratory program, students learn how to clone a gene, then apply these techniques to the production of a green fluorescent protein-fusion protein so that they can analyze localization (and perhaps behavior) of their chosen protein in a live cell. This laboratory project was devised to better challenge students who had previously been presented with traditional laboratory exercises in their upper-level molecular microbiology class. Students experiencing this iterative technique reported significant increases in their interest in science, their interest in experimental techniques, and their understanding of the course. They also reported significant improvements in their experimental, reporting, and analytical laboratory skills. This project drew on the research skills of the course teaching team, providing the type of teaching-research nexus that is highly desired in Australian universities [30].

Rowland et al. present another approach to the research-teaching nexus in “Is the URE always best? Implementation and assessment of a bifurcated practical stream for a large introductory biochemistry class.” In this study, the authors again drew on the research strengths of the teaching team, but this time students were second year (sophomores) in a large, diverse class, who could self-stream their laboratory experience. They had the option of choosing to complete a research project that generated completely new results (these were fed into the research program of a university laboratory). Alternatively, they could pursue a more traditional experimental program that gave them a broader skill set than the “research” students, but they had no opportunity to repeat experiments until they got a useful result or mastered a technique. The novelty here is the comparison of learning gains experienced by students who elected to complete the research project, and those who elected to pursue the more traditional experimental plan. Both the “research” students and the “traditional” students experienced similar gains overall, with most students reporting that they were happy with the stream they had chosen. This surprising result demonstrates the power of actively acknowledging the diversity of students' interests and skills. Apparently, allowing students to choose an experience that places them in their own “zone of proximal development” [31] can produce similar learning gains, even when one learning experience (the inquiry-based research project) is nominally more pedagogically “sound” than the other more traditional laboratories.

The diversity of these laboratory programs demonstrates the different ways of teaching academics can respond to challenges that are presented by the capacities and interests of both their students and their institutions. The different approaches also reflect the diversity of the instigating faculty members' own interests and strengths, and the ability to pursue these avenues is crucial to the expression of academic freedom. There may be a coming battle in Australia between academic freedom in teaching and learning methodologies, and government regulation of “quality” learning outcomes. We hope, however, that the aftermath will be a landscape that is still populated with engaged students and their innovative, committed, scholarly teachers.