Associate degrees – awarded by colleges upon completion of a course of study lasting two years – are relatively unknown in Australia but have been a feature of American tertiary education for more than a century. The top-ranked Santa Barbara City College, for example – which counts Perry among its alumni - first opened its doors in 1909.

Santa Barbara was one of two community colleges in California visited earlier this year by Professor Janelle Allison as the University of Tasmania prepared to introduce its own form of associate degrees.

Professor Allison, recently appointed Principal of the new University College, liked what she saw in the US. 

Community colleges are in effect open to everyone, and this notion of an associate degree that you can do in two years and then articulate, if you so wish, into a state university degree is a very well-developed pathway.

She particularly liked Santa Barbara’s philosophy around encouraging enrolments, best summed up as the ‘what would it take’ approach: “So a prospective student says ‘I can’t afford to study with you because there’s no public transport.’  Well, what would it take?  Or, ‘I can’t afford to do this because of childcare costs’. Well, what would it take?

Our own market research tells us that it is what we might consider little things – daily out-of-pocket expenses, access to the internet – that are actually significant barriers to further study rather than say, HECS.

“So we are exploring how we can work collaboratively with other institutions and facilities such as LINC and family and child care centres across the State and also looking to see if we can build scholarship programs that help people meet those costs.”

One such program are the recently established Blundstone Scholarships, funded by the iconic Tasmanian footwear company, which aims to encourage young people from northern and north-west Tasmania to pursue a career in agriculture.

The University’s first two Associate Degrees are in Agribusiness and Applied Business, the latter offering specialisations in tourism and events; sport, recreation and leisure; and general business, with the first intake in February 2017. 

On the drawing board is a third associate degree, in design and technology, while health and community care, and food and food technology are other options being investigated.

At the end of the first year students can decide either to continue the Associate Degree (perhaps with a view to articulating into a Bachelor’s degree) or exit with a diploma. Those keen to articulate will get a two-year credit into the degree that related to their choice of either Agribusiness or Applied Business.

The advent of associate degrees is a recognition that the University’s current undergraduate programs are not appealing to as many Tasmanians as they should. A key target are the 3,500 Tasmanian students who finish Year 12 each year but do not pursue further study.

We had to do something that is more accessible to a greater proportion of the community, Professor Allison said.

“Aligned with that is a growing recognition by business and industry that they need to up-skill their workforce, that we have to up the ante so far as skills and qualifications if we’re going to be globally competitive.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s advanced manufacturing or professional services and tourism we have to be globally competitive.

“Having a look at the American community colleges, what we learned is that a shorter, sharper, more industry-targeted degree has appeal because it can be a pathway into the workforce, but at the same time it is designed in such a way that it can articulate into a Bachelor’s degree if people want to keep studying.”

The University has drawn on its strong connections to industry in developing its associate degree template.

“We’ve listened to industry very carefully and as a result the program is very industry-connected and driven,” Professor Allison said. “It looks and feels different to the University’s standard Bachelor program.”

Part of that difference is in the preference for four terms a year over the traditional two 13-week semesters.

We’ve done that because we think that that aligns better with the school year. For many parents, it will help them manage some of the issues around school holidays and term time.

“It also means that the material is delivered in a slower and more methodical kind of way, as we stretch out the learning over 40 weeks.”

The other significant difference is that every discipline subject is paired with a matching work-integrated learning component.

Built into that component is a scaffolded development over the two years of personal, professional and practice skills.

We’ve designed it in such a way that in the first year you think about the ‘me’, and in the second year it’s about the ‘we’ - how do I work with others, how do I work in teams. But all of that learning is integrated into the work-integrated learning experience.

“We developed about 13 or 14 different ways in which you have a work-based experience.  It could be in a studio, it could be in a lab, it could be a simulation experience, it could be a field trip, it could be an industry visit where you get to meet and interview the owners, or it could be an internship.”

The level of complexity increases as the student finds his or her feet, Professor Allison explains. 

“You start off with the simpler experiences and then across the two years of the course we increase the complexity of the work-based learning or the work-integrated learning, so that you grow into it and you grow your skills.  

You get the experience of the workplace, you get the experience of the knowledge being applied, and you get the experience of actually starting to develop your profile or your portfolio.

Professor Allison is keen to emphasise that there will be not compromise on quality.

“All of the regulations around quality and quality assurance apply to the Associate Degree program so people should not feel that it’s dumbed down, and they should not feel that it’s not a quality qualification.

”It has been a fantastic experience working with the Chair of the Academic Senate, Professor Di Nicol, and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Students and Education), Professor David Sadler, to ensure that we have a first-class product.”

This story features in the University's latest Open To Talent magazine. See the whole issue online here.